PORTERVILLE, Calif. — Their two peach trees had turned brittle in the heat, their neighborhood pond had vanished into cracked dirt and now their stainless-steel faucet was spitting out hot air. “That’s it. We’re dry,” Miguel Gamboa said during the second week of July, and so he went off to look for water.
He had a container in the bed of his truck from the dairy where he worked, a 275-gallon tank that had been used to treat milk with chemical preservatives. Now he rinsed it with bleach and drove out of the suburbs, passing rows of tract houses with yellowed front lawns. He went to see a friend who still had a little water left in his well, and the friend offered Gamboa his hose. They stood together and watched the tank begin to fill with water that looked hazy and light brown.
“You really want this?” the friend asked. “It doesn’t look that safe.”
“It’s good for now,” Gamboa said. “We have to take what we can get.”
For a few days now, they had been without running water in the fifth year of a California drought that had finally come to them. First it had devastated the orchards where Gamboa and his wife had once picked grapes. Then it drained the rivers where they had fished and the shallow wells in rural migrant communities. All the while, Gamboa and his wife had donated a little of their hourly earnings to relief efforts in the San Joaquin Valley and offered to share their own water supply with friends who had run out, not imagining the worst consequences of a drought could reach them here, down the road from a Starbucks, in a remodeled house surrounded by gurgling birdbaths and towering oaks.
Their ranch-style home had three bedrooms on half an acre, and they had bought it for $250,000 in January with all of their savings. It had a large back yard and a playroom for their four children. It had a well dug to 80 feet, which the inspector had assured them was deep enough. “Come live your California dream in this cute ranchette!” the real estate listing had read, but now the ranchette was another California house with no running water. In a county where half of all residents depend on well water, their well was the 1,352nd to go dry.
Gamboa, 37, drove home with the tank of murky water. His wife, Paula Garcia, helped him transfer it into buckets and pots they could carry into the house. “We can’t drink this stuff,” Gamboa told her, and he explained that the water would allow them to fill their toilets, wash dishes and rinse off with a bucket in the shower that no longer worked. They couldn’t use it for cooking, he said, but they could use it to clean the kitchen, care for their pets and sustain what little was left of their yard.
“How long will this last us?” asked Garcia, 33, pointing at the tank. “It looks like a lot.”
“You’d be surprised,” Gamboa said. “Probably a day. Maybe two.”
“And then what?” his wife asked. They stood together against his truck and watched as a neighbor with a deeper well came outside to move his sprinkler to the other side of his lawn.
“Then we hope for rain.”
It was rain and good soil that had first brought their families to the San Joaquin Valley, the country’s top agricultural producer. Garcia’s parents had emigrated from Mexico in the 1970s to pick oranges, and Garcia and Gamboa had both spent their teens and 20s picking in the fields. They had filled boxes of grapes for 52 cents per box until Garcia got a job managing an apartment building and Gamboa found work at the dairy. He made $10 an hour; she earned $13. They saved for seven years until they could afford to buy the ranchette — “a high-class place,” Garcia’s mother had called it — where now they went into their crown-molded bathroom carrying contaminated water in a bucket that had once been used to bring aspirin to the cows at Gamboa’s dairy.
It took three gallons of water in that bucket to flush their dry toilet. They poured the water into the bowl from shoulder height, slowly at first and then all at once to make the toilet flush.
It took each of them at least nine gallons in the bucket to take a makeshift sponge bath.
It required 40 gallons to wash a load of laundry, according to the California Department of Water Resources. It took 11 to run the dishwasher, one to wash their hands, one to brush their teeth, four to clean the kitchen and a minimum of 60 each day to care for their dog, their yard and their plants. Garcia had gone to Sam’s Club and spent $180 on two-gallon jugs of water to use for cooking and drinking, and on her way out of the store a volunteer had given her a pamphlet about conservation strategies during droughts. “The average Californian uses 100 gallons of water each day,” it read.
“That means we have enough for about 10 hours,” she said. “Water, water, water, water. I never thought about it before. Now I don’t think about anything else.”
She called the county’s emergency number to ask for help, and a manager said the only permanent solution was to build a new well on her property to a depth of 350 feet. She already knew from other friends without water that constructing a new well would cost about $40,000, which they didn’t have. So she sent her two oldest children, ages 14 and 8, to stay overnight with their grandparents, where they could shower. She bought hand sanitizer and disposable plates. Gamboa started pulling up the flowerbeds in their front lawn.
“This was going to be such a great yard,” Garcia said, watching him.
“Flowers, peach trees, watermelons, plums, avocados,” he said.
“Big family barbecues,” she said. “Now there’s no way I’m letting anybody come over. It’s humiliating. It’s like being campesinos back in Mexico. Maybe we should sell the house.”
“Who’s going to buy a house without water?” he asked.
“Then maybe we should just leave for a while, try someplace else.”
“With what money? And what jobs? Where are we going to go?”
The migratory birds had gone to wetlands further south. Salmon were dying in the nearby Sacramento River and delta smelt had become nearly extinct. After five years of extreme drought, nearly everything in the Central Valley was in the process of being reformed or displaced: snowpack disappearing in the High Sierras; wildfires engulfing acres of prairie grass; a ground level that had sunk by a foot as the water table underneath was sucked away; the glassy surface of Lake Success receding to reveal a series of parched archipelagos. Coyotes and black bears had started coming down from the burnt foothills and into the Central Valley, breaking into back yards in a desperate search for food and water.
And lately, people were moving, leaving behind razed orange groves and abandoned packing houses to search for new work. Nearly 15,000 people had lost jobs in the Central Valley, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Almost $2 billion in revenue had vanished. On Garcia and Gamboa’s street, where four of the 11 houses had no running water, one neighbor already had moved to Colorado. Another had installed a lockbox on his hose to safeguard what little water he had left.
Aid workers had built rustic community showers at a nearby church, and teenagers drove through neighborhoods selling bottled water out of their pick-up trucks. The county had installed more than 100 tanks where residents could fill up pots, crates and water basins, but the lines could be long, the hours were limited and a sign on each county tank warned that the water was not safe to drink. Some schools had shut off their water fountains, and one nearby community was hoping to preserve its water supply by passing a law limiting the number of people who could live in each house.
“Everybody is going through this,” Gamboa said now. “Droughts end. The water comes back. What else can we do but wait? Our lives are here.”
“Maybe,” Garcia said. She looked over at their plastic tank. They were down to 150 gallons of hazy brown water. “But if everybody starts to leave, I don’t want to be the last one left.”
She awoke the next morning and took a sponge bath with cold water from the bucket. She washed Gamboa’s work clothes, cooked breakfast and cleaned the kitchen.
Now they had 100 gallons of water left in the tank. Ninety. Seventy-five.
“Every minute I’m in this house, we’re using up water we don’t have,” she said, so she packed up her two youngest children, ages 2 and 4, and drove
10 miles north to see her parents.
They still lived in the house where Garcia had spent most of her childhood, a three-acre farm where they had grown most of what they ate. She had moved with her parents to Colorado once as a teenager, but the dry air burned in her throat; after two cold winters, the family came back home. “Life is Best is California!” read one sticker on her car, but now that car was covered in the soot and pollutants that thrive during a drought. Her parents had let parts of their garden go to seed to save water, and their well was also nearing its end. Gamboa had brought them one of the dairy’s 275-gallon crates, just in case.
Garcia took a short shower, picked up her two oldest children and took everyone to a nearby laundromat. She bought candy from a vending machine and found the biggest washer to start her first load. The place was crowded, and Garcia found a seat near the entrance to share with her oldest son. She watched the machine drain and fill, drain and fill.
“Isn’t it kind of amazing?” she said. “All that water spinning in there, just to wash some clothes.”
“This is so boring,” her son said.
“That’s probably 50 gallons in there,” she said.
“How long do we have to do this?” he asked.
“As long as it takes. This is what we have to do now if you want clean clothes.”
It was late afternoon when they finally drove back to the house. Her son went off to the bathroom with the bucket. Her oldest daughter took a sponge bath. The 4-year-old climbed onto a stool and started washing her hands, spraying the water, playing in the sink. “Don’t waste that!” Garcia said. But by then, their water was almost gone.
Gamboa came home from work and Garcia greeted him on the porch. She showed him the 275-gallon crate, which was empty except for a few puddles left at the bottom.
“What are our options?” she asked, and in the fifth summer of California’s drought he could think of only one.
He grabbed the plastic tank and shook the last drops of water out onto their yellow grass. Then he loaded it into the truck and drove off to fill it again.