(Stephen Neslage) Walk into any grocery store in America and there’s a good chance the fresh produce you see there was grown in California. Up to half of the nation’s fruit, nuts and vegetables are grown in the Central Valley, one of the planet’s most fertile growing regions, between Los Angeles and Sacramento.
Now, for the first time this century, the entire state is in severe to exceptional drought.
“It’s really depressing for us to leave ground out. We’re still paying taxes and payments on everything that’s non-production,” said Gene Errotabere, whose family has farmed the valley since the late 1920s. “I mean, it’s this whole valley. It’s just a breadbasket of our whole country here, and to see this much ground being fallowed is not something I like to see.”
Errotabere says his farm is in uncharted territory and on the verge of catastrophe. Thirty percent of his fields have been fallowed this year, and if these conditions continue, more growing operations could be shut down.
“If we have one more year like we had these past two years, it’s going to be devastating out here. … We’ll probably have 60 to 65 percent of our production out next year.”
The consequences are staggering near towns like Mendota. Dried-up fields blow dust into the sky. River beds and canals, once full of water, are now full of dead weeds and rattlesnakes. Fruit orchards along Interstate 5 look like burned piles of firewood. Workers who used to make a living picking fruit and working machinery now stand in government supported food lines to feed their families. No water means no jobs.
Mendota Mayor Robert Silva doesn’t mince words when discussing the disaster.
“Roughly about 40 percent unemployment … it’s higher than normal right now because of the water situation and farmers not planting. It’s indication that it’s going to be close to maybe 55 percent by the time situation is over.
“It’s ugly to see people standing in line because they’re out of a job.”
The San Joaquin River runs through the heart of this arid growing region and in a normal year would flow with fresh snow melt from the Sierra. But there’s little snow in the mountains, and little water in the river.
“Imagine washing the dirt off your driveway. That’s what the water is like in the San Joaquin River,” said Jeff Holt, a restoration biologist with River Partners in California, who got emotional when he looked at what’s left of the river. “This is the worst I’ve ever seen it. There’s no water for anything.”
To combat drought conditions, farmers and cities use water wells to tap underground aquifers. But those aquifers are overused and the rapidly declining water levels are causing the once water rich cavities to collapse in a process known as subsidence.
A recent report from USGS hydrologist Michelle Sneed paints a grim picture: A valley the size of Rhode Island is sinking.
“About 11 inches a year … is among the fastest rates ever measured in the San Joaquin Valley,” she said. “It’s a very large subsidence bowl. We were also surprised the high rate of subsidence.”
It’s irreversible damage. One area near Mendota is nearly 30 feet lower than it was in 1926, increasing the risk for infrastructure damage and even severe flooding in the future.
“This subsidence is permanent,” said Sneed. “If water levels come back up, the subsidence will not be recovered. The land will stay subsided.”