CVIndependent

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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

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

At night, in the parched pasturelands in the southern reaches of California’s Central Valley, strange constellations glow on the horizon: beacons atop rigs that are drilling for water.

Applications to drill new wells skyrocketed after state officials announced in February that, after the third year of pitiful precipitation, no water would be delivered via the concrete rivers of the massive State and Central Valley water projects. In Fresno County between January and April, 226 well-drilling permits were issued, compared to just 69 during the same period last year—prompting some to fear irreparable damage to aquifers.

In the daytime, signs planted in desiccated orchards come into view, declaring: “Congress created Dust Bowl” and “Man-made Drought,” expressing the widely believed myth that regulations to protect endangered fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are responsible for water shortages on Central Valley farms.

In February, House Republican David Valadao proposed lifting endangered-species protections and invalidating the federal mandate to restore the San Joaquin River, so that pumping from the Delta to the Central Valley could be increased. In March, Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer sought more “flexibility” to transfer water from wetter northern regions to the south’s water-starved farms and cities, and to expand Shasta Lake, California’s largest reservoir, for storing more water. Just last week, five Central Valley water agencies announced their own audacious plan to overcome the drought: Fill the California Aqueduct with groundwater, and reverse its normal flow along one roughly 50-mile section in order to deliver moisture to the valley’s bone-dry western edge.

In California, the worst political sin during times of extreme aridness is the appearance of idleness. However, while politicians maneuver for temporary engineering fixes and regulatory rollbacks, other Westerners argue that the old solutions to water scarcity won’t end the current crisis, or protect us from future ones.

Water expert Peter Gleick says California and the West have reached “peak water,” with more water promised to farms and cities than mountains and rivers can provide. Worse, the region could fall into a “megadrought,” lasting decades or centuries. Bigger reservoirs and new wells will bring no relief without an adequate water supply. This raises the question: Will California take realistic measures to deal with its water crisis, or succumb to political inertia and lack of rain?

The last decade’s unrelenting droughts have forced Westerners to re-evaluate the definition of a “normal” water supply. B. Lynn Ingram, a University of California earth-science professor and author of The West Without Water, didn’t have to look far to find major periods of aridity in the past. There was the 1930s Dust Bowl, and the 1976 to ’77 drought, known in California as the “year of no rain.” And yet, as economically and socially damaging as these events were, we have not witnessed the worst possible extremes—not by a long shot, says Ingram. The mid-Holocene drought, for example, persisted for 1,500 years, forcing vast migrations of Native peoples.

Add climate change to the risk of natural megadrought, and the future looks even bleaker. “The data shows that there are certainly periods of dryness that were longer and more intense than what we have in our 100 years of records,” says Elissa Lynn, program manager of the Climate Change Program at California’s Department of Water Resources. “The problem is that today, it’s hotter than it was in those periods—and that will exacerbate any drought problems we have.”

Lynn points out that the state’s snowpack, the source of about one-third of its water, is expected to decline by 48 to 65 percent this century. It has already dropped by 10 percent over 20 years. In early May, the water stored in remaining snowpack was just 18 percent of average. “We have to start making plans for its loss,” Lynn says.

The White House’s National Climate Assessment, released in May, reinforces that mandate. According to the report, temperature increases resulting from carbon pollution have played a large role in the snowline’s rapid retreat. Rising temperatures and shrinking water supplies are a double blow for farms: “The combination of a longer frost-free season, less frequent cold air outbreaks, and more frequent heat waves … increases agricultural water consumption,” the report says. “This combination of climate changes is projected to continue and intensify.”

Ingram says California and most of the West have entered an era in which water shortages can’t be solved through brute-force engineering. “We need to acknowledge how unreliable and uncertain our water supply is. It looks variable over a century. But if you go back in time, it’s even more variable. And that’s a little scary,” she says. “You can build bigger reservoirs, but if we’re heading into a drier period, you’re not going to have the water to fill them.”

She has some practical advice: “We need to be thinking about local efficiency—the use of wastewater-recycling and rainwater-harvesting,” she says. And in agricultural regions where the bulk of the state’s water is consumed, efficiency- and groundwater-monitoring must be priorities. (California doesn’t regulate groundwater-pumping, and the more aquifers are depleted, the less they can be leaned on during future droughts.)

Lynn of the Department of Water Resources agrees, pointing out that reduced snowpack and earlier snowmelt will force water managers to take a “portfolio” approach—diversifying water supplies, increasing water conservation and recycling, and devising new storage methods, like banking water in aquifers in wet years, rather than in reservoirs.

The drought currently ravaging California is, indeed, partly “man-made.” But those responsible for “making” the drought are not politicians or regulators with soft spots for endangered fish. This drought, while natural in some sense, has likely been intensified by anyone who puts gasoline in a car, flips a light switch powered by coal- or gas-burning power plants—or turns on a faucet.

In California, an estimated one-fifth of overall energy is expended moving water to places it doesn’t naturally flow. To a greater or lesser extent, we are all to blame.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

If wine grapes made noise, Mourvèdre would hum low and long, like a foghorn thrumming out a warning in the dark, thick stratus. Perhaps a melodic tune would emerge—something a stand-up gal could capture with the strings of her bass.

Thum-bum-ba-dum, hum-ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum.

If grapes had personalities, Mourvèdre would be the brooding dude standing on the party’s outer ring like a non-sequitur, quoting Sartre and the obvious. “Consciousness is prior to nothingness and ‘is derived’ from being,” he’d say. “Weather forecast for tonight: Dark.”

Mourvèdre captures my imagination, and inspires the notes of black and blue paint that are making a muddy glum on my canvas.

I’m drinking and painting—or at least using assorted brushes to glop oil pigment on stretched white fabric. I’m brandishing the artistic confidence of a 4-year-old not yet ruined by school.

A friend is staying at my place, and we are drinking and painting for fun and obviously not profit. The wine is Twisted Oak’s 2010 River of Skulls, a Mourvèdre from Dalton Vineyards, Angels Camp, blended with nothing. The canvasses are 14 by 18 inches.

Billie Holiday’s voice crackles from a vinyl album.

My friend expresses concern about working with oil paints. She hasn’t done it since childhood. The canvas is so big, she says. So much space with which to work.

I proffer my own lack of expectations as an assurance: Just slather some paint on the pale expanse and reduce its blankness. Replace fear with joy, nothingness with being. Sometimes, a person should think long and hard about choices. Other times, hell, we’re just playing, pretending we can make art. Because we can. Because it’s winter, and we went out on the town last night.

Later, we can watch Netflix.

I keep our glasses filled. The wine is ruddy red, dirty plum. An unblended Mourvèdre wine is a rare treat, if you like the grape.

I love the grape, a Rhone varietal from France most often used in blending with Grenache and Syrah. It’s mixed with these grapes so often that the blend has its own acronym, GSM. About 900 acres of Mourvèdre was grown in California in 2012, a drop in the bottle compared with 80,000 acres of cabernet sauvignon. The numbers are from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has fun charts you can read here. You won’t actually see Mourvèdre on the list, because it’s identified as Mataró and also known as Monastrell.

Confusing, yes. But the grape is called Mourvèdre on my bottle, so I’m going with that.

Some winemakers won’t make a 100 percent Mourvèdre, because the grape oxidizes easily and can attract a buildup of the kind of yeast that gives wine an earthy funk. Now I’m all for a little earthy funk, but I don’t like to feel like I’m drinking wine straight from the compost pile. “Worm castings” is how my friend aptly describes this when she gets a nose full of it at one winery’s tasting room or another.

She likes to pretend she knows nothing about wine. It’s a ruse.

The River of Skulls has the tiniest smidgen of funk, just enough to accent those dark, rich fruits that I love so very much. Then there’s silky spice and a gruff, lingering vanilla finish. It’s a perfect bottle of wine.

Did I mention the label is a red skull?

The wine’s name comes from Spanish Lt. Gabriel Moraga’s discovery in the early 1800s of a Central Valley river filled with, you got it, human skulls. “Perhaps an ancient battle. Or perhaps a really great party gone horribly wrong,” suggests text on the back of the bottle.

I bought the River of Skulls in the Sierra foothills just after Thanksgiving, during my Christmas-present wine tasting adventure with my husband, Dave. Mourvèdre was on our holiday wish list. A couple of years ago, I ordered a glass of Vina Moda’s 2008 Mourvèdre at a restaurant and wanted more, more. Dave and I went to the tasting room and bought two bottles. We drank them both in 2012 and decided that this wine was one of the best we’d tasted that year. Why, oh why, didn’t we buy three bottles?

No problem. We thought we could drive back to the Sierra foothills and procure additional deliciousness. We attempted this for my birthday last March. Sadly, when we went to Vina Moda, the Mourvèdre was gone. Sold out. Owner and genius winemaker Nathan Vader suggested a couple of stores and restaurants that might still have bottles. We spent a good part of a day on a futile odyssey in search of the 2008 Mourvèdre. No luck.

So when we returned after Thanksgiving and tasted Vina Moda’s 2009 Mourvèdre, we bought a few bottles and put them in safe places. The winery describes its Mourvèdre like this: “She is a lithe and mysterious spider. Shining mirrors of geometrical balance and perfection. Dangerous? Possibly. Irresistibly alluring? Absolutely. Climb into her web, we dare you …”

Dare taken.

Vader made 123 cases. When he runs out, don’t look at us.

I bought only one River of Skulls on this post-Thanksgiving trip. I'll miss it when it's gone, a moment that's fast approaching.

Billie Holiday is singing: “The way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea.” And my friend is singing along: “… They can’t take that away from me.”

We’re finishing up the bottle and the better part of two paintings. Mine loosely depicts a bracket fungus on the end of a log, but could also be read as a gelatinous Casper the ghost floating through swirls of grubby ectoplasm. The clean geometric lines of my friend’s landscape—bright rolling grasses and the clean angles of a far-off barn—provide an intriguing contrast.

We put the art in a closet to dry, sip the last of the Mourvèdre, and watch the “Blood Donut” episode of Orange Is the New Black.

Art plus wine—that’s easy living.

Published in Wine

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