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‘We need the rain’: Jobs, land languish as California drought endures

In the four years since the drought in California began, the lack of water has cost thousands of jobs, caused noticeable changes in the landscape and induced desperation among citizens who are running out of options. In search of a solution, farmers who have drilled deeper and deeper into the ground for available water have sought help from unlikely sources. NewsHour's John Larson reports.

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  • SUSANA GARCIA:

    It’s going to be really hard for the businesses here on Main Street to survive if it doesn’t pick up.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    All along Main Street in Delano, California, businesses can feel it – the drought. At 1111 Main, Susana Garcia says it simple.

  • SUSANA GARCIA:

    A lot of people not working. A lot of people only working like a few hours. But they’re not working enough. So they’re not spending money.

  • ROMAN BOCANEGRA:

    We need that water so there can be a lot more farm work for everybody so they can come and shop and do what they got to do.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    At Chalia’s Barber Shop at 916 Main, there’s talk of wild bears wandering in from the hills.

  • LEIAS SERVIN:

    I guess they’re looking for what food there’s no water source so they bears coming into the city.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    Leias Servin worries the drought will cost his parents, who work in the fields and who can’t afford to lose the hours.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    How are they getting by?

  • LEIAS SERVIN:

    Well they have, I guess they have to make it work. But it’s hard getting by when they are cutting you short. It’s a couple of paychecks less that you get.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    Delano’s Main Street sits at the southern end of California’s Central Valley, the richest agricultural valley in the world. This valley supplies 25 percent of all the food eaten in the United States.

    Yet, all around Delano the drought has cost thousands of jobs, especially in the fields. This grape vineyard is 23 miles from Delano’s Main Street. Crew boss Sonia Robles – still wearing the protective sun mask she wears in the field – says she’s had to away people looking for work.

  • SONIA ROBLES:

    I wish we could have work for them, but I mean we couldn’t.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    When the congregation at United First Method Church, just a block off Main Street shared their prayers on Sunday, a 24 year old cowboy offered this.

  • MATT HUFF:

    We ask Lord that we receive more rain this winter. A lot of good juicy storms Lord.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    Matt Huff works on a cattle ranch 16 miles from Delano’s Main Street.

  • MATT HUFF:

    Well I know we need rain, we can’t make it rain ourselves but we can definitely give it to God. It’s all you can do right about now so just keep praying.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    While it may be difficult to understand just how much the drought is changing the valley, listen to Matt as he drives out with the evening feed.

  • MATT HUFF:

    I first came here about 5 years ago and the grass was at least shoulder height. Every year that we’ve had a drought, the fields remain bald, pure dirt. We used to have dandelions out in the field that were taller than me. That you can feed a herd of cows with. This you can’t.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    The herd used to number 200. But when the drought hit, the pastures began dying. The ranch owner began buying hay to feed the herd. As the drought continued, the owner was forced to begin selling off the herd you see up ahead.

    Cow by cow, the herd dwindled to a 100 and then to less than 50. He also sold his only bull, and with it much of the herd’s future. But the bigger story, the reason we’ve come to Delano is what’s happening all around the ranch.

    The California drought is entering its fourth straight year, a drought some fear could become the most costly in the history of the American west.

  • JESSE REVILLA:

    You got good years and bad years, this is what I call it worst years, this is really bad.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    Matt’s boss, ranch owner Jesse Revilla says despite his best efforts, the remaining herd is losing weight, but feeding them is breaking him.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    How long can you keep that up?

  • JESSE REVILLA:

    That means I got to go sell some more cows. I gotta sell more cattle so I can buy more hay.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    So the herd keeps getting smaller and smaller.

  • JESSE REVILLA:

    And I’m getting poorer and poorer.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    California reservoirs, once pictures of abundance, are more alarming than reassuring. This year, the hottest ever recorded in California, water levels fell so low, authorities cut off water to most farmers. Meaning, farmers had to use well water, or lose everything.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    If you didn’t have a well, what would have happened to your trees?

  • MARY ANDREAS:

    Well, they would be half dead by now.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    Two miles from Main Street, Mary Andreas joined hundreds of farmers now drilling for water. Mary grows 84 acres of almonds. Her trees require year round water to stay alive.

    Six months before her water allotment was cut off, Mary mortgaged her home, plunked down almost 200 thousand dollars to drill a well. It saved her farm.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    How hard was that decision?

  • MARY ANDREAS:

    It wasn’t hard, because we had already invested so much. We can’t stop now. We don’t know what’s gonna happen next year or the other. But we have to keep going forward. ‘Cause we got everything, our whole life invested in this 84 acres.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    Which is why farmers like Mary who can afford it, are drilling more wells than ever. Drilling crews are arriving from across the west, adding to local drillers who can’t keep up with the demand.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    If we wanna drill a well in our farm, how soon could you do it?

  • MATT HAMMOND:

    We’re anywhere from eight months to a year and a half behind.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    But more worrisome is that so much water is being pumped from underground to replace water lost in this drought, that few people believe it can be sustained. Wells are going dry, and drillers are forced to go deeper to find water. This well – located 16 miles from Main Street – is headed down 1,600 feet, 350 feet deeper than the empire state building is high.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    To what extent do you feel like we can only punch so many holes and pull out so much water before we really start seeing huge problems?

  • MATT HAMMOND:

    Well, I mean, we’re to that stage right now, I think. Because the deeper you go on some of this, you’re losing out on water quality, too. You’re gonna get down so deep and the water’s gonna start getting salty on you.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    Randy Weldon is a local grower. He showed us how farmers who could not afford to drill wells helplessly watched their orchards die. These orange trees are dead, and there are thousands just like them not far from Delano’s Main Street.

  • RANDY WELDON:

    It is heartbreaking. In a lot of cases the farmers have their heart and soul in this land. And it’s like losing a part of your family you know. And economically it’s disastrous.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    In California water is considered a property right, so farmers are free to drill as much as they want. All they need is a permit. But no one knows how much water farmers are pulling from the underground aquifer.

    That’s the natural reservoir accumulated over thousands of years from rain and snow. And no one knows how much water is left. If an aquifer is like a savings account, this is a run on the bank, a race to the bottom.

    At the urging of the Governor Jerry Brown, California voters this year agreed they had to be better prepared for a drought – so they passed a $7.5 billion bond for building water storage facilities and water recycling projects.

    This escalating thirst for water has also led to some surprising partnerships. For example, 21 million gallons of water every day flow into the Cawelo Reservoir – water helping save 90 desperate farmers south of Delano. The water comes from of all places…here.

    This is Chevron’s Kern River oil field just 35 miles south of Delano’s Main Street. It’s the third largest oil producing field in the state, more than 70,000 barrels per day. But in the process, Chevron pulls up even more water, a lot more.

    The water is used for steam to help recover the oil underground, and then separated from the oil, cleaned and pumped through pipelines to the reservoir and the waiting farmers.

  • ABBY AUFFANT:

    For every 10 barrels of fluid that we produced from Kern River field, nine of those are water. One barrel of oil to 9 barrels of water. So we’re almost like a water company that happens to skim oil.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    Back on Main Street, the drought can be felt in every lost sale and in every cash register. No one, of course, knows when the drought will end. Only that until it does, life in and around Delano feels harder, further beyond their control than they’d like, and that things they hold dear – here in this rich valley – are suddenly in play.

  • MATT HUFF:

    It’s getting harder and harder to be a rancher. We need the rain, everyone does.

  • RANDY WELDON:

    If we don’t get rain this year we’re in for some really bad times.

  • MARY ANDREAS:

    I guess we’re still here because this is our life and we’re here because we want to keep farming as long as we possibly can.

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