Drought, Politics Trouble Farmers In California California is in its third year of drought, and many farmers in the state's crop-rich Central Valley are looking at dusty fields, or worse, are cutting down their orchards before the trees die. Hardest hit is Westlands, where much of the nation's fruit, nuts and produce come from.
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Drought, Politics Trouble Farmers In California

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Drought, Politics Trouble Farmers In California

Drought, Politics Trouble Farmers In California

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Here in California, we get most of our water from the Sierra Mountains and the snowpack there. This year, the latest measurement puts that snowpack at just two-thirds of normal, which does not bode well for a state that is in a third straight year of drought. And in the Central Valley, many farmers are in trouble.

Westlands has been hardest hit. That's where much of the nation's fruit, nuts and produce come from. Farmers in Westlands have been told they're getting a small fraction of the water they need this year. In the first of an occasional series on water scarcity and drought in the West, John McChesney reports.

JOHN MCCHESNEY: Interstate 5 slices down the west side of California's Great Valley through seer, brown foothills. But at one point, you crest a rise and look down on a vast sea of green - almonds, pistachios and walnuts. But you also start noticing some dead orchards - dull, gray, against the green.

Just off the 5, we find Ty and Janet Lompa, owners of 320 acres of mature walnut trees, doing the unthinkable.

(Soundbite of chainsaw)

Ms. JANET LOMPA (Farmer): It takes 30 years to get them there, and about a minute and a half to knock them down. Here we go.

(Soundbite of chainsaw cutting tree)

MCCHESNEY: The Lompas have to cut down 10,000 trees, a third of their acreage. Ty Lompa remembers when these trees were planted.

Mr. TY LOMPA (Farmer): I was very young.

Ms. LOMPA: You helped your dad do it.

Mr. LOMPA: We used to irrigate out here with flood irrigation. When water started to become an issue, we immediately switched over to micro-irrigation. So we have absolutely no runoff.

MCCHESNEY: This year, there's hardly any water running in, either, because their water allotment was cut and they have no well water to tide them over.

Ms. LOMPA: And you can't leave trees in the field and just let them die, because then you're going to get bugs, you're going to get disease, so they have to come down.

(Soundbite of chainsaw cutting tree)

MCCHESNEY: The Lompas aren't sure how long they can hang onto the rest of their trees. They're furious because they blame government, not nature, for the death of their trees. Here's what Janet Lompa tells her four kids when they ask her why there's no water.

Ms. LOMPA: Because the politicians gave it all to the fish. That's what I tell them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MCCHESNEY: Remarkably, farmers throughout this region echo the sentiment that politics, not the drought, is the problem. Most of California gets its water from a huge estuary named the Delta, where two big rivers join in the center of the valley. But so much water was being pumped out of the Delta that a tiny smelt there, an endangered species, is disappearing. So, late last year, a federal judge ruled that the amount of water being delivered to the south had to be sharply cut back.

In a sweltering tin shed in the middle of the Westlands' water district, about 200 farmers gathered to hear what Tom Birmingham has to say about the crisis. He's the executive director of the irrigation district. Yes, the drought's a problem, he says, but the much bigger problem is that court ruling.

Mr. TOM BIRMINGHAM (Executive Director, Irrigation District): Since mid-February, as a result of that biological opinion, we've lost approximately 300,000 acre-feet of water. It's floated out the Golden Gate.

MCCHESNEY: In other words, given to the fishes.

In the 1950s, Westlands was the last district to join the vast irrigation project built by the federal government, and so it's the first to get cut when water runs low. That's how Western water law works. There are environmentalists who say that this land should never have been irrigated in the first place.

In his office lined with maps and charts, Tom Birmingham offers a smooth rebuttal.

Mr. BIRMINGHAM: I don't know whether Westlands should have ever been farmed, but the reality is that it was. I have heard people say that the city of Los Angeles should never have developed on the imported water supply from the eastern Sierra.

MCCHESNEY: But L.A. is here to stay, and so is Westlands, according to Birmingham. And with a long summer of uninterrupted sunlight, farmers now cultivate a rich farming district 15 miles wide and 70 miles long that contributes several billion dollars to the state economy. And where the soil is good, it's kind of like agriculture on steroids.

Mr. GARY COEHLO (Farmer): There are spots here where you can dig down 25, 30 feet, and the ground looks almost the same as it does in the first eight to 10 inches. And that's top soil farmers worldwide would be envious of.

MCCHESNEY: Gary Coehlo's grandfather came to the Central Valley in the early 1900s from the Azores Islands. Gary and his brother Tony say there's not much they haven't grown over the years.

Mr. G. COEHLO: Almonds, wheat, barley, alfalfa…

Mr. TONY COEHLO (Farmer): Sugar beets.

Mr. G. COEHLO: …sugar beets, cotton, lettuce…

MCCHESNEY: The list seems endless, and some of those crops are real water guzzlers. But this year, the Coehlos have cut way back.

Mr. G. COEHLO: We're looking at a fallow field that last year was beautiful tomatoes. Roughly, if we turn in both directions, you're looking at 400 acres of fallow ground.

MCCHESNEY: But that's only a small part of the land they've idled. Like most farmers in Westlands, the Coehlos' farm on a grand scale - 6,500 acres, and half of that is just dry, brown earth this year. Their well water feeds part of the other half. But farmers here lucky enough to have wells are now over-pumping the aquifer.

Mr. G. COEHLO: The state of California has gone from 15 million people when these projects were built 50 years ago, to almost 30 million people. And we haven't added one bit of water, storage, conveyance, dams or anything.

Mr. T. COEHLO: And now the need for water has become greater, and they're going to dry us up.

MCCHESNEY: It's not just the farmers who are affected by this dry-up. The Coehlos used to employ 60 full-time workers - now that's down to 25. In nearby Mendota, a dusty, half-deserted replica of a Mexican town, which always suffers from unemployment, the rate now is over 40 percent. Clusters of men gather on the town's main drag.

We take a walk with Mayor Pro Tem Joseph Amador.

Mr. JOSEPH AMADOR (Mayor Pro Tem): But you see, like this gentleman, by this time of year, they would be working. (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

MCCHESNEY: Ricardo Armaya and a friend are sitting on a roadside bench.

Mr. AMADOR: Normally by this time of year, he would be working in the broccoli. And this year has been the worst year. There's no work, there's no broccoli.

MCCHESNEY: Many people in this region think there's a solution to the problem which has nothing to do with drought or global warming. They think there's plenty of water, but the system needs to be replumbed with a canal that would lead water around the environmentally sensitive Delta and deliver it to the southern half of the state. Peter Gleick, an environmental scientist at the Pacific Institute, isn't convinced. The water supply is shrinking, he says, and agriculture just can't continue to take 80 percent of the water dedicated to human use in California.

Mr. PETER GLEICK (Environmental Scientist, Pacific Institute): We've got a situation where the federal government and the state governments have built infrastructure and made promises that can't be kept, just because there isn't enough water. That's the reality.

MCCHESNEY: But Tony Coehlo, standing in his fallowed field, feels that the government should live up to its original promises.

Mr. T. COEHLO: When the project first started, they said we can subsidize the cost of this project by selling some water to farmers. And they did that. It's kind of like putting you on a narcotic and taking it away from you. It's leaving you dry.

MCCHESNEY: But if the drought continues, if the snowpack dwindles for years because of climate change, and if nature needs more water to keep fish alive, then Westlands may be in rehab for a long time. For NPR News, I'm John McChesney.

MONTAGNE: And there are photos of the drying land and farming efforts at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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