California drought creates grim ripple effect
“The very success of a person as a politician is dependent upon resources that come from the people that you give exceptions to” says Michael Machado, farmer and former California State Senator.
After traveling more than 2,000 miles across California, it’s clear that the state’s drought is mired in paradox with decades of water mismanagement and regional fighting. While cities – some of which never installed water meters – struggle to convince its dwellers to conserve, agriculture consumes 80% of California’s water.
President Barack Obama back in February assured the public that he is well aware of the historic drought impacting the country’s biggest economy and largest agricultural producer. A month after he declared a State of Emergency, California Governor Jerry Brown joined Obama as he met with local farmers and leaders in the San Joaquin Valley, including visiting Joe del Bosque’s farm in the southern part of the Central Valley.
The son of migrant farm workers, del Bosque learned the ins and outs of farming. When he was a child, the wells only allowed farmers to grow annual crops, such as cotton and alfalfa. If they were short on water they simply idled the land.
As a teenager, del Bosque watched water flow from the mountains in the far north to the arid south through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a canal system built by former Governor Pat Brown.
“We have a different type of drought than most people in the rest of the country think of because we’re not so reliant on rainwater that falls on us as we are on the rain and snow up here,” del Bosque said, pointing to the Sierra Nevada mountains on the map pinned to his office wall.
The farmers simply follow what the market demands, explained del Bosque to Governor Brown, who was surprised to see freshly-planted almond orchards while touring the San Joaquin Valley. “I’m not apologizing for these farmers planting in the worse drought we’ve ever had, but that’s the reason we plant what we plant,” del Bosque said.
It is chilly and dark when about 40 miles south of del Bosque’s almond orchards hundreds of migrant workers meet at a local gas station to wait for a ride out to the fields. Ysidro Reyes, a third generation labor contractor, who hires them to pick tomatoes, is the first on the field to check that the green tomatoes have reached the perfect temperature before signaling the start of the harvest.
The signs along the Valley’s roads declaring “Water means jobs” suddenly make sense. When water allocations are cut short, farmers have to make a decision: either fallow land intended for row crops and impose further distress on the already impoverished labor force, or lose the trees, their highest yielding cash crop.
“Twenty years ago, California didn’t have as many trees as it does today, those trees take water 12 months out of the year, these row crops take water 90 days out of the year, so the trees are really sucking California dry” Ysidro said, “They’re just drinking more water than they should.”
When the surface water stops flowing in from the north, farmers and ranchers across the southern part of the Central Valley resort to what lies deep beneath their feet.
Steve Arthur, who inherited his well drilling business from his father, can relate. For years, water wells reaching down to 300 feet were considered deep, but these days, farmers who can afford the often half-a-million-dollar price tag and an eight-month-long wait list have to dig well over a thousand feet. For small farmers with only a few dozen acres, the high costs are difficult to rationalize. But for big investors and large developers, the hefty price of a new irrigation well is nothing compared to the promised fortune.
The bumper sticker on Arthur’s truck. – ”we leave you wet” – applies to the many wells set up by his business, but unregulated groundwater pumping in the San Joaquin Valley isn’t something to take lightly. Not only does the surface infrastructure crumble, but as the earth compacts with it, the space to replenish groundwater disappears, too. In some instances, between 1920-1970, land sunk more than 28 feet.
Unlike the south, there is always water in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta; the issue is the quality. The Sacramento and the San Joaquin Rivers supply the fresh water flow that holds back the Bay’s intruding seawater. The less the rivers flow or the more the State pumps to the south, the saltier the Delta’s water becomes, making it harder for farmers to use for irrigation, costlier to filter to quench the thirst of city dwellers, and almost impossible for its habitat to survive.
To mitigate the habitat loss caused by dams that interrupted the natural migration of the native Chinook salmon, today most of them start their life in hatcheries. Earlier this year, young fish were loaded onto trucks to bypass the shallow river, a common practice that gives them a better chance to survive once released in the Bay.
“We’ve been in drought for 30 years because we’ve been over-pumped for 30 years,” Barbara Barrigan-Parilla of Restore the Delta said, who looks at the Delta as a natural heritage that needs protection rather than a source of a finite commodity with only one beneficial use: production. “We got the tail wagging the dog. You have the people in the south, that have the most political control who want water that they should never have had - just trying to bully their way to the table to change the whole system,” she said.
As the debate on how to manage California’s water heats up, so does the water in the state rivers and half empty reservoirs. And because those temperatures keep rising, for the first time ever in their decades long history, hatcheries in the north rushed to evacuate all of their salmon and trout to save them from certain death.
Balazs Gardi is a documentary photographer focusing on the everyday lives of diverse communities in need. Shoka Javadiangilani is a writer, editor and producer specializing in large-scale global projects on social issues. Together they co-founded Azdarya, an online documentary magazine about water. Its mission is to tell ‘Stories from the Water Front’, offering a deeper understanding of the unfolding global water-crisis, its impact and possible solutions.