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My mother grew up on a tiny farm on the outskirts of Bakersfield in the 1960s. When I was little, she told me stories about the Basques who sheared their sheep, and a childhood spent wandering among the family’s fruit and nut trees.

It was a bucolic picture of California’s Central Valley—the type of picturesque image that journalist Mark Arax, in his sprawling new treatise on water and agriculture in the Golden State, is quick to undermine: Today, small family farms are vanishing; agribusiness is expanding; the earth is sinking; aquifers are emptying; rivers run dry; and laborers toil for a pittance.

In The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California, Arax roams the state and plumbs its history to reveal the causes and consequences of the current water crisis. He reports on farms and the pipelines that supply them, interviewing fieldworkers and billionaire landowners, and interjecting tales of his family’s own agricultural forays and failures. His scope is impressive: He describes the cultivation of specialized grapes with the same clarity and finesse with which he unravels the state’s great mass of dams, aqueducts and complicated water rights. The result clearly depicts “the grandest hydraulic engineering feat known to man”—“one of the most dramatic alterations of the earth’s surface in human history.”

This engineering feat is at the center of the book’s most-urgent questions. Despite recurring drought and a rapidly changing climate, the Central Valley produces another bountiful harvest each year. “How much was magic? How much was plunder?” Arax asks. The region accounts for more than a third of the country’s vegetables, and over two-thirds of our nuts and fruit; it boasts a million acres of almonds alone. Stewart Resnick of The Wonderful Company, the biggest grower of them all, shuttles 400,000 acre-feet of water per year to his 15 million trees, mostly growing almonds, pistachios, pomegranates and citrus. (The city of Los Angeles, for perspective, consumes 587,000 acre-feet annually.)

The bounty is largely plunder, of course, not magic. The plunder is as embedded in the state as the dream that made it possible. Arax traces this history from the Spanish colonial subjugation of Indigenous peoples to the conquering of the territory by U.S. forces, to the excavation of mountains for gold, to Los Angeles’ theft of the Owens River, to urban sprawl and suburban tracts—an unending cycle of supply and demand. Restraint was never an option. “No society in history has gone to greater lengths to deny its fundamental nature than California,” he writes. “California, for a century and two-thirds now, keeps forgetting its arrangement with drought and flood.”

Time and again in The Dreamt Land, we watch farmers ignore the certainty of drought, planting “to the absolute extreme of what the water could serve.” When farms in Tulare and Kern counties exhausted their local rivers, they drained the San Joaquin, which also proved insufficient. Such excessive planting and pumping, paired with the natural pendulum of flood and drought, perpetuated the fast disappearance of water. This “gave rise to both the need and ambition of a system”: the immense Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, which mine Northern California’s rivers and redistribute water to the Central Valley and the urban centers of the south.

Both projects were largely constructed between the late 1930s and early 1970s, designed to allow farmers to grow in both wet and dry years. But “the System,” as Arax methodically shows, was based on the flawed, idealized theory of an average year of weather; it presumed to deliver a constant, predictable supply, as if wild variations in precipitation did not exist or could be evened out by mathematics.

In reality, “the actual water captured and delivered (by the System) fell short of the normal or far beyond it.” When it fell short, which happened frequently, farmers were forced to confront the nearly 2 million-acre-foot difference. When the floods arrived, they again forgot the dry years and sowed new fields. Cities did the same—and boomed. Then true drought set in, as it always does, and everyone scrambled to survive: The cities grabbed from the System; the government supplied subsidies to farmers; some farmers dug new wells and watched the ground sink beneath them; still others fallowed their land and sold their water to the highest bidder. As climate change accelerates, the cycles of drought and flood and the severity of their effects have only been exacerbated.

These are the stories of a people who refuse to face the limits of their landscape, whose attempts at control end up dirtying their own beds, and whose production, for now, is remarkably inflated: “Highest mountain, lowest desert, longest coast, most epic valley—(California) made for infinite invention.”

This multitude is both the source of the state’s bounty and the substance of its myth. The California Dream is the American Dream with a dash of rouge and citrus—just as tantalizing, just as exclusive.

Sean McCoy is a writer from Arizona and the editor of Contra Viento, a journal for art and literature from rangelands. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California

By Mark Arax

Knopf

576 pages, $30

Published in Literature

The 90-mile drive south from Silicon Valley to Watsonville, Calif., runs mostly through coastal forest, with intermittent views of the Pacific Ocean. Then the road turns inland, and the redwoods and briny air give way to the aromatic strawberry fields of the Pajaro Valley.

Though the two communities are geographically close, they feel very far apart. Silicon Valley is an overcrowded center of technological innovation, made up of mostly white, affluent residents, with a median income of more than $90,000. The quiet town of Watsonville is 81 percent Hispanic, with a median income of $44,000, and is culturally and economically defined by its strawberry crop.

Jennifer Magana and her older sister grew up watching their parents work the fields for major companies like Driscoll’s. They came home exhausted every night, only to get up and do it again the next morning. Magana, now a high school senior, has no desire to labor in the fields. But she also doesn’t want to leave her family, friends and the culture she adores.

“I want to stay here and work here in my community,” she says.

Many of her classmates are grappling with the same struggle. Here, where the unemployment rate is 9 percent, and 20 percent of people live in poverty, career decisions are complicated by a lack of access to resources like wireless Internet, computers and the wealth of informational and educational tools those technologies offer. Too many Watsonville young people drop out of school, get stuck in low-paying jobs, or leave town to find work elsewhere. (A similar story can be told about the Eastern Coachella Valley—where access to technology is even harder to come by.)

Jacob Martinez hopes to change that pattern by connecting Watsonville’s farming industry to Silicon Valley resources. The 38-year-old California native looks like a young entrepreneur, with his ever-present laptop, thick rectangular glasses and gray hoodie. A 12-year resident of Watsonville, he founded Digital NEST, which stands for “Nurturing Entrepreneurial Skills With Technology,” in 2014, to cultivate technology career centers in California’s most vulnerable communities.

“It’s an economic-justice issue,” Martinez says. “You have a huge demand and need for technology talent, but this segment of the population that’s not represented at all.”

Digital NEST gives people like Magana a chance to ask questions, gain new skills and learn about her post-graduation options.

“It’s awful for me to try to do work outside of school or look for opportunities,” Magana says; her family owns a clunky computer, and her school lacks adequate equipment. But at Digital NEST, she finds bright, open working spaces, comfy furniture, whiteboards and brand new laptops she can borrow. It’s open all week, from noon to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, offering workshops and lectures on a variety of subjects, including Web development, videography, social media and graphic design, to people age 12 to 24.

Watsonville, with its strip malls, school sports fields, farms and warehouses, has little to offer in the way of art or culture. Crime rates are high, particularly thanks to gang violence. Young people are starving for something productive to do.

“There’s a lot of youth that never realized they have an opportunity here,” Magana says.  

Martinez designed Digital NEST to train local youth for careers that meld their agricultural heritage with the high-tech modern world. Experts teach classes on coding and Web design, and Martinez connects students with entrepreneur networks through speaker series and trips to Silicon Valley. Ideally, they’ll become eligible for higher-paying jobs with food and agriculture companies in their own community.

Thirty-one percent of Watsonville’s population is younger than 18, in stark contrast to the average American farmer, who is 58. Food and agriculture companies are in serious need of a younger, tech-savvy workforce. At the same time, Watsonville, like other farm towns in the state, faces the challenge of climate change and extensive drought.

“They’re any farmers’ challenges,” Martinez says, “lack of water in California, lack of labor workforce or issues with immigration, not being able to attract a new young generation.”

Some California farmers have switched to new crops or left agriculture altogether. But others are turning to technological solutions, such as predictive analytics software, sensors and robotics, to better understand weather patterns, irrigation techniques and soil health, and to reduce their costs and increase productivity. Food and agriculture technology startups are now a $4.6 billion industry, and huge corporations like Google and Monsanto are investing heavily in farming-data projects. Companies are tackling everything from reducing food waste to building underground farms to creating lab-grown meatless meat. Farming operations need system analysts, robotics and automation technicians, and GPS and GIS operators.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that nearly 60,000 high-skilled jobs open annually in the food, agriculture and environment fields, with almost a third of those requiring science, technology, math or engineering skills. The nation’s yearly 35,000 college graduates with degrees in agriculture-related fields can’t keep up with the demand, and yet the movement to improve computer science education tends to focus on urban centers like San Francisco and New York City. Very few programs reach out to rural populations like Watsonville or the Eastern Coachella Valley, widening the gap between places that desperately need a new industry’s economic boost, and the people who reap the rewards of such a tech boom.

“Forty kids in San Francisco—nothing is going to change,” Martinez says. “But if I can get 40 kids in this community good-paying jobs, you could see the economic benefit of that.”

After years of picking fruit, Magana’s father returned to college to get an agronomy degree, and now he helps his daughter search for career possibilities in agriculture. “He’s proud of me for pursuing the thing he loves,” Magana says. “Technology is still new to me, but now I have a place to go figure it out.”

Digital NEST’s goal isn’t to get young people like Magana off the farms and into the offices of Apple or Twitter. Rather, it’s seeking to invest more money and resources into local economies like Watsonville, and thereby lowering dropout, crime, and poverty rates.

Martinez was drawn to Watsonville because he knows from experience the obstacles young Latinos face in pursuing meaningful careers, particularly in science and technology. Born in Los Angeles, Martinez spent part of his childhood in Mexico City before his family moved to Dallas, where his father worked as an accountant. They were one of the few families of color in their affluent neighborhood. When Martinez graduated high school, he went to San Francisco to study environmental science and technology. He bounced around colleges in the Bay Area, but felt isolated in advanced science and math courses, as one of the few minority students.

In his mid-20s, Martinez earned an ecology and evolutionary biology degree from UC Santa Cruz. He was engaged and in debt, but he wanted to pursue teaching science and technology to members of underrepresented communities. In 2006, he became a project coordinator for ETR Associates, a Scotts Valley-based nonprofit that provides educational resources to schools. His project focused on encouraging more Hispanic girls to study technology. ETR’s programs proved successful, securing funding from the National Science Foundation. But Martinez, who eventually became project director, still saw a gaping hole in the system: Children lacked computers at home, and they worked with outdated machines at school.

“We weren’t fostering creativity,” he says. “It was the complete opposite of the tech industry.”

So in 2013, he decided to build his own hub for young people, something that would be modeled after modern tech companies. When Martinez first opened Digital NEST, the locals had doubts about his motives—perhaps it was merely a ploy to buy up precious cropland to build the next Amazon distribution center. He built trust by making himself accessible to the agriculture community. Every month, he met with farmers to better understand the issues they faced, and he launched a series of events to bring together agronomists and technologists in the region.

“Companies would love to have local, talented people, and that would be the best for them,” says Jess Brown, director of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau. “People weren’t getting the education that was needed to move into agriculture, because it has changed so much.”

After two years, in February 2016, Digital NEST moved into a 4,500-square-foot building in downtown Watsonville. It buzzes with energy: Members experiment with cameras, tap away on keyboards, bounce from meeting to meeting and collaborate on projects. Up to 50 kids swing through each day. The program, which is funded mostly by foundation grants, is doing so well that Martinez plans to open a second branch in nearby Salinas in January 2017.

“Programs like this address the issue of getting (youth) to work in Watsonville,” Brown says.  “We can see that we need more programs like what Martinez is offering young people.”

Companies like Driscoll’s, meanwhile, are eager to work with tech leaders like Martinez.

“Finding ways to increase the technical capacity and exposure in the communities we work in will be important as we look to the future,” says Frances Dillard, Driscoll’s marketing director. “We have to be prepared to support these companies and have the workforce that can keep it going.”

Martinez likes to remind his students that farmers were the original entrepreneurs—and that these students’ families, who sell tamales out of truck beds or run landscaping or housekeeping businesses, are trailblazers, too. “I’d put them up against any affluent community any day,” Martinez says. “They want to care for their community and want to support their family; they have grit. They are true entrepreneurs: They don’t have a safety net to catch them if their new endeavor fails.”

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

On a hot summer afternoon, California farmer Chris Hurd barrels down a country road through the Central Valley city of Firebaugh, his dog Frank riding in the truck bed. He lurches to a stop in front of Oro Loma Elementary School, which was built in the 1950s to accommodate an influx of farmers’ and farmworkers’ children.

“All three of my sons went here,” Hurd says, as we walk through overgrown weeds toward the building, shuttered in 2010. “I was on the school board; the grass was green; kids were running around. Now it’s a pile of rubble.”

Agricultural land stretches out in every direction. Most of the town’s 8,300 residents are involved in growing or packing produce. The city is on the west side of the San Joaquin River, an area hit particularly hard by a historic drought, now in its fifth year. Wells have run dry, and farm-related jobs are running out.

Many other places in the eight counties comprising the San Joaquin Valley have suffered similar fates. These areas were disadvantaged to begin with, rural and isolated, lacking infrastructure, public transportation and safe housing. Persistent drought has compounded the struggles of some of the poorest communities in the nation. As of late January, 64 percent of the state was experiencing extreme drought—down from 78 percent that time last year. But even a stellar El Niño year won’t undo all the damage.

Hurd, 65, who earned a degree in mechanized agriculture from California Polytechnic San Luis Obispo in 1972, has farmed for the past 33 years. These days, he tends 1,500 acres and serves on the board of a local water district. Right now, he’s debating whether to rip out 80 acres of 20-year-old almond trees whose yields don’t justify the cost of the water. Three years ago, his annual water bill was $500,000. Now, he says, it’s $2.5 million; the price per acre-foot has increased sharply since the drought. Farmers like Hurd, who have junior water rights, are the first to see their allocations from the state’s two major water projects curtailed during shortages, forcing them to invest in new wells to pump groundwater or buy water on the market. In 2014, farmers with junior water rights faced an unprecedented zero allocation from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project. That happened again last year. In late February, the federal project will announce its water supply outlook for 2016. The State Water Project has also dramatically reduced its deliveries over the last two years.

In John Steinbeck’s classic novel,The Grapes of Wrath, farmers escape Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl by heading west to California in search of jobs and fertile land. Hurd says his friends have begun joking, grimly, about the reverse scenario—California isn’t working out, so why not pick up and move back to Oklahoma?

“Some are leaving; some are staying to fight; a lot of them are in flux,” he says.

Yet while grit has something to do with who stays and who goes, it ultimately comes down to two main factors: water and money. The survivors will likely need senior water rights and money to spend on planting high-value orchards or implementing expensive technology.

Economically, California remains the largest agricultural producer in the United States. But El Niño’s precipitation not withstanding, the prolonged drought is putting some farmers under heavy duress, and no one is sure how far California’s Eden will sink.


California, like much of the United States, was losing farmers long before the current drought began. The number of principal operators shrank 4 percent from about 81,000 in 2007 to 78,000 in 2012, according to the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture. The average age of California farmers skews slightly older than the rest of the nation, at 60 years old, and the state has experienced a decline in the number of farms, reflecting a national trend.

Yet the market value of its output has grown to roughly $54 billion annually. While a mere drop in the bucket of California’s $2.2 trillion economy, this sector remains among the most productive in the world, thanks to the state’s Mediterranean climate and fertile soil. And the Central Valley—a 450-mile-long stretch of flat land through the middle of the state that encompasses parts of 19 counties and multiple watersheds—produces nearly half of the nation’s vegetables, fruit and nuts. California has accomplished this even though most of its precipitation happens in the north, while most of its agriculture occurs in the south.

However, the state’s major reservoirs remain below normal for February, although their levels have dramatically improved since last December. Historically, a strong El Niño means most precipitation occurs in January, February and March. Too much rain at once won’t help farmers and could cause flooding, and it will do little to replenish the state’s drained aquifers. There is a positive note, however: The California Department of Water Resources’ semi-annual snow survey this winter, on Feb. 2, measured snowpack at 130 percent of normal in one location. Statewide, the snowpack is at 114 percent of average, which is the highest it’s been since 2011. That snow will eventually melt into streams and reservoirs, providing water for farms and cities. In normal years, the snowpack supplies about 30 percent of the state’s water needs.

In July 2014, a report by researchers at the University of California at Davis made headlines with alarming news about the drought’s impacts. Researchers projected it would cause $1.5 billion in economic losses to agriculture—factoring in crop revenue, dairy and livestock value, and the cost of additional groundwater pumping—and the loss of 7,500 jobs directly related to farm production by the year’s end. In their latest report, the Davis researchers estimate $1.84 billion in economic losses to agriculture and 10,100 fewer agriculture jobs in 2015.

Yet for all that, California agriculture has demonstrated impressive resilience. Researchers at the Pacific Institute, in Oakland, analyzed drought’s impacts on the three major crop categories of field crops, vegetables and melons, and fruits and nuts, and found that California agriculture not only survived; it flourished overall, achieving both record-high crop revenue and record-high employment.

Crop revenue has increased steadily over the past 15 years, and 2013 was the highest ever at $34 billion; 2014 was the second highest (although it dipped slightly). Revenue has increased even as land was fallowed at high rates. A follow-up report, incorporating livestock, dairy and nursery data, found the same patterns of high levels of productivity and profitability through this drought.

Meanwhile, agricultural employment has grown every year since 2010, employing a record-setting 417,000 people in 2014. But employment in the San Joaquin Valley waned.

“It is important to note that statewide and even regional estimates can hide local variability,” the report’s authors wrote. “State agricultural revenue and employment remain high, but there are undoubtedly winners and losers.”

Excessive groundwater pumping is a major issue.

“In my mind, there is an intergenerational equity issue here,” says Heather Cooley of the Pacific Institute. Future generations’ ability to meet their farming needs has been compromised—groundwater will sink to greater depths; water quality will deteriorate; and wells could run dry. Infrastructure such as conveyance canals, roads, bridges and buildings will suffer.

“Our overdependence on groundwater is tenuous and not sustainable by any stretch of the imagination. (Farmers) recognize that,” says Scott Stoddard, a row-crop farm adviser in the Central Valley for the University of California Cooperative Extension. Underground aquifers took thousands of years to fill up and can’t be replenished at the current rates of withdrawal.

Another resiliency factor relates to improved water efficiency and crop-shifting. “Together, these two are enabling farmers to get the most out of the water that they have,” Cooley says. Farmers aren’t flooding fields as much and are using scientific data and technology to better pinpoint when, where and how much to irrigate. They are shifting away from growing cotton and corn, concentrating water instead on higher-value crops, including almonds, pistachios, wine grapes, tomatoes and fruit. But permanent crops such as trees and orchards can’t be easily fallowed, and that reduces the flexibility to respond to future water shortages. Short-term water transfers between willing sellers and buyers provide a third major reason for resiliency. But regulators lack a complete understanding of how much water is actually changing hands, because informal farmer-to-farmer sales—the kind that happen over coffee at the local diner—aren’t tracked.

When considering how California agriculture has withstood the drought—increased groundwater pumping, water transfers, a shift from field crops to higher-value nuts and fruits, better irrigation techniques, fallowing land—many of the same strategies used in previous, albeit more modest, water shortages emerge. But, Stoddard wonders: “What happens if what we’re seeing is not a drought, but the norm?”


Nonstop pressures threaten California agriculture: encroaching development; the high cost of farm and ranchland, which prices out new farmers and ranchers; onerous regulations; declining interest in the profession; water shortages; and climate change. Greater climate variability may be the state’s new reality, but that doesn’t mean the end is near.

“I think California will remain a great place to grow food and other agricultural products,” Cooley says. “One of the reasons we’ve seen high levels of agriculture development in the state is because we tend to have a dry summer, (and) when water is available, it allows farmers to manipulate the water and use it with precision.”

Another reason is that for decades, the Central Valley’s Westlands Water District has managed to pull a lot of water for farmers near Fresno. But even the powerful water utility has struggled under the current drought and state water restrictions. It remains to be seen whether it can politically pull more water as the drought continues. In the meantime, farmers are handling the crisis the way they always have: through resiliency.

Daniel Sumner, an agricultural economist at UC Davis and co-author of the economic-projection reports, says this isn’t the first time farmers have switched up crops, nor will it be the last. California used to be among the biggest wheat-producing states in the United States, and that’s no longer the case.

“California agriculture adapts continuously to markets and other shifts,” Sumner says. “The gradual move from field crops to more tree and vine crops and vegetables has been ongoing for decades. This drought has caused some temporary shifts, such as leaving rice land idle, and perhaps accelerated the long-term trends.”

Adaptation is nothing new to agriculture, but that offers little consolation to the individual farmers tasked with growing much of the nation’s food. Sure, the sector may be doing all right, but that doesn’t mean some farmers, farmworkers and their families aren’t suffering. This is especially true of farmers with junior water rights, who have had to shell out lots of money to access water, and in areas of extensive fallowing, which means fewer jobs for farmworkers. Sixty-five percent of California’s farms earn less than $50,000 annually. These farms are small, and likely more vulnerable to threats such as drought. Only 8 percent of farms fall into the highest economic class, making more than $1 million.

Increasingly, adult children find the prospect of an air-conditioned office job in a city more appealing than taking over such a harsh family business. Drought’s indirect impacts will compound agriculture’s other pressures, but won’t be realized for several years, if not decades. “It’s a very strong possibility in the future that we’re looking at an exodus of more and more people, if this lack-of-water situation continues,” Stoddard says. “We are using more water than the system allows, and something has to give.”

What will “give,” as Stoddard says, are farmers with exorbitant water bills, or those who just can’t make their operations work anymore.


If California’s agriculture is going to thrive, policymakers need to ensure better management of groundwater resources and stop underpricing water. A comprehensive statewide agriculture plan could help. So will continued improvements in agricultural practices: conservation; transitioning to drip irrigation; using cover crops and no-tillage for better soil health and reduced water usage; employing GPS and possibly drones to pinpoint inefficiencies in irrigation; and funding plant science where genetic engineering could help crops withstand drought.

Farmers with the most resources will have the best chance of surviving. Cannon Michael is a sixth-generation farmer whose ancestor Henry Miller, of Miller and Lux Co., once owned the area that’s now the town of Firebaugh. Michael inherited senior water rights, which gives him a safety net in this current drought. His business, Bowles Farming Co., brings in an average of $25 million in annual gross revenue, but he still worries about the future.

“Our good years are never going to be as good, and our bad years have the potential to be catastrophic,” he says.

His response has been to adapt. Historically, Bowles has grown almonds, pistachios, wheat, corn, alfalfa, cotton, tomatoes, onions and melons on 10,500 irrigated acres—but the drought pushed Michael to fallow one-fourth of his ground and stop irrigating alfalfa. He reduced labor needs, installed drip irrigation and transitioned to reduced-tillage to save money on gasoline. This summer, he made a multimillion dollar investment in the installation of two solar arrays that will generate 1 megawatt of power, enough to supply electricity for nearly the whole operation, including the office, shop, houses (his and the workers) and all drip-irrigation systems. Michael is also diversifying with a new 5,000-acre farm in Uruguay, where he will grow wheat, sorghum, soybeans and corn and raise 1,000 cattle.

South America may beckon as a new agrarian frontier, but Michael, like many of his peers, refuses to give up on California yet. A few years ago, he bought a struggling young almond orchard, excited by its status as a high-value crop. He says there’s not much to be excited about with farming nowadays, but raising the almonds was something that brought him hope.

On a summer afternoon in 2015, before the orchard’s inaugural harvest, Michael plucks an almond off the branch, picks out the seed and takes a bite. Fresh from a tree, almonds taste different: wetter with a hint of vanilla. “Can you be proud of trees?” he asks, closely admiring one of the leaves. “I’m proud of these trees.”

Reporting for this story was supported by an award from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

On this week's lovable Independent comics page: This Modern World watches as the GOP reaches out to women; Jen Sorenson wonders why waste water from fracking is being used on crops; The K Chronicles looks for a good coffee shop; and Red Meat breaks the bad news to the staff.

Published in Comics

If you tuned into the debate on a drought bill in the House earlier this month, you would have gotten a bleak picture of the agriculture industry in a state that fills the produce aisles in much of the rest of the country.

You also would have heard the water shortage blamed on radical environmentalists who sacrificed farms to protect fish in California, and the failure to build any new dams over the last 40 years. The Western Water and American Food Security Act of 2015, written to correct those problems, passed 245-176 on Thursday, July 16, with only five Democrats joining nearly all Republicans to support it.

“We’ve watched our lawns turn brown; we’ve watched our water bills skyrocket; we’ve watched businesses shut down; we’ve watched thousands of farm workers thrown out of work,” said Rep. Tom McClintock, R-California, a co-sponsor of the bill. “We will not solve our water shortage until we build more dams; that’s what our bill does.”

Despite McClintock’s rhetoric, California’s agriculture employment has actually grown in recent years. And California stopped building dams decades ago in large part because 1,500 already occupied most stretches of rivers where dams make economic sense.

Despite its passage, the House bill is going nowhere fast. The White House threatened a veto. The Interior Department sent a letter arguing that the bill could unintentionally worsen water shortages. Also, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is expected to be a major player in drafting a Senate bill, stressed that she opposes provisions in the House bill that “would violate environmental law.”

“We need to facilitate water transfers and maximize water pumping without violating environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act or biological opinions,” Feinstein said in a statement.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who chairs the committee that would draft a Senate bill, plans to craft West-wide legislation, but not until the fall. “Senator Feinstein’s ideas will be central to moving that forward,” Murkowski’s spokesman Robert Dillon told High Country News.

There’s no question that these are tense times for Central Valley farmers. Agriculture jobs in the San Joaquin region in March, the most recent month with state data, were down by 4,000 from last year to 164,200. But what’s unexpected is that they’re up from 2011, before the drought. Locally, they’re not even down year-to-date: In the desert region (Imperial, Riverside and San Bernardino counties), there were 25,600 jobs in March—1,100 more than the same month a year before. And statewide, average annual agriculture employment actually grew slightly from 2013 to 2014, continuing a decade-long trend that’s driven by a shift to more labor-intensive crops like fruits and almonds. Still, the drought has forced some farmers in the Central Valley and elsewhere to reduce their workforces as they’ve fallowed fields because of water shortages.

Jay Lund, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of Center for Watershed Sciences at University of California at Davis, questioned the reasoning behind provisions in the House bill that would streamline permitting for water storage projects to add capacity at Shasta Lake and construct new reservoirs at Sites, Temperance Flat and Los Vaqueros. “Additional storage would be useful, but it’s not clear it would be cost-effective or the best investment,” he said.

Even if all the proposed storage had been built and filled before the drought, the state still would be low on water after four years of extreme drought. Lund said that the bill’s sponsors overstate how much water is available in California, and that the state would be better off with a multi-pronged approach that includes more recycling of wastewater, recharging of groundwater during wet times, constructing water pipelines, and some additional storage projects.

To alleviate water shortages for agriculture, the House bill also would repeal the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Act, which aims to restore salmon runs and 60 miles of the river that had been dry much of the year.

“Farmers could take every drop of water and leave a dry streambed,” said Doug Obegi, a lawyer for Natural Resource Defense Council. “I don’t think that’s the vision of the rivers of the West that most Americans have.”

This was one of many provisions opposed by the Interior Department, because it would “negatively impact our ability to protect Delta fish and wildlife in the long-term; particularly those species listed under federal and state endangered species laws,” the Interior Department said in a letter.

What’s more, Interior’s letter warned the bill would have the “unintended consequence of impeding an effective and timely response to the continuing drought while providing no additional water to hard hit communities.”

But with the Senate moving slowing on its bill and a presidential veto in the mix, it’s impossible to predict what if any provisions in the House bill might endure.

“It’s too early to say. This could be a major step toward dramatically rolling back environmental protections in California or just another act of theater by far-right politicians in Congress,” Obegi said.

Elizabeth Shogren is the D.C. correspondent for High Country News, where this story first appeared.

Published in Environment

On a recent trip to California, I visited the North Coast, where spring usually means green hills with deep grass, strewn with lupine and bright orange poppies bobbing in sea breezes.

This year, we found stunted grass, browning hills and the local news obsessing over the worst drought in California's recorded history. Suddenly, the most populous state in the country faces a harsh reality, with water shortages threatening all aspects of life, from the economy, to our food supply, to the very livability of our homes.

Holed up in Bodega Bay, I heard Gov. Jerry Brown on the radio talking about mandatory water-use restrictions for California's 39 million people. Brown usually can be counted on to take on issues realistically, yet when asked if he would restrict the amount of water that goes to agriculture, he demurred. Agriculture had suffered enough already, he said.

While we are all grateful to farmers and farm workers—including those in the eastern Coachella Valley—for producing the food we crave, the tough reality of severe drought should compel us to take a closer look at agricultural water use. In America's entrepreneurial environment, we're not used to asking hard questions about legal private-sector activity, but this severe and lingering drought—not only in California, but also throughout the West—could, and should, force a serious debate about private-sector use of public water supplies. It is long overdue.

This may be an uncomfortable process for politicians who will have to consider a difficult balance: water supplies for cities versus water for rural industries, including ones that may not be able to survive in a drying region.

Here are the cold facts: Cities in California use between 10 to 20 percent of the state's developed water, producing 98 percent of its gross domestic product, while agriculture uses 80 percent of the water supply—and produces only 2 percent of the state's GDP. And of the 80 percent that agriculture uses, only a portion is used for crops that directly feed people.

We could drill down deeper and see who is using water and for what, but this is where politicians start squirming, given that farmers produce both crops and campaign contributions. The majority of Colorado River water and agricultural water in California goes to producing feed for cattle—low-value crops like alfalfa and hay. Those crops use 14 million acre-feet of water a year, which is far more than what is used by water-intensive crops like rice, cotton or wine grapes.

Alfalfa is a huge water-waster largely because of its high rates of evapotranspiration, as well as the overall inefficiency of flood irrigation, the main means of watering the crops. Seventy percent of California's alfalfa goes to dairies, which use more than 700 gallons of water per cow, per day, in facilities that have hundreds of cows, usually located in arid parts of the state. The 500,000 beef cattle in California require between 400 and 2,500 gallons of water for each pound of meat, depending on who supplies your statistics.

Of course, California is not the only area facing a drought. In the Rio Grande Basin of Colorado and New Mexico, the same pattern of alfalfa and hay production for desert dairies and feedlots depletes ground and surface water, leaving cities, wildlife and recreation chasing ever lower flows on this iconic river. According to The New York Times, livestock production uses 75 percent of Colorado River flows, which currently are 15 percent lower than they were in 1990—and dropping. Statistics for the Rio Grande are similar.

How do we handle a commercial interest that disproportionately burdens the public water supply? The dairy and beef industries, and forage growers, provide some jobs, but their high water consumption threatens many other crops and businesses—employing far more people—as well as domestic water-users who depend on water for survival.

In 1983, the California Supreme Court, in the case National Audubon Society v. Superior Court, ruled that water falls under the public trust doctrine, which says that important public resources are so fundamental to society that courts can impose restrictions when private development threatens public use. The court applied the public trust doctrine to water that had been appropriated under state law, ruling that those appropriations were contrary to the public interest.

If politicians remain unwilling to confront wasteful use of our public water supplies, it might be time to bring a case to the courts.

Tom Ribe is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He lives in New Mexico.

Published in Community Voices

Dear Readers: The Mexican wants to beat you to the carne asada case this Labor Day fin de semana, so behold two oldies but goodies I amazingly haven't yet passed off as new in this columna. The first one is extant and one of the favorite questions the Mexican has ever got; for the second respuesta, I've added some new thoughts at the end, given it dates to 2007, yet the question is, like the Mexican lust for gabachas, eternal.

Enjoy, and eat 11 tacos de chorizo for your favorite Mexican, wontcha?

Dear Mexican: Whatever happened to the “lazy Mexican"? Now all I hear is that they’re taking our jobs.

Ronnie Racist

Dear Gabacho: Isn't that the stupidest paradox? Really: How can someone simultaneously be a yeoman and a layabout, unless he's Shaquille O'Neal?

But accusing ethnics of being both is America's most cherished immigrant insult. Every group felt its contradictory sting: Chinese (opium smokers or railroad coolies), Irish (drunks or ward bosses), Scandinavians (oafs or Vikings), Italians (slum dwellers or Mafiosi), Jews (rag-picking parasites or international bankers) and now Mexicans.

The insult's popularity draws its venom from our Puritan forefathers, who considered life outside of labor sin. It's a miracle the phrase on Auschwitz's gate, Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Brings Freedom), isn't inscribed on the Capitol Dome. What's strange, though, is how modern-day gabachos forgot the Protestant work ethic long ago; meanwhile, immigrants continue to pick up Max Weber's flame without forgetting to enjoy life. Bested in both works and pleasure, gabachos seethe, grow fat and elect evangelicals—and don't get me started about faith without works and its relationship to American sloth.

I had a heated discussion in my van pool with a couple of gringos in which they made a comment that immigration (both legal and illegal) needs to stop. I replied jokingly, "Then who will take our orders at McDonald's, or work in the fields?" They had the nerve to tell me there are Americans willing to work those jobs, especially in the fields. I laughed. Wasn't there a study a couple of years ago in which they sent Americans who were collecting unemployment to pick strawberries, and they all quit within a week?

Pocha From the Central California Coast

Dear Gabacho: Many readers have asked the Mexican about the study you cite, but I've yet to verify its existence. This makes me believe it's an urban legend along the lines of successful Guatemalans, or Mexican women taking it up the ass to keep their virginity. Besides, who needs a mythical study proving gabachos don't work in agriculture when the government has documented this phenomenon?

Consider the Department of Labor's 2005 National Agricultural Workers survey. The finding that's pertinent to us: 83 percent of America's agricultural workers identified as "Hispanic," and Mexicans constituted the vast majority of that figure. Gabachos, meanwhile, accounted for only 3 pinche percent of all fruit and vegetable gatherers. Many factors besides laziness can explain why gabachos won't take these jobs—terrible wages and working conditions, for example, plus better employment opportunities for English speakers—but the fact remains that gabachos and crop-picking go together as well as Mexicans and la migra.

So, want to save America from the Aztlanistas, gabachos? Head for the fields and groves; wrap a bandanna around your face to fend off the pesticides; and start picking. And make sure there are no bruises on the fruit, lest the foreman dock you an hour's pay.

Modern-day coda: This is exactly what hasn't happened in the years since, which just happen to fall under the Great Recession. Farmers have BEGGED Americans to pick their crops because of a shortage of Mexican workers—and nothing.

Ask the Mexican at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; be his fan on Facebook; follow him on Twitter @gustavoarellano; or ask him a video question at youtube.com/askamexicano!

Published in Ask a Mexican

Becky Quintana walks along the gravel shoulder of a rural two-lane road through the sprawling orange groves of California’s Central Valley, the snow-white jags of the Sierra Nevada at her back.

“On a clear day, it’s like you can almost touch the mountains,” says the 57-year-old school bus driver, who has lived all her life in Seville, 35 miles south of Fresno. The vast majority of the town’s 500 residents are Latinos, and most toil for meager wages in Tulare County’s vast nut, olive and citrus orchards.

The nearby Kaweah River, which flows from headwaters in the high peaks of the Sierra, is cool and clean. But most of its flow is diverted into irrigation canals and delivered to a faraway mosaic of farms and cities. In spite of Seville’s proximity to the Kaweah, the tiny town’s drinking water doesn’t come from the river, but from wells punched into the intensively cultivated land around town. Quintana points out the array of white tanks and a U-shaped pipe plunging earthward: This, she explains, is where the town’s water comes from. As a groundwater activist and founder of a local group called the Committee for a Better Seville, Quintana has worked for several years to improve Seville’s primitive water system.

A white PVC pipe runs down the middle of an irrigation canal, which carries three or four inches of water. The pipe—actually many pipes, loosely connected by plastic couplings—is the town’s water main. Quintana pushes on the rickety assemblage, which creaks and dips below the surface of the canal. She explains that when the canal is full, the pipe is submerged, and when pressure is low (usually in the summer, when people use lots of water), canal water can seep in through loose connections, carrying sand and other debris. A neighbor says a small tadpole once wriggled out of her kitchen tap.

In the canal’s shallow water, beside the main, the carcass of a dog slumps in a grisly state of putrefaction. “Lots of tourists come through here on their way to Sequoia National Park,” Quintana laughs. “They stop to eat in the café. I bet they wouldn’t if they knew what was in the water.”

The most harmful ingredients can’t be seen. The groundwater underlying Seville, like that beneath dozens of small towns throughout the Central Valley—the 50-by-400-mile agricultural basin, home to 4 million people, that effectively separates coastal California from the Sierra Nevada—has long borne the brunt of the region’s industrial-scale agriculture and the industrial-scale pollution that comes with it.

(A similar story can be told about portions of the eastern Coachella Valley, a recent study shows.)

While dozens of contaminants, both manmade and natural, have been detected in the region’s groundwater, nitrates are the pollutant of greatest concern. Derived from hundreds of thousands of tons of synthetic fertilizer and animal wastes applied to crops each year, nitrates pose an especially acute risk to infants; long-term exposure has also been implicated in various forms of cancer, including gastric, esophageal, ovarian and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. According to a recent University of California at Berkeley report, nitrate exposure’s health impacts fall disproportionately on the poor Latino communities of the Central Valley—the same people who make up most of the low-wage workforce of the agriculture industry.

Nitrates and other contaminants are less of an issue in larger, wealthier communities, since treatment or blending with cleaner water can often reduce concentrations to meet health standards. By contrast, the small Latino communities of the Central Valley—where median household incomes are less than $15,000 per year—simply do not have the tax base to support the construction and operation of treatment plants, or to secure alternative sources of water.

The struggles of these poor communities hint at much larger problems. Unlike every other state in the Western U.S., California does not regulate the quantity of groundwater pumped, although more than eight in 10 of the state’s residents rely on groundwater for at least a portion of their water supply. A report released in February by the State Water Resources Control Board identified 31 principal contaminants, including arsenic, uranium, perchlorate and pesticide residues, in the groundwater serving 21 million Californians.

As the state’s population grows, and its complex water systems are further racked by climate change—with Sierra snowpack expected to dwindle by as much as a quarter by mid-century—residents across all income levels will become more and more dependent on increasingly scarce and polluted groundwater. And many already drink water that’s less than clean.

“As many as 8.5 million Californians rely on supplies that experienced more than five incidences of excessive levels of contaminants in the drinking water in a single year,” former Assemblyman Mike Eng, from Los Angeles, testified before the California Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water.

In response, last October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law AB 685, the “Human Right to Water” bill. The 250-plus-word addendum to the state water code is ambitiously phrased, declaring, “Every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking and sanitary purposes.”

The bill, which reaffirms the larger goals of the federal 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, is one of the first clear victories in acknowledging the unequal burden of water contamination in California. It’s the product of an aggressive seven-year-long grassroots-inspired legal campaign focused on the Central Valley. But successfully turning the bill’s fine words into reality won’t be easy: The effort to secure clean drinking water in the Central Valley requires reversing a century’s worth of pollution, and it will be a slow, expensive process—entailing reform of one of California’s most powerful industries, which has transformed the valley into one of the planet’s most heavily engineered and industrialized landscapes.

In the meantime, says Laurel Firestone of the Community Water Center, the effort to bring clean water to places like Seville will require determination, creativity—and a recognition of the problem’s multiple facets.

“On one hand, the solution is complicated, and on the other, it’s not,” Firestone says. “We need to look at what our priorities are as a state and what we are using our resources on. It’s pretty obvious it hasn’t been on bringing safe drinking water to places like Seville. … All of us have to play a part in creating that solution.”

 

Along with providing around half of the nation’s fruits and vegetables, Central Valley farms generate tens of billions of dollars in revenue annually. The Environmental Working Group estimates that California farmers have received more than $10 billion in subsidies since 1995. Indeed, California farmers achieved their regional economic and political dominance largely through government largesse and publicly financed, gargantuan water projects, such as the State and Central Valley Water Projects, which funnel huge quantities of water (as much as 80 percent of the state’s overall supply, by some estimates) to the area.

And yet, the industry has spent millions on lobbying, as well as a public relations campaign that portrays itself as the victim of over-regulation and water policies aimed at its destruction. For years, local farmers have protested reductions in water deliveries to the area from the San Francisco Bay Delta—posting signs along the roadside with messages such as CONGRESS CREATED DUSTBOWL and FOOD GROWS WHERE WATER FLOWS.

Similarly, a pack of pro-agriculture groups railed against AB 685. Opponents, including the Western Growers Association—a trade group that represents California farmers—and the state’s Chamber of Commerce, offered up a litany of criticism, warning that the law could, among other things, prevent local districts from shutting off water to non-paying customers, create subsidies for poor residents, and expose farmers and water districts to lawsuits.

“A new ‘right to water’ in California law could potentially upset decades of legal precedent and could cost the state of California untold amounts of money,” the Association of California Water Agencies wrote Gov. Brown, strongly urging a veto.

Supporters of AB 685 included numerous environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and the California League of Conservation Voters, but the on-the-ground effort was headed by the Visalia-based Community Water Center and la Asociación de Gente Unida por el Agua, or AGUA, a group made up of local representatives from towns with contaminated water.

“Part of the reason we’re in the situation we’re in is because communities have been segregated and isolated,” says Firestone, whose Community Water Center helped organize the AGUA coalition, many of whose members work in the very farm fields generating the pollution. “They’re now speaking with a unified voice.”

AGUA’s efforts are in many ways reminiscent—even an extension—of the grassroots organizing of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union. That group’s famous rallying cry, “Sí, se puede” (“Yes, we can”), galvanized the movement that drew national attention to the often-terrible working conditions faced by California farmworkers.

 

On a March evening, just off Visalia’s main drag, around 40 people crammed into the living room of the small bungalow that serves as AGUA’s main offices, discussing strategies for an upcoming rally and meeting with legislators in Sacramento.

One AGUA representative, Sandra Garcia, 48, who picks fruit and vegetables near her hometown of Poplar, shook her head when I asked if she worried her activism might land her in trouble with her employer. “We have no choice,” she says. “A few years ago, my boss said, ‘I don’t want you out stirring everyone up.’ I told him, ‘I’m trying to keep you from getting sued.’“

In rapid and impassioned Spanish, the group discussed the need to press state representatives about securing grant money to improve the water supplies of disadvantaged communities. Applying for the funds—available through Proposition 84, a 2006 bond act funding safe drinking water initiatives—is a complex process, requiring input from engineers and technical experts that the towns most in need often lack the funds to hire.

Such are the problems with the new law. In spite of AB 685’s bold rhetoric, it does not actually require state agencies to do anything new. Though it mandates that state agencies take a “multi-agency” approach and consider the policy when they adopt or revise regulations, it does not require California to provide clean water or to allocate “additional resources” to fix ailing water systems. Nor does it require the agencies that oversee public water systems—the Department of Water Resources, the State Water Resources Control Board and Department of Public Health—to increase enforcement.

Nonetheless, local activists call AB 685 an important, if largely symbolic, first step toward greater recognition of the connection between clean water and human health. Firestone says AB 685 makes “a problem that was invisible into a priority. People have to pick up that rock and see the disparities around water in our state,” she says.

Debbie Davis, community and rural affairs adviser for the governor’s office, agrees. “The bottom line is that the legislation spells out our intent, which is that everyone in the state should have access to safe water for basic human needs,” says Davis, who worked as a community water activist before joining the governor’s office. “In California, that should be a reasonable, minimum expectation.”

 

In the Central Valley, however, what is “reasonable” often clashes starkly with what is. According to the Community Water Center, one in five Tulare County communities is unable to provide clean drinking water on a daily basis.

To see the conditions facing those communities and their tens of thousands of inhabitants, I traveled to several small agricultural towns in the county, outside of Visalia. In East Orosi, a tiny hamlet of 500 people, residents live in small wood-frame and stucco bungalows, many painted in bright pastel colors reminiscent of a rural Mexican village. My guide, 19-year-old Jessica Sanchez, shows me a recent warning from the East Orosi water district, citing nitrate levels that exceed the state maximum of 45 milligrams per liter. The notices that frequently come in the mail are often obvious facsimiles of previous warnings. “A lot of times, you can see tape marks around the date,” says Sanchez.

Sanchez has been active in local water issues since high school, but these days, she has a new reason to be concerned: her 11-month-old son, Jordan, whose stroller she pushes along a trash-strewn gravel shoulder. Sanchez points out an abandoned-looking trailer tagged with graffiti—the main office of the East Orosi Community Services District.

“There’s no one there,” she says with a laugh. “They hardly ever are.”

As in Seville, the East Orosi’s Community Services District delivers water to homes with “no method of treatment such as coagulation and flocculation, sedimentation, filtration or disinfection,” according to a 2011 Tulare County report on the area’s small community water systems. Moreover, its groundwater pumps sit a few yards from an orange orchard—meaning whatever is applied at the surface can potentially percolate into the shallow groundwater below and into drinking supplies.

Local municipal groundwater pumps are often located beside orchards, alongside agricultural canals, and beside sprawling dairies and their huge sewage lagoons. “The Third World conditions of these systems are truly shocking, particularly for a state that is a leader in so many areas of environmental governance,” says Richard Frank, an environmental law professor at the University of California at Davis. “It’s a striking anomaly.”

Farms and dairies are responsible for 96 percent of the nitrates entering groundwater in the Central and Salinas valleys, according to a 2012 UC Davis study. Some 220,000 tons leach into that groundwater every year—more than four times the “benchmark” level at which nitrogen will not further degrade the region’s groundwater. However, since the bulk of it comes not from single point sources, but from application of fertilizers over vast areas, farms are not required to have discharge permits for the large quantities of nitrogen pollution they generate. California’s dairies are now required to submit waste and nutrient management plans if they are located in “high risk” areas—over shallow groundwater, say, or near municipal water supplies. But much of the manure and sewage sludge generated by these dairies is destined for fields, potentially jeopardizing the groundwater beneath.

There is mounting evidence that the nitrogen in the groundwater today originated decades ago—which is to say, the Central Valley’s problems stand to get significantly worse.

“Even if we got rid of all of the sources tomorrow, it’s going to be decades before this mess is cleaned up,” says Thomas Harter, a co-author of the UC Davis nitrate report. “To think that this is a problem that we’re simply going to be able to remediate away is the wrong path.”

In the meantime, Latinos living in the Central Valley are suffering disproportionately from nitrogen contamination, according to a study published in 2011 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. That study’s lead author, Carolina Balazs, a UC Berkeley researcher, says that previous research on water contamination overlooked socioeconomic and ethnic disparities, assuming that all communities served by small water systems faced similar risk of nitrate contamination.

“We found that, yes, small systems do tend to have higher nitrate levels. But it’s small systems (serving) high percentages of Latinos that have the highest levels of nitrates,” says Balazs.

Both economic and social factors may play a role in exposure risk. Data from the 2000 Census show that more than one in four Spanish-speaking families in the Central Valley are “linguistically isolated,” meaning that all adults in a household speak a language other than English, and none speaks English very well. Because of this, these families are less able to advocate for themselves and successfully use civic channels available to effect change.

For mothers like Sanchez, nitrates are particularly worrisome since they can cause methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby syndrome,” a sometimes-fatal condition in which an infant’s red blood cells cannot carry enough oxygen.

“I definitely won’t use this water to make formula,” says Sanchez, looking down at Jordan in his stroller. “But should I even give it to my dogs?”

 

The 300 people in Tonyville, tucked between the beige Sierra foothills and the boundless green of surrounding orchards, also face severe water problems. Senaida Aguilar, a vigorous 71-year-old farmworker, raised three children here after moving in the mid-1980s from her hometown of Morelia, in southern Mexico. Her skin is tanned and creased after nearly 30 years of laboring in the olive and orange orchards.

Thick gloves protect her forearms from thorns, and she wears a heavy canvas fruit-picking apron, with a large, kangaroo-like pouch in front. It takes 18 filled aprons—more than 1,600 pounds of citrus altogether—to fill a single bin, she explains; she earns $14.50 for each bin.

She is still strong, and though she no longer climbs the ladders, Aguilar says she can keep up with most of the younger pickers by working the lower limbs, filling a bin an hour. But the contract work that has become standard today makes her wages unpredictable.

“Now they tell you they need a certain number of bins, and they send you home once they are filled.” That means that, on many days, it is simply not possible for Aguilar to fill her eight bins.

This strains her budget, which includes $650 a month in rent. She also pays around $50 a month to the Lindsay-Strathmore Irrigation District for water that’s undrinkable. So she spends another $50 to $100 a month for five-gallon bottles at water vending machines for drinking and cooking.

Aguilar’s situation is not unique; seven out of 10 Tulare County households surveyed in 2011 by the Oakland-based Pacific Institute spent close to 5 percent of their annual income on water—three times the “affordability threshold” set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Aguilar shows me several recent warnings from the irrigation district, one mentioning “disinfection byproducts”—trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids—found at concentrations nearly twice the state limit. The warning that follows is confusing at best. One sentence reads, “You DO NOT need to use an alternative (e.g., bottled) water supply.” But the following line is hardly reassuring: “Some people who use water containing trihalomethanes in excess of the (maximum contaminant level) over many years may experience liver, kidney, or central nervous system problems and may have an increased risk of getting cancer.”

The most ominous warning, however, arrived with Aguilar’s February bill. It reads, TONYVILLE WATER HAS HIGH LEVELS OF PERCHLORATE. DO NOT DRINK THE WATER OR USE IT TO MAKE INFANT FORMULA. Perchlorate, a potent thyroid inhibitor, is often used in munitions manufacturing but can also be derived from fertilizers.

Aguilar runs a glass from her bathroom tap and brings it into the light. The water has a slightly yellowish tinge, and it looks cloudy on some days, she says, “the color of pond water.” It has a faint acrid smell, reminiscent of wet animal fur tinged with lighter fluid.

No one knows the actual toll bad water is taking on human health around here. But residents all share stories of illness or death. Aguilar mentions people who developed strange rashes and sores after using the water for bathing. Another Tonyville resident, Guadalupe Nunez, tells me she knows 11 people who have died of liver, stomach and kidney cancers in Tonyville in less than 10 years.

Public health statistics show the death rates from infant health issues (including birth defects, miscarriage and sudden infant death syndrome), digestive system cancers and other illnesses associated with nitrate exposure in Tulare County have been above statewide averages at one time or another since 2001. California public health workers found a cluster of childhood cancers in the Tulare County town of Earlimart between 1986 and 1989—and all the victims were children of farmworkers. Of course, proving a definitive link between water contaminants and disease requires long-term, longitudinal studies—the sorts of public-health inquiries that are rarely made in these virtually invisible communities.

To learn more about what water managers are doing to fix Tonyville’s problems, I call Scott Edwards, Lindsay-Strathmore’s district manager, whose name and number are listed on the warning notice. Edwards explains that most of the time, Tonyville’s water comes through surface canals, but that the perchlorate spikes occur every year or two when the canal is “dewatered,” and the town switches from canal water to groundwater.

According to Edwards, Tonyville’s filtration plant is simply incapable of removing the perchlorate from its groundwater. (He admits he doesn’t know where the perchlorate is coming from.) “State and federal regulations say we must deliver clean drinking water, even though we can’t afford to do that,” he says, explaining that treatment costs already run from $1,500 to $2,000 an acre-foot, while residents are paying only $250 per acre-foot. “Tonyville residents would be paying $450 a month to operate that plant. What am I supposed to do, raise the rates? They can’t afford that.”

But clean drinking water is a human right in California, I point out, referring to the new bill’s wording. “Drinking water is not a human right. Get that off your head right now,” says Edwards. “If it costs somebody else money to provide it to you, it’s not your right.”

He quickly shifts to a more sympathetic tone, though, noting that he lives in an unincorporated part of Tulare County, and his water, too, is unfiltered and undrinkable. “We have bottled water in our house at all times.”

As a manager tasked with delivering high-quality water across the county, does he find this fact troubling or, at the very least, somewhat ironic?

“It is what it is,” he replies.

 

Overwhelming costs and technical complexity compound this kind of institutional apathy. Since large-scale groundwater cleanup is, by most measures, not feasible, a different approach called “pump-and-fertilize” has been proposed. In essence, farmers would use nutrient-loaded groundwater for both irrigating and fertilizing, a practice that, over time, could gradually reduce nitrate levels in aquifers. Another idea is a tax on nitrate-rich fertilizers, meant to dissuade farmers from overusing them. The tax funds would be used to tackle nitrate contamination in towns served by small community water systems. (The UC Davis report estimates it will cost $36 million annually to bring clean water to the two regions examined in the study—either through new infrastructure or securing new sources of water.) Not surprisingly, agricultural groups are strongly opposed.

“It’s going to take action, not only from the water board, but the Legislature and other state agencies to move forward,” says John Borkovich, program manager for the state water board’s groundwater monitoring program.

The most promising technical fix may, in fact, be rooted in the ties forged by the AGUA coalition itself. The hope is that these small towns can pool their resources to create larger districts with economies of a scale capable of reducing the high costs of treatment. “If you take seven communities and combine them into one district,” says Abigail Solis of the Community Water Center, “you eliminate the costs of seven secretaries, seven attorneys, seven engineers, seven everything. You’re also much stronger politically.”

Steve Worthley, a member of the Tulare County board of supervisors, is exploring just such a possibility. The county, which took over operation of Seville’s water system by court order a few years back, is considering linking it up with the water system of the nearby town of Yettem. He notes that the greatest impediments to consolidation are political. “There would have to be an election to create a district and form its boundaries and determine its governance structure. But it can be done.”

He adds that another nearby district is considering delivering clean water to these towns via water “swaps,” which entail exchanging cleaner surface waters for groundwater stored in large underground reservoirs.

While the concept of swapping tainted groundwater for cleaner surface water seems like a no-brainer, it’s not as simple as it sounds, explains Worthley—particularly in years like this, in which, as of May 1, the state’s snowpack stood at a meager 17 percent of average. Communities across the region have no choice but to turn to groundwater to augment supply.

Given the myriad threats to the Central Valley’s groundwater, I ask if the state might have a larger role to play, helping the county to more carefully manage the pumping of groundwater and more rigorously regulate sources of pollution. “I’m totally opposed to it,” says Worthley. “We can manage our own groundwater.”

Like most places in California and across the country, already-strapped Tulare County was decimated by loss of tax revenues during the financial downturn. “We know we have a problem, and we’re trying to fix it,” says Worthley. “We don’t have the money to fix it. The community services districts don’t have the money to fix it.”

So where will Tulare County get the money? I ask. “We’re looking for some assistance from the state,” he says.

Back in Seville, as we walk toward Becky Quintana’s house and the snowcapped peaks beyond, Quintana reflects on what’s been accomplished. Still, she acknowledges that the struggle to secure clean water for her community never ends.

“People always ask me, ‘How come you don’t just move?’ Is that going to solve my problem—just taking off? My parents built their house here 60 years ago. Should I just say, ‘OK, I’m leaving; the water will take care of itself?’”

She shakes her head emphatically, her large earrings swinging defiantly in the cool spring air. “It’s not just about me. It’s about the next generation. It’s about the next human being that’s going to want to come make a home here. Why not make a difference?”

Jeremy Miller is a contributing editor for High Country News, where this story was originally published. He writes from his home in Richmond, Calif. This story was made possible with support from the Kenney Brothers Foundation and with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.

Published in Environment