ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.
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RATH: A few weeks ago, I road shotgun in Cannon Michael's pickup truck. His family has been farming for six generations.
CANNON MICHAEL: Yeah, my great-great-great-grandfather came over from Germany in the 1850s.
RATH: Michael now runs an 11,000-acre farm in California Central Valley. It's a multi-million dollar operation where you can find a lot of your grocery store basics - tomatoes, onions, melons. But today he's pretty pessimistic about his work.
MICHAEL: It is going to be a year that's, you know, probably at best maybe break even, you know, or maybe lose some money.
RATH: Michael tells me about one-fifth of the land will lie fallow this year, unfarmed. So come harvest season he won't be able to hire as many people to work the fields.
MICHAEL: This year maybe a third of the guys we'll have laid off. Probably 20 guys maybe we won't bring in.
RATH: The reason that Michael and farmers all around the valley are cutting back? California's severe ongoing drought.
MICHAEL: Without surface water it's a big strain and the people are finding whatever means they can to survive.
RATH: That's our cover story today. When a region lives on water, what do people do when the land dries up?
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RATH: Chances are, you eat food grown in California. Nearly half of the country's fruits, nuts and vegetables come from here, a state that's dried up. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the entire State of California is considered abnormally dry. Two-thirds of California are in extreme to exceptional drought conditions. Producer Tom Dreisbach and I drive from Los Angeles to the Central Valley. And the change in terrain is dramatic. We go abruptly from mountains to the flat farm land. All of a sudden it's like we're in Nebraska.
Earlier this year, many farmers here found out they would get no irrigation water from state and federal water projects. Recent rains have helped a little. On Friday, government officials said there was enough water to give a little more to some of the region's farmers, 5 percent of the annual allocation instead of what they were getting, zero. Cannon Michael tells us his farm has been a little bit luckier. Because of their long history here, his family has what are called senior water rights and a stronger guarantee to the region's water.
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RATH: Those rights mean they're getting 40 percent of the normal water allocation and sprinklers are still spraying water across some of the soil. But the farm has still had to cut back. We can see many fields that are laying fallow or growing a placeholder crop to keep the soil from eroding. Thanks to the drought, much of his wheat crop is not suitable for human use, so it's already been cut to make hay for livestock. And as a consequence of all this, Cannon tells me they're buying less equipment like big tractors.
MICHAEL: We had ordered one last year in October in anticipation of using it this spring. And they called me a couples weeks ago and said that it was here and I said, you know, just based on the outlook for this year, you know, we just can't take it.
RATH: And we're talking a tractor with a serious price tag.
MICHAEL: About $400,000, $350,000.
RATH: Stories like his are playing out throughout the Central Valley. With less water, farmers are making fewer big purchases. They're fallowing hundreds of thousands of acres and hiring fewer farm laborers, putting less money into the local economy. Economists say it's too early to accurately predict the drought's affect on jobs, but it's likely several thousand will be lost, maybe as many as 20,000. That might not sound like a lot but many of those workers are already living paycheck to paycheck and live in communities that depend on that work.
We stopped for lunch at Cecilia's, a small Mexican restaurant in the farming town of Mendota. About 11,000 people live here, not far down the road from Fresno. There's a sweet small-town feel to the place. Everyone seems to know each other. The majority of the people here work in agriculture. Sara Morales' family owns Cecilia's Restaurant. She tells us the drought has brought hard times.
SARAH MORALES: Right now, there's days where it's 12 o'clock and it's dead. And there's some really good days but there's no tally right now.
RATH: It was pretty quiet when we visited. But David Barajas was there eating lunch. He works for Mendota's water department. He tells us he's had to turn off people's water more and more lately, not because of the shortage but because people can't afford to pay their bills.
DAVID BARAJAS: We get a lot of shutoffs right now, yeah.
RATH: From people not paying?
BARAJAS: Oh yeah, not paying, yeah.
RATH: How long do they get to go before you have to shut it off?
BARAJAS: Two months, about two months.
MAYOR ROBERT SILVA: The ordinary citizen here is going to be facing some of the most drastic situations that I've seen.
RATH: Robert Silva is the town's mayor. He tells us Mendota struggles even in wet years. Nearly half of the people here live below the poverty line. Unemployment often hovers around 30 percent. They've been through bad droughts before. The last hit in 2009, brutally coinciding with the nation's foreclosure crisis. Mayor Silva's been thinking a lot about that year recently.
SILVA: We know exactly more or less what's going to happen because we saw what happened. We experienced these bad problems. Crime went up. There was a lot of spousal abuse. There was a lot of expulsions in the school system; result of those people not working.
RATH: Silva tells me it's been especially hard for men and women used to working hard in food production to turn around and stand in food lines for handouts. Most hiring happens during the harvest season closer to the summer. So people here say the worst is yet to come.
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RATH: A few blocks from Mayor Silva's office, Wanda Leung is taking orders at Lucky Chinese restaurant. More than three decades ago, Long left China and came to the U.S. She ended up settling in Mendota and she and her husband started the restaurant with high hopes.
WANDA LEUNG: Make a living, better life. That's out dream, why I come from China, you know.
RATH: Long has seen hard times before but she tells us this year is different. People here don't have a lot of money to begin with and now they're too scared to spend it.
LEUNG: It's 31 years already. It's the worse year, I tell you. Even people come, you know, they tell me, no money, Wanda. I ask them, you want something to eat? He said, oh no, just a cup of coffee. And he says, no hay dinero. No trabaja, no agua.
RATH: How long can you manage like this?
LEUNG: I don't have no idea, that's what I told my customer. Sometimes I can't even cover all the expenses. And I don't know how long we could, you know, manage the situation like that actually, you know.
RATH: As we drive along Interstate 5 it's impossible to miss the drought. Dead almond trees, unattended fields. There are also signs everywhere along the road expressing anger about what people here call the water wars. Signs in Spanish and English say things like: No Water Equals No Jobs, Pray For Rain and Congress-Created Dust Bowl.
Both the federal and state government have promised to help. President Obama has promised $183 million in federal funds for drought relief. California State government has put forward nearly $700 million on top of that. But farmers and local officials insist that more is needed. And one area that has officials worried is education.
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RATH: It's noon recess at Lorena Falasco Elementary School in Los Banos. Kids play tag and kick soccer balls around the playground.
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JANE BRITTELL: Oh, my. Danger zone.
RATH: That is Jane Brittell, the school's principal. We dodge balls to make our way to her office. She tells us she's worried the drought will force families to leave and pull their kids out of school.
BRITTELL: We have, you know, an agricultural community, and even if the students' parents aren't involved in the agricultural field, the community is. So when that starts to dry up and there's not the, you know, money generated for the businesses, employment starts to dwindle and then parents have to move for better jobs, more jobs.
RATH: And it happens when it happens. You don't have tons of notice when a family has to leave, right.
BRITTELL: It makes it very difficult. Our enrollment can drop. We can have what we call a revolving door, where students will disenroll and then, you know, new families will enroll and maybe stay for a few weeks. Parents might be trying to find employment and can't and then they move on. And that's very difficult for the education of the children.
RATH: And obviously when a student has to leave, when their family has to leave the community, that's the last part of the process. But getting up to that stage, there have to be a lot of stresses on the family and on the students. How do you see that with the kids in the school?
BRITTELL: It's hard on kids. When we had the economic recession several years ago, I had kids whose parents couldn't afford the gas to come back to Los Banos because they were commuting over to San Jose to work. Some families were living in their cars and we really reach out to those families and try to help. But it's very, very hard on the students and very stressful.
RATH: The superintendent of Los Banos Unified School District is a guy named Steve Tietjen.
STEVE TIETJEN: We could lose up to 5 percent of our students, which for a 10,000 student school district, which is what we are, you know, we're talking about 500 kids.
RATH: California distributes education funding in part based on attendance, so losing students means losing dollars after years of cutbacks.
TIETJEN: We're still deficit spending this year, so if we were to lose 500 kids, 500 students, that's somewhere around $3 million that we would be out. And that's another way to look at, you know, how many teachers we would have to cut to save $3 million. That's another part of the equation we have to look at.
RATH: Tietjen says that would mean laying off as many as 20 teachers in the district. At least this year he won't have to make that decision. The California Department of Education says it's going to work with schools hit hardest by the drought to make sure they don't lose funding.
Back on the streets of Mendota, Sergio Valdez shows us around town.
SERGIO VALDEZ: This is our center right here, the library.
RATH: Valdez works part time for the city council and manages local youth programs. He grew up here. He's proud of his town. While there's talk of people leaving to find jobs elsewhere, he tells us he's staying.
VALDEZ: It's a little town. It's home. It's home for us.
RATH: Valdez's parents left Mexico to work in the fields here and he worries that the new group of people moving to the Central Valley won't have the same chance to succeed.
VALDEZ: People are coming in but are they going to make it? And that's the key. You have to have people working.
RATH: Still there's a reason he's staying. He believes in Mendota.
VALDEZ: They say, oh, we're going to become a ghost town, we're going to dry - no, Mendota will continue to live. I mean, it's not going be as big and prosperous as everybody wants. We'll be like the little train that said, I think I can, I think I can, woowoo, you know.
RATH: He says every town has its problems and right now in Mendota they're waiting to find out just how bad the drought will get.
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RATH: This is NPR News.