The Wells are Running Dry

On Labor & Love
May 11, 2015 · 8 min read

Story by Brian Grace, Multimedia by Brandon Yadegari and Peter Latta

“No agua, no trabajo” — “No water, no work,” says Antonio Mendoza, a migrant worker living in the small unincorporated community of Cantua Creek, Calif. For the residents of this little neighborhood located west of Fresno and the many others like it dotting the Central Valley, the ongoing drought hits extremely close to home.

California is no stranger to droughts. California’s water supply is extremely vulnerable, with droughts stemming simply from an absence of winter precipitation. Essentially, a few storms determine whether a certain year is classified as wet or dry. For the past hundred years, annual statewide runoff has undergone ebbs and flows, resulting in times of water abundance and water scarcity. However, this current drought presents a particularly worrying situation for a few important reasons.

The state underwent a fairly severe drought from 2007 until 2009, prompting Gov. Jerry Brown to initiate the first ever statewide proclamation of emergency for a water crisis. After 2009, though, precipitation levels rose and the state of emergency ended. Things seemed to be improving until 2012, when precipitation levels fell drastically once again. In fact, according to the California Department of Water Resources, the period of time from 2012–2014 ranked as California’s driest consecutive three-year period on record.

In particular, 2013 brought near record-low precipitation levels, prompting Gov. Brown to convene a drought task force in December. By January 2014, Brown declared a state of emergency that ordered many state agencies to change policies while also calling for Californians to voluntarily reduce water shortage by 20 percent. Despite these efforts, the year ended up as one of the driest ever recorded in California. Much of California’s water is supplied by unstable groundwater sources, which are more heavily stressed during dry years. In 2014, this led to the failure of small water systems and dry private wells, on which many rural residents depend. To make things worse, the year also yielded the highest statewide average temperature on record. An extremely hot and dry 2014 led to water rationing and widespread fallowing of farmland.


With the start of 2015, the drought continued unabated. In March, Gov. Brown signed emergency legislation that allocates $1 billion towards funding for drought relief and critical infrastructure projects. Within a month, Brown announced controversial first-ever statewide mandatory water restrictions. The executive order mandates 25 percent reductions of water usage in cities and towns throughout the state. Agricultural water users, who produce 80 percent of the state’s total water footprint, are not included in this mandatory cutback. Brown’s argument for this exclusion is that the agricultural sector has already felt the drought’s effects disproportionately.

Agriculture is a huge industry in California. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, it is a $46.4 billion industry which creates more than $100 billion in economic activity. The industry provides food for all of America, growing large amounts of dairy, nuts, and vegetables. Obviously, large-scale agriculture consumes a particularly large amount of water, especially when growing water-intensive crops such as almonds. Thus, Brown’s exclusion of the agricultural sector from mandatory cutbacks upset many Californians.

Water scarcity has deeply impacted people like Antonio. A dusty town made up of small homes and a taco truck surrounded by enormous almond orchards, Cantua Creek is the poster child for farmworker woes. As an unincorporated area, it lacks local governance and the residents have no voice in their water struggle.

This is because the state of California is divided into water districts. Cantua Creek is located within the Westlands Water District, where you need to own at least one acre to vote on measures. Furthermore, the district’s rules stipulate that a vote’s power is directly correlated to the amount of acreage owned by that person meaning someone who owns more land has more votes. This puts an extraordinary amount of power in the hands of large landowners and spells bad news for historically neglected communities.

Antonio Mendoza, a farmworker living in Cantua Creek, watches as water is delivered to the fields around him but not to his community.

Janaki Jagannath is a community legal worker for the California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) in Fresno who describes the system as feudalistic, leaving the residents of Cantua Creek powerless. “These are people who can’t vote on their water rights,” she said. “They can’t vote on whether they have a water treatment facility or they can’t vote on, if they wanted to, building a pipeline that’d pipe them some of this water.” This water she is referring to is the California aqueduct, which is less than two miles away.

So, instead, the people of Cantua Creek are forced to drive 20 minutes to buy bottled water to drink. Meanwhile, they bathe, wash their dishes, and do their laundry in contaminated water. The CRLA is working to fix this through their Community Equity Initiative, which works with community leaders to raise awareness while also advocating for increased investment in these communities. Although there are grant programs from the United States Department of Agriculture and nonprofits such as Self Help Enterprises who work to help those disproportionately affected by the drought, they are far from cohesive solutions.

These problems are not confined simply to Cantua Creek. About 50 miles southeast, Stratford looks like a ghost town with abandoned buildings lining its main street. The water here is so dirty it comes out of the tap brown. “You can see that it has a lot of stuff in it,” said Jauzlynn McCormick, who lives in the only two-story house in town with her grandparents. “When we take showers, it has to be cut to like five minutes because your eyes will get super bloodshot red,” she said. “Your throat starts burning to where you can’t even breathe, and then your nose just constantly is running”.

Ramon Chavez works on a mural that will read “United We Stand, Divided We Fall” at the community’s basketball court.

“We’re survivors out here…we’re not living, we’re surviving.”

Ramon Chavez, Stratford, CA.

One ongoing initiative combatting water shortages is the digging of new private wells. However, there is currently about a one year gap between the time someone requests a new well and when it may be drilled. This is because there are just simply not enough well drillers, according to Jagannath. The well drillers that are in business, furthermore, make more money off the large farms and prioritize drilling those wells. This leaves communities like Cantua Creek, which often depend on private wells, out of luck.

To add to their woes, prices for the water these communities do receive have skyrocketed. Mendoza explained how rising water prices in Cantua Creek have hit residents particularly hard. Many in the community have been forced to choose between buying water and buying food at some point and, in this situation, water has to win out. “We can’t have farmworker communities if our agricultural system is not giving back to them,” Jagannath explained. “If it’s not sustaining people then what’s the point?”

Farm laborers are not the only ones struggling. Owners of small farms have been hard hit as well. Mike Naylor grows organic, artisanal peaches and nectarines on a lush 95-acre farm doubling as a bed-and-breakfast southeast of Fresno. As he views it, “who has the most money wins, especially when it comes to groundwater”. The large agricultural companies, therefore, get priority access to water because they have the ability to pay a lot of money. This leaves smaller farms no options if their wells run dry.

I feel for the Westside but I don’t feel sorry for the almond growers… By human nature, we’re greedy little suckers.

Mike Naylor, Dinuba, CA

Big agricultural companies are able to survive through droughts by scaling down their operations and leaving some land fallowed. Small farmers, however, say they have a much harder time. When small farms scale down, often their operations are no longer profitable and they end up shutting down. Samuel Sandoval, a professor at UC Davis and a specialist in water resources management, was complimentary of Gov. Brown’s new water policy. He said, “The policy addresses problems, but unfortunately some small farmers will still have a hard time.” In times of water shortage, some small farms who have little surplus will inevitably go out of business.

Sandoval said he believes education is necessary to make Californians care about water supplies. He travels around the state, giving hydrology seminars in both English and Spanish to farmworkers and farm owners. He feels that it is extremely important for farmers to know how groundwater works. Sandoval recommended creating a model with an ant farm to show how water moves underground and to convey how taking water from one aquifer affects the whole system.

Education, he hopes, can make Californians rethink the way they use water. He wants to explain how the water system works in order to show farmers that planting new orchards without adjusting water use will increase stress on the overall system. Rather, he wants those who plant new orchards to fallow certain fields or invest in efficient irrigation so they do not increase water demand.

To really make a change, though, Sandoval thinks that the drought has to become personal to most of the population. The drought affects everyone, not just those who work in agriculture. Yet many Californians continue to water their lawns during the day or take 20 minute showers. Everyone needs to come together to collectively reduce the amount of water wasted.

When looking at the future, Sandoval hopes that this drought can have a positive outcome. He wants people to rethink the way they use water and become more aware of the impact each individual has on our water system. If not, more rough times are ahead for California.