California’s Relentless Droughts Strain Farming Towns

Sandra Chavez was 13 years old when her family’s well went dry in 2014, two years into California’s last major drought. Their tap had stopped running a few times before, but the water always returned the same day, so they didn’t think it was a big deal. This time was different.

“We didn’t have water in our house for eight months,” said Chavez, now 20 and a college student. “We had to get tanks of water, fill them up, haul them over in my dad’s truck and fill up buckets of water that we’d have to heat up if we wanted to use it to bathe.”

Chavez’s family lives on a small ranch on the outskirts of Porterville in the San Joaquin Valley’s Tulare County, the nation’s top dairy producer. When they tried to get someone to service their well, they learned that there was a waiting list of one to two years, because so many had the same problem. Luckily, her dad found a friend of a friend who digs wells and could help them sooner. But the family had to take out a loan to pay for the work.

There is no guarantee that the same thing won’t happen again—to the Chavez family  and to tens of thousands of others—as California’s latest drought emergency drags on.

On May 10, after two dry winters in a row, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared the second drought emergency in less than a month. The declaration now covers 41 counties, from the Oregon border to the southern Central Valley, which produces more than 250 crops, worth $17 billion a year, and accounts for roughly three-quarters of the state’s irrigated land.  

Exceptionally warm temperatures in April and early May distinguished “this critically dry year” from all others on California record, the governor’s office said. High temperatures accelerated snowmelt in watersheds that feed California’s major reservoirs, while the bone-dry ground sucked up meltwater that normally rejuvenates rivers and streams.

To mitigate severe drought impacts, the governor authorized state officials to direct water flows where they’re needed most. But some observers worry that the drought will aggravate long standing inequities in access to the state’s dwindling water supplies.

“The drought is absolutely going to exacerbate existing disparities in a number of ways,” said Jonathan London, associate professor of human ecology and faculty director of the Center for Regional Change at the University of California, Davis.

During the last drought, California farmers lost about 30 percent of their surface water allocations, which they replaced largely by pumping groundwater.  They are likely to do the same thing this time around.

“That’s going to lead potentially to dry wells for low-income people who can’t afford to dig deeper wells,” London said. “It will also potentially lead to toxic groundwater plumes spreading through the valley that could affect people with shallow wells and don’t have a community water system to provide safe drinking water.”

Millions of Central Valley residents get their drinking water from wells fed by the same underground aquifers that supply the region’s farms. Aquifers in the Tulare Basin,  where Chavez and her family live, have sunk to precariously low levels. That’s because farmers extracted water with little oversight from the early 1900s through 2014, when the state passed a sustainable groundwater management law. By then, however, they had pumped, on average, hundreds of billions of gallons a year more than could be replaced by rainfall and other sources.

John Guthrie, 52, president of the Tulare County Farm Bureau and owner of a cattle ranch and farm that has been in his family for 150 years, pumps water from a 3000 gallon cistern into a water trailer to haul back to his ranch's headquarters in southeast Tulare County on Thursday, April 22, 2021 in Porterville, California. Credit: Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
John Guthrie, 52, president of the Tulare County Farm Bureau and owner of a cattle ranch and farm that has been in his family for 150 years, pumps water from a 3000 gallon cistern into a water trailer to haul back to his ranch’s headquarters in southeast Tulare County on Thursday, April 22, 2021 in Porterville, California. Credit: Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

As a result, more than 2,000 wells went dry in the San Joaquin Valley during the historic drought that lingered from 2012 to 2016. But as many as 65,000 people in the region could lose their access to drinking water because their wells are too shallow to reach the dropping groundwater levels, according to a 2020 report from London’s Center for Regional Change.

The valley is one of the poorest regions in the country, “poorer than Appalachia,” London said. And many of those at-risk wells serve mostly people of color, living in unincorporated communities that lie beyond city limits and lack access to essential municipal services, including adequate sewers and safe drinking water.

Exposing Historical Inequities

In 2012, California became the first state in the country to recognize access to safe, affordable drinking water as a human right. Yet the historic 2012-2016 drought, which one study concluded was the worst California drought in more than a millennium, revealed disparities not only in who gets the state’s increasingly precious water supplies but in who receives water that’s fit to drink. 

During the summer of 2014—soon after the Chavez family lost their water in Porterville—some 300 wells went dry in the adjacent town of East Porterville, one of the largest unincorporated disadvantaged communities in the San Joaquin Valley.

By the time the drought ended in 2016, about 1,600 domestic wells experienced shortages in Tulare County, according to a 2018 report from the Center for Regional Change. Close to a third of those wells supplied people in East Porterville, where 79 percent of residents are Latino and the poverty rate is more than three times the national rate—in one of the richest agricultural regions in the nation.

Other wells were contaminated with nitrates from widespread use of commercial fertilizers and manure, which Tulare County growers applied to nearly 600,000 acres in 2017, according to the latest statistics available.

A year after the Chavez family got their well working again, they learned that the water had four times the level of nitrates considered safe. “I had been drinking that water since I was three,” Sandra Chavez said.

Now, with the help of the Community Water Center, a nonprofit based in the valley, the Chavez family gets five-to-six five-gallon jugs of water delivered to their home through a combination of state programs and nonprofit organizations. Chavez said she’s grateful for the support, but that it’s not enough for the household, which includes seven foster children her parents care for.

California officials have long recognized that nitrate groundwater contamination is widespread. The state Legislature first addressed the issue in 2008, when it asked researchers at the University of California, Davis, to investigate the causes, to “ensure the provision of safe drinking water to all communities.” 

The researchers determined that 96 percent of nitrate groundwater pollution came from fertilizers and manure applied to crops, and that it contaminated the drinking water of more than a quarter of a million people in the Tulare Lake Basin and the Salinas Valley, where most of the nation’s lettuce is grown. And a 2011 study showed that low-income, predominantly Latino communities in the San Joaquin Valley faced the highest risks of receiving that water.

Nitrates cause a life-threatening condition called methemoglobinemia, better known as blue baby syndrome, which blocks oxygen flow in blood. Mounting evidence also links high nitrate exposure to colorectal cancer, thyroid disease and birth defects of the brain and spinal cord. 

Two years ago, the state created the Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience (SAFER) program, which has provided bottled water to the Chavez family and others throughout the valley. But it will take years to build the infrastructure needed to connect isolated farming communities to municipal water supplies in cities.

Until then, people who rely on wells, or who live in unincorporated towns that lack the customer base to afford effective water treatment, must still resort to bottled water. And if they don’t know the water’s contaminated, as Chavez didn’t for years, they must also bear the health costs of drinking unsafe water. 

Conflicting Narratives

Climate change is already making droughts worse and the state’s winter rainy season shorter and more erratic.

Understanding how different people experience vulnerability to drought is critical to ensuring that water policies address historical and current social and environmental inequities. Toward that end, researcher Christina Greene interviewed farmers, farmworkers and other rural residents in the San Joaquin Valley about their perceptions of the 2012-2016 drought.

Most people viewed the drought as a result of human actions, said Greene, assistant research scientist at the University of Arizona’s Climate Assessment for the Southwest. But they weren’t referring to human-caused climate change.

“By far the dominant discourse is that the drought is because of water regulation,” she said, especially regulations aimed at reducing agricultural diversions to help the state’s threatened smelt and salmon. Several people blamed the drought on environmentalists and the Endangered Species Act. “Drought started in 2008, when the courts ruled in favor of the fish,” a social worker told Greene.

A crop of trees in the early budding stages are watered in Bakersfield, California, on Tuesday, April 6, 2021. California, known for its water-intense almond production, is facing its third driest year on record. Credit: Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A crop of trees in the early budding stages are watered in Bakersfield, California, on Tuesday, April 6, 2021. California, known for its water-intense almond production, is facing its third driest year on record. Credit: Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Greene heard the same perspective during random conversations in stores. “There’s also a lot of money going into propagating that narrative,” she said, referring to billboards throughout the valley blaming Congress for the “dust bowl” and “flawed laws” like the ESA.

Such attitudes are understandable, Greene said. “Their livelihood is completely intertwined with the success of these farms.”

But, in contrast to what many people told Greene, recent research puts the lie to the notion that either the state’s native fish or water regulations created the drought. 

Last year researchers at Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley, where the nation’s billionaire tech titans live an hour south of San Francisco, published an analysis of the relative impacts of extreme drought on water allocations from the Tuolumne River, which originates in the Sierra Nevada. They tracked allocations during periods of normal water supply and moderate and severe drought to the San Francisco Bay Area (which is fed by the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir that dams the river) and to agricultural regions in the southern Central Valley, which includes prime habitat for Chinook salmon, listed as a species of concern under the ESA. 

The study results, published in the Journal of Hydrology X, revealed profound differences in how supplies were allocated from 2008 to 2018. 

Severe drought had no effect on water flows to affluent Bay Area users. By contrast, supplies to less well-off agricultural and urban users in the valley were curtailed by about 30 percent, while flows to the San Joaquin River, which are critical for salmon survival, were reduced by 85 to 90 percent. 

“We were transporting some of the best water in the world, from the Sierras and Hetch Hetchy, right through the farming communities,” said Iris Stewart-Frey, an associate professor of environmental studies and sciences at Santa Clara University who led the study. Many of those communities have disproportionate rates of poverty and lack access to safe, clean water, she said.

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Only one of the three Chinook salmon runs that the Tuolumne watershed once supported remains, yet the allocation of water during the drought “starved” the river. Not surprisingly, the Chinook population crashed during severe drought, which Stewart-Frey linked to “exceedingly low flows” and warmer shallow waters. The salmon population has not recovered.

“We’ve had tremendous increasing demand with the growth of human populations and in agriculture and industries in California,” she said. “And in the process, we’ve dug into our water savings accounts.”

Now, after decades of overdrafts, the state contends with increasing water scarcity, even without drought.

“We have to face the reality in California that the people who have been overdrawing on the water resources will need to step back,” Stewart-Frey said.

And no silver bullet will solve the water crisis. “To fix this, everybody needs to be doing their share,” she said.

For Stewart-Frey, that means working toward water-wise agriculture, building wastewater recycling plants and convincing urban users with free-flowing taps to stop wasting water.

Major changes will require mustering the elusive political will to adopt approaches that reallocate water and resources to disadvantaged communities and neglected habitat, she said. “It might be that we need a few more droughts to get there.”

Toward a More Just Future

Last week Gov. Newsom proposed a $5 billion drought-relief package that earmarked $1.3 billion for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, “with a focus on small and disadvantaged communities.”

London, of UC Davis, sees the move as a “real victory” for water justice advocates, who he said have the ear of the governor and key leaders in state water agencies. That’s led to a huge shift in state policy over the last five years to address the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.

“The devil is in the details to see if the aid does in fact get to the most disadvantaged communities,” he said. But the recent changes give him reason to be hopeful.

The big question is whether the investment will be enough to sustain these communities over time, London said. “We could be in for a long period here,” he said, referring to the drought.

Critical to any long-term solution, London and others said, is ensuring that affected communities have a seat at the table.

That’s how local leaders, working with the Community Water Center and other regional water justice groups, helped many East Porterville residents enter agreements with the city of Porterville to receive water service. “It’s a success story,” London said. 

“The state did come through to provide drought aid at first, and then the city agreed to extend its service, which is not the case in a lot of other places in the valley.”

The drought really just highlighted inequities that have been there all along, said Greene, who heard heartrending stories from affected residents in her research. “We need long-term solutions about how the region wants to look in the future, and that has to come from people who live there.”

And that means getting people from the community, beyond representatives of agriculture, to serve on the water boards that govern how the water is used, she said.

Sandra Chavez agrees. That’s why she serves as an advisor to the SAFER drinking water program. “My dad and I are really into this issue,” she said, noting that her father tries to keep up with anything to do with water in California.

“But there’s a lot of families around me that don’t even know that this is an issue or that they could possibly be drinking contaminated water,” she said. “They think, ‘Well I left my country to come to the U.S. to have a better life.’ They can’t believe this is happening here.”

And, Chavez said, it shouldn’t be happening. “We didn’t contaminate our own water. Therefore, it shouldn’t be on us to fix an issue that some of us may not even know about.”

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