How California's Central Valley went from breadbasket to wasteland

Blame the drought. And there's no relief in sight.

I SPEED ALONG Highway 99, the asphalt bleary under the high scorching sun. I'm heading to Kingsburg to speak with farmers about one of the worst recorded droughts in California history. I'm running late, a little lost. My GPS screen flickers. The electric-lady voice instructs me to turn right, but there's nothing on the right except for ditch weeds and fallow fields. Miles later, I exit. I think I've driven too far.

It's then I hear the dirt bike. A young and shirtless man coasts in from the west. His eyes turn to my silver Nissan with the out-of-state rental plates. He revs his engine, lurches into a wheelie, then speeds in front of me, his middle finger thrust in my direction.

Welcome to the Central Valley, ground zero of the water war. Outsiders, take heed, for this is a troubled land.

Before we get to what this drought means  —   the anger and paranoia, the heartbreak and bitterness  —   it's important to remember the Central Valley isn't just any valley. It's one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. Our country's breadbasket. Our primary source for tomatoes, almonds, grapes, cotton, and dozens of other products. I'm scheduled to see all of it, on what I'm told will be a "tour of destruction." My first stop is a beer with a man named Mule.

Mule is the patriarch of Olson Family Farms. On hot summer evenings, locals congregate on a spit of riverside land deep in the Olsons' stone-fruit orchards. Mule looks like a prospector straight from the gold-pan era and chastises me when I call him "sir." As I find a spot on the deck, Mule says, "We're family down here. Down here, we look after each other." He glances around at the farmers gathered. "This here's my family."

He says it like a warning  —  battle lines are clearly drawn around this drought, every outsider a potential spy — and I know he's telling me to watch my intentions.

"Yes, sir," I say, and Mule cracks the slightest grin and rears a hand as if he just might hit me.

Two of my main expectations are immediately dispelled. One, I expect the farmers I meet on this trip to be blighted and sorrowful, a bunch of Tom Joads just trying to make ends meet. But these guys are irreverent and cocksure. Tired, maybe. Clearly they listen to a lot of talk radio. I also expect ceaseless talk of the weather. Having grown up in farm country, I know every farmer looks helplessly to the sky hoping the weather gods will be kind. Even in the best of years, the weather is a weight. But in this current catastrophic cycle  —   three years of near-record rainfall deficits putting most of California at least one full year of normal rainfall behind recovery, some areas closer to two years, all while record-breaking heat has left 58 percent of the state in "exceptional drought" conditions  —   I'm thinking I'll hear nothing short of the lament of the forsaken.

Instead, a man named Jeff Yarbro hammers on about whom they see as enemy No. 1: environmentalists. As Yarbro sees it, these particular environmentalists have fought to make sure whatever precious water is released from the state's reservoirs goes first to facilitating salmon runs. "They want this valley all jackrabbits and sagebrush," he says, meaning the environmentalists. "They don't believe we should be here."

THE NEXT MORNING I meet with the two men who, I'm told, will make sense of all of this for me. Jim Verboon is a walnut farmer and fisherman, with a friendly demeanor and a jolly laugh. Russ Waymire is kind but serious.

We meet in a little café, and the two of them offer me a crash course in California Water 101. Even in nondrought years, the logistics are complex. Snowpack runoff is captured in reservoirs. Rivers and lakes are dammed. Canals snake across the state. Some water is managed at the federal level, some at the state. There are 500 public water districts, each with local ordinances. There are senior water rights, junior rights, riparian rights. As difficult as it is to understand water collection and distribution, Russ and Jim simplify the crisis by reiterating what I heard the night before: Radical environmentalists have effectively lobbied to have water diverted away from the Central Valley.

Beyond the salmon runs, Jim and Russ tell me about the delta smelt, a 3-inch fish on the edge of extinction. Environmentalists claim the powerful pumps that send water to the Central Valley are killing the smelt. The plummeting fish population and a lawsuit through the Endangered Species Act have all but shut down the pumps. From the perspective of both environmentalists and the state, they're managing for the long term. As in, if they divert water from salmon or smelt, they may never recover. Ever. While the farmers will eventually be OK. For a time, they'll have to make do with less.

Jim and Russ have no fight with the fish. They simply believe blame is misplaced. In their argument, Jim and Russ speak like professors, evenhanded and thorough. They show me maps and graphs, articles highlighted and annotated, findings from a scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, attempting to validate their theory that it's not the pumps killing the fish but raw sewage from Sacramento's regional treatment plant.

No matter the reason behind the pumps' being shut off, one thing is irrefutable: The water isn't coming to the valley. Much of California relies on surface water collected by state and federal water projects. This year's snowpack was a dismal 29 percent. The winter and spring rains didn't come. After farmers struggled through receiving only 40 percent of their surface water allotment in 2012 and 20 percent in 2013, the Westlands water district that delivers water to the west valley received an unprecedented 0 percent of its 2014 allotment. Before this year, receiving zero surface water was inconceivable to the valley farmer. But now it's happened. Now anything's possible.

WE DRIVE THROUGH Jim's walnut orchard, his trees full and healthy. Jim's keeping his operation going with well water. He doesn't want to deplete his land of groundwater, but he has no choice. Wells are expensive, using groundwater dangerous. Natural aquifers are drying up, the land subsiding, as little as an inch in most areas, as much as a foot in others, the land collapsing as the water is siphoned out. How will he make it through this year? How does he sustain the land for the future? This is the balancing act Jim and every valley farmer must painfully confront.

I take out my camera, but it's impossible to convey the amount of fallow land with a photo. On one stretch, we drive for 35 minutes with unfarmed land on either side of the road for as far as the eye can see. This year, there are an estimated 400,000 to 800,000 acres left idle, or 1,250 square miles of land on the high side, a landmass larger than Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco combined.

We drive for miles through nothing but dirt and tumbleweeds and then, like an oasis, a dot of green emerges in all that brown. Trees surround a little house. David and Sharon Wakefield have lived outside of Mendota, California, for 38 years. For most of those years, this land would be planted with row crops. With this year's 0 percent water allotment, their land is fallow, and the land surrounding the farm has been sold to a solar company. Where once was cotton and alfalfa will soon be fields of panels.

The 10 acres that holds the Wakefields' house is the last scrap of a legacy of farming that started when Sharon's family moved out from Oklahoma to escape the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Jim introduces Sharon as Dust Bowl Sharon, and she smiles but gives Jim a playful glance, like maybe he's in trouble.

David and Sharon have been fighting for years to stay in business, have successfully made it through past droughts by abandoning land and shrinking their acreage. They describe what the land used to look like, the rows of cotton, green plants tufted white, the fields teeming with workers at harvest time.

Sharon shows me an old illustration from the Encyclopedia Britannica, a barnyard and farmhouse, crops in neat rows in the distance, a farmer harvesting wheat. A boy rides a brown horse. A woman in a white apron feeds the chickens.

"This was my dream since I was a girl," she says. "This is all I ever wanted."

They bought the land in 1976. They raised their kids here, made it a special place for the grandkids. At the edge of the yard sits a line of tractors. They've kept them all, dating back to a tractor Sharon's grandfather once used, a tractor they take pride in saying still runs. Sharon says they planted every tree. A eucalyptus towers above us, and I begin to realize this land won't just be sold, but all of this — the trees, the tractors, the house — might soon be gone.

We've circled the house and stand back in their little yard. I ask what they'll do now. David steals a glance at Sharon. "When we go, I'll never look back up that drive again. It'll just be too hard."

Sharon says that when as kids they'd see a house and land being sold, her father would say, "That's someone's broken dream." She peers out beyond the green of her trees as the sun sets hard over the dusty, barren land. "This is our broken dream."

Excerpted from Matter, an online magazine published by Medium. Reprinted with permission.


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