The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As it enters a third year, California’s drought is strangling the farming industry

A tractor tills a field between Firebaugh and Mendota, Calif., on Aug. 25, 2021. (John Brecher for The Washington Post)
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FIVE POINTS, Calif. — The school is disappearing.

Westside Elementary opened its doors nearly a century ago here in the San Joaquin Valley, among the most productive agricultural regions on earth. As recently as 1995, nearly 500 students filled its classrooms. Now 160 students attend and enrollment is falling fast.

This was where the children of farmworkers learned to read and write, often next to the children of the farm owners who employed their parents. But the farms are also vanishing, as hundreds of thousands of acres of rich soil are left unplanted each year.

The hard truth here, the one that fundamentally shapes the lives of those in the valley, is that water is disappearing. So is a way of life, a core of California economic culture, and a place that provides a nation struggling under the rising rate of inflation with a quarter of its food.

“This is getting progressively worse each year,” said Baldomero Hernandez, the principal of Westside Elementary, who has lived in this hot, hazy valley for more than six decades. “And it is all because of a lack of water.”

Severe heat and drought the hallmarks of a changing west

California’s drought is intensifying as it enters a third year, and along with much else here in the San Joaquin, the hope that a wet end to 2021 would bring more water has disappeared, too. The same sentiment holds across much of the parched American west.

After a rainy and snow-filled December, the state endured its driest start to a year in at least a century. The end-of-year storms that raised the level of state reservoirs and brought a bounty of essential snow to the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges are a distant memory.

A survey this month found that the year’s historically dry start has resulted in a snowpack more than 60 percent below average. Not a single major reservoir is filled to its average for this time of year. The one that serves the water district here, the nation’s largest by area, is less than half full as the state’s wet season ends this month.

Wind and wildfire have been more common than rain this year. Less than half an inch of rain fell one day last week on Sacramento, the capital 180 miles north of here through the valley, to break a record 66-day streak without precipitation during the winter months.

The whiplash has prompted the federal Central Valley Project, the vast Depression-era system of pumps, aqueducts and reservoirs that provides much of this region’s surface water, to declare a second straight year of no water deliveries. The announcement means farmers across the valley must rely on depleted groundwater supplies and what they have been able to store.

Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced an additional $22.8 million in aid for what his office called “an immediate drought emergency.” The state, too, announced earlier this year that it would provide only 15 percent of its scheduled water deliveries, which primarily serve residential customers in Southern California. On Friday, given the withering recent weather, state water officials cut deliveries to 5 percent.

About one-third of the drought relief money will go toward encouraging conservation efforts, which have proved unsuccessful so far. In recent weeks, hundreds of farmers and residents have gathered for drought “town halls,” mostly in the rural north, where the message has been to prepare for a planting season with the scant water on hand.

“There’s a basic question that we need to address and that is do we want to sustain irrigated agriculture in California?” said Tom Birmingham, general manager of Westlands Water District, which oversees federal water deliveries to more than 700 farms here, spread over 1,000 square miles.

“If the answer is yes, then we need to determine how we’re going to invest in the infrastructure we need and what policies need to be changed to preserve it,” he continued. “If the answer is no, then how are we going to deal with the socio-economic impacts of its elimination?”

Those consequences can already be seen in the heart of California’s nearly $50 billion annual agriculture industry, with implications for the nation’s food supply and the state’s long-term environmental health.

California’s Central Valley, which includes the San Joaquin, produces around 8 percent of the nation’s fruits, vegetables, dairy products and other food, as measured by value, according to the federal government.

That translates into roughly a quarter of the nation’s food, according to federal government statistics, and 40 percent of its fruits and vegetables. Farmers in the Westlands district produce nearly $2 billion worth of food and fiber crops annually.

But the scarcity of water and the now-exorbitant price for it have prompted many farmers to leave large tracts of land fallow, an alarming trend that is accelerating with each dry year.

According to a UC Merced study conducted for the state, California farmers left nearly 400,000 acres of agricultural land unplanted last year because of a lack of water. The result, the study found, was a direct economic cost to farmers of $1.1 billion and the loss of nearly 9,000 agricultural jobs.

Nearly all of the fallowed land is here in the Central Valley. Farmers in the Westlands district left 200,000 acres idle last year — an area almost five times the size of Washington, D.C. — and some say they expect to leave even more unplanted this year.

The environmental implications of the drought are also grave. In 2014, the state legislature passed a law that requires water districts to eliminate any “overdraft” in pumping — removing ground water faster than it can be replenished — within two decades of its passage.

Westlands water officials say groundwater within the district is being pumped today at almost twice the rate deemed sustainable. Hundreds of groundwater wells are running dry as the water table sinks with each dry year.

“We’re on a collision course with economics,” said Michael Wara, a senior research scholar at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment. “We’re going to end up fallowing millions of acres, so politically what does that look like? I think the decision is being made, although no one is making it, about the future of agriculture. And I think the answer is not what people want.”

The California conundrum

This is a state where nearly all the water comes from one end — the north — and the vast majority of the population lives in the other.

It is a dilemma of geography and planning that has shaped California’s politics for a century, inspired on-the-ground violence and pop-culture monuments such as “Chinatown,” and more recently placed environmentalists in conflict with farmers.

The state’s well-organized environmental lobby argues that farmers for too long have received too much of a scarce commodity, primarily at the expense of habitat essential to salmon, smelt and other wildlife.

California’s salmon are disappearing

In 1992, Congress passed the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, which requires that 800,000 acre-feet of water be used to protect fish and habitat annually. That amount is almost as much as Westlands’ annual federal allocation.

Farmers, some still old California families but increasingly large corporations, say such decisions, including many made at the state level, are killing the industry.

The surface water here is delivered first by the Sacramento River, its headwaters in the far north near Mount Shasta. From there it rushes south toward the capital and swerves slightly west for miles, until it joins the San Joaquin River to form a vast delta east of the San Francisco Bay.

The Central Valley Project then pumps the water south through 400 miles of aqueducts to eventually irrigate the almonds and pistachios, garlic and lettuce, and tomatoes and citrus in this valley and beyond. This is part of what Birmingham calls California’s “engineered ecosystem.”

What farmers want is a larger share of the water, as well as more dams and reservoirs built to conserve rainfall in wet years. They argue that California has plenty of water but public policy and plumbing have hampered the way it is managed and delivered.

They received some good news last week. On Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would loan $2.2 billion to help finance a federal reservoir north of Sacramento that has been envisioned for decades. That is roughly half the planning and construction costs of the Sites Reservoir, whose final approval, even with this essential financial boost, is still years away.

“It is challenging for an optimist like me who has deep ties to the community and great affection for it to see the stranglehold that state and federal regulators have on the key to our economy,” said Diane Sharp, the mayor of Hanford and a fifth-generation resident of the valley. “Many are upset by this. They believe they are losing control of a life they have had for generations.”

Sharp, 58, is upbeat and garrulous. Her father and grandfather worked in the valley as water-rights lawyers and she has lived on a farm. Her family business is commercial real estate, among other holdings.

But it is agriculture here that floats the economy, and in Hanford today that is mostly nuts, dairy, cherries, peaches and apricots. What has helped Hanford, with a population of 56,000, weather the decline in agriculture is an abundance of nearby jobs in several prisons.

“The pride factor is really important here,” Sharp said. “We are justifiably proud that we are known as a place that feeds the world. So when we hit these droughts, which are a function of how much rain we get but also of public policy, it is hard to see how we are able to produce as we have. Our ability is being restricted. It stinks.”

The state’s shifting climate — from cold to hot, wet to dry in rapid turns — also means there is simply less water here than there was decades ago. In the last water year, which runs from October through September, the quick turn in climate resulted in only 20 percent of snowmelt making it into aquifers. The rest evaporated.

“We’re seeing the effects of these very dry and warm temperatures that are driving this,” said Jeanine Jones, the drought manager for the California Department of Water Resources. “So far this water year we have been warm, but we haven’t been as dry, so fingers crossed we do better on runoff this winter. We’ll have to see how that happens.”

The end of something

This crossroads town is among a crescent of once-thriving, now-declining places west of Fresno, the state’s agricultural capital.

Once a primary destination for Latino immigrants, the area now has the air of resigned frustration that in many nearby communities has replaced abiding hope.

There is still evidence, though, of its spirit in an against-the-odds kind of way.

“The drought puts us on edge and we hope for rain,” said Jonathan Meza, a 30-year-old entrepreneur in Mendota, the self-proclaimed cantaloupe capital of the world. “And the rest of the world should be worried about what is happening here.”

Meza just opened Oasis, the town’s first carwash. Operating on 80 percent recycled water, Meza wants the five-month-old business to stand as evidence of hopeful investment in Mendota, a luxury in a dusty, threadbare place.

“This is a town of hard-working people who came here for the American Dream,” he said. “They will always adapt.”

Signs along the two-lane highways that crisscross the west valley create a sense of driving through an angry neighborhood email group.

“California is running on empty,” one sign at the crossroads in the center of Five Points reads. “Build Dams Now.”

Another: “Newsom: Stop Dumping Our Farm Water in the Ocean.”

Another: “Newsom: Stop Wasting Our Dam Water.”

Then there are the “For Sale” signs. “940 acres. Mature Pistachios,” a staked sign reads, pointing two miles down Mt. Whitney Ave.

Farming has always been a long-game business. The fat years help farmers survive the lean ones. But the changing environment has disrupted the balance.

Over the past 35 years, as the climate has shifted to one of extremes, federal water deliveries have averaged less than half their scheduled annual amount. The effect can be seen along Mt. Whitney Ave.

Mark Borba lives along the flat stretch of road in the town of Riverdale, past the empty big-top circus tent and service station selling nearly $6-a-gallon gasoline.

He is the fourth generation of his family to farm the land — in his case, 8,500 acres that he plants with almonds, garlic, tomatoes, lettuce and melons. He stages the crops carefully — garlic is harvested in May, when he needs to concentrate his water on almonds and other crops — to spread his supply out over the course of a year.

He has received no scheduled water deliveries from the Central Valley Project in four of the past 10 years.

Borba fallowed 1,800 acres of his land last year and will do the same this year. Water costs have jumped from $7.50 an acre-foot, when he took his first Central Valley Project water delivery in 1967, to $280 an acre-foot today.

But there will be no water deliveries this year anyway. So he will pump it from the ground, as will his neighbors.

“From that point, it has been a downward slide, partly because of the climate and partly because of regulation,” said Borba, a fit 71-year-old, referring to the advent of the three-decade-old Central Valley Project Improvement Act. “People are spending their equity now to buy water in hopes of keeping their investment alive.”

Cotton, sugar beets, melons and other row crops filled the valley when Borba’s family began farming it. Those are no longer cost effective, and the shift to more lucrative crops such as almonds and pistachios has remade his farm and the valley landscape, blooming snow white from the nut trees on a recent afternoon.

He was born here, grew up here and has worked this land ever since.

“You want to know the bad news? I’m the last,” said Borba, who recently put his farm up for sale after his 44-year-old son, Derek, told him he would not be running it and was considering a move out of state. Borba and his wife may follow, given that four grandkids would be heading out with his son.

“You know who I am talking to about this? Canadian pension funds, Wall Street hedge funds and big real estate investment firms,” Borba said. “They are saying this is an investment. But they are not talking about growing anything. Who will?”

There are no promises he can make. The fallowing means exodus.

“We’re just living this year by year,” said Hernandez, the elementary school principal. “People come to this place now and say it looks like the Third World. I see it as beautiful.”

Something beautiful

Hernandez moved into this valley with his parents in 1960. The family emigrated from Michoacan, Mexico, a common northern journey then and now. He was 5 years old.

“Back in the day, there was a ranch on every corner,” he said. “Now all these families that have been here since the 1920s are selling and moving simply because of the price of water.”

The school, tidy and chirping with kids scampering around a blacktop one recent morning, opened in 1926. Hernandez became its principal nearly three decades ago, and today everybody in the area knows “Baldo.”

At the time he took over here, thousands of seasonal workers would fill this side of the valley to pick lettuce, putting their kids in Hernandez’s care during long days in the fields.

The school’s enrollment was stable, although warning signs began to arise with the arrival of big corporate farms that seldom provide housing for workers. By 2010, the school still had 262 students, enough where some classes had more than 30 children in seats.

But in recent years of drought and uncertainty, the decline has been steeper, and as he seeks public support for a bond measure to finance a campus overhaul, his sales pitch amounts to “all your kids deserve a good education.”