Californians scramble for fresh water as taps, wells run dry

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/california-farmers-scramble-for-fresh-water-as-taps-wells-run-dry

The severe drought across the Western U.S. is already causing long term problems, exacerbated by the warming atmosphere driven by climate change. As William Brangham reports from California’s San Joaquin Valley, the demand for water has threatened the drinking supply for hundreds of thousands of rural residents — including the farmers who grow a significant part of the country’s food supply.
Read the Full Transcript
William Brangham:
As we have been hearing, the severe drought across the West is causing many problems.
My colleagues and I recently went to the San Joaquin Valley in California, where this drought is threatening the drinking supply for thousands of rural residents, as well as the livelihoods for the farmers who grow a significant source of this country’s food supply.
How much land is this?
On a dusty road in Madera, California, the temperatures will climb over 100 degrees today. Jaime Rivera’s well has run dry.
Jaime Rivera (through translator):
It hasn’t worked for three weeks. And, really, it hasn’t worked for the last two years.
William Brangham:
Across this parched state, many people living in rural areas can’t connect to their local municipal water systems. They’re too far away or they can’t afford it, so they rely on their own private wells for water.
But now, in the home that Rivera and his wife have lived in for 20 years — it’s one they share with their daughter and their grandkids — nothing comes out of the tap.
Jaime Rivera (through translator):
Even though the house is fine, water is the thing that you need most. It’s indispensable for everything.
William Brangham:
Getting water is now a daily chore. They fill barrels and old ice tea bottles at their jobs or their friends’ places.
And so all the things that most Americans take for granted, flushing the toilet, drinking, showering, doing the dishes, requires this new routine.
Jaime Rivera (through translator):
We do all this so we don’t use too much water. This is the way we’re living.
William Brangham:
Amid this historic drought, the Riveras have turned to a local nonprofit for help.
Marliez Diaz:
They’re panicking. They have kids. They need to provide water to their family.
William Brangham:
Marliez Diaz works for Self-Help Enterprises. They set up a hot line for residents whose wells have run dry, and their phone has been ringing off the hook.
Marliez Diaz:
Imagine a day waking up, and you go to brush your teeth and there’s no water. What do you do? I don’t know. Maybe you have a gallon of water at your sink. And so you just have to conserve your water and brush your teeth with a cup. It’s like camping in your own home.
William Brangham:
But this drought isn’t just drying up small private wells.
This area, the San Joaquin Valley, is one of the most important agricultural regions in America. Farmers here produce a bounty of food. There are miles and miles of nut and fruit trees across the valley, and millions of beef and dairy cows.
Agriculture is an over $50 billion industry in California, and it’s a thirsty one, using roughly half the state’s total water supply.
Ellen Hanak:
And so all of that is affected by drought.
William Brangham:
Ellen Hanak heads the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California.
Ellen Hanak:
This is a region that has evolved with water scarcity. So, growers have moved more and more into crops that generate more dollars per gallon of water used, and that means, in that region, more tree crops, like almonds especially, but also vines and fruits.
But it puts them in between a rock and a hard place when you get into a really bad drought.
William Brangham:
In a good year, all the snow that falls in the Sierra Nevadas and the rains in this area would end up in canals like this. There are thousands of these all over this valley. And farmers use that water to irrigate their crops. But in a drought, like the one we’re in right now, farmers have to dig hundreds of feet down into the ground to find other water.
As more and more wells tap down into those underground aquifers, and pull more and more water out of the ground, this resource is threatened. For most of the state’s history, wells could draw an unlimited supply of water.
But, in 2014, the state passed a law to manage and, in some cases, restrict groundwater use. It hasn’t gone fully into effect, but farmers in the region are worried. Some estimates say the law could put a million acres of farmland out of production.
John Guthrie’s family has been farming and ranching in this area for 150 years. He has never seen rainfall levels this low. Given the drought and the looming water restrictions, he says some farmers are getting out.
John Guthrie:
It’s sure sad. They just don’t think they have enough water to farm what they have right now. It’s just a real tumultuous time right now.
William Brangham:
Has that feeling ever crossed your mind?
John Guthrie:
I can’t say it hasn’t crossed my mind, I don’t think I would ever act on it. Mother Nature’s our partner. So, adversity is just kind of part of your deal.
And we have been through a lot of previous challenges and stuff, and this just feels like another one of those. So…
William Brangham:
You think you’re going to weather this one?
John Guthrie:
Yes, we will, absolutely.
William Brangham:
Guthrie, like a lot of farmers here, thinks the solution lies in doing a better job of capturing excess water in wet years.
John Guthrie:
The way we get out of this and the way that our forefathers intended it to be was surface water storage, dams.William Brangham:
More dams along the rivers from north to south?
John Guthrie:
Yes, raise dams, build new dams, fix the infrastructure, the existing canals. The people of the state — or I should say the politicians — need to decide, where do they want their food to come from?
William Brangham:
But, for now, with climate change exacerbating this drought, Ellen Hanak says farmers and residents alike still have to draw from those same underground water sources. And that competition leaves some people dry.
In places that have a lot of agriculture and that also have a lot of small rural communities, you get this situation where the groundwater is really being taxed, and groundwater levels are falling, and the first wells to go dry are the shallow drinking water wells.
Cristobal Chavez’s house in Porterville, California, is surrounded by agriculture. His well went dry for six months in 2014. He paid $20,000 to dig it deeper, but then he discovered another problem that’s prevalent here, contamination.
Tests revealed his well had four times the safe limit of nitrates, a potentially harmful chemical found in fertilizers and manure.
But you have been drinking that water for years.
Cristobal Chavez:
Yes, that’s the problem, because nobody tells you. We were drinking the water for 11 years without noticing that the water is contaminated.
William Brangham:
So, you find out that your water is not safe to drink, what do you do? The very next day, what do you do?
Cristobal Chavez:
We start buying it from the store.
William Brangham:
But that’s expensive.
Cristobal Chavez:
Yes, it is expensive, but it’s more expensive if you get sick, you know?
William Brangham:
Right.
Cristobal Chavez:
It’s kind of hard, but I — we don’t got another place to go.
William Brangham:
Some studies have linked nitrates in drinking water to an increased risk of cancer. And last year, Cristobal’s wife, Norah (ph), was diagnosed with stomach cancer. But what caused it is unclear.
And there’s no fix for your for that water in the well? Like, the aquifer that your well goes down to, that’s full of nitrates, and there’s nothing they can do about that now?
Cristobal Chavez:
No, nothing.
William Brangham:
Back in Madera, Jaime Rivera does have a solution, albeit a temporary one. Self-Help Enterprises helped get him this huge tank. And for the next year, it’ll be filled weekly with fresh water.
For nearly four hours, crews work to unload the tank, connect its pipes to the house, and fill it with a couple thousand gallons of water. So, finally, after a long dry spell:
Jaime Rivera (through translator):
Now, yes, the water is here.
(LAUGHTER)
William Brangham:
And the first step for Rivera? Call his wife.
Jaime Rivera (through translator):
We have water now. Fresh water came out of the faucet.
Woman (through translator):
Wow. That’s great. Thank you. Now you have to do the dishes.
Jaime Rivera (through translator):
We will see if you cook tomorrow.
(LAUGHTER)
William Brangham:
Rivera hopes one day to eventually dig his well deeper, but, as this drought continues to worsen, it’s not clear even that solution will be enough.
For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m William Brangham in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

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