Rain Eases California Drought Anxiety, If Not The Actual Drought This year was the third-driest on record for the state, but recent storms, plus new groundwater regulations, have given the hardest-hit agricultural towns a glimmer of hope.
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Rain Eases California Drought Anxiety, If Not The Actual Drought

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Rain Eases California Drought Anxiety, If Not The Actual Drought

Rain Eases California Drought Anxiety, If Not The Actual Drought

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

For California, this year will be defined as one of the driest on record. The drought has had huge impact on people's lives across the state. We've heard some of their stories this past year. And NPR's Kirk Siegler returned to one community that has been particularly hard hit.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Last April, we visited the small city of Orange Cove, at the doorstep of Sierra Nevada in central California. The rolling hills around it are lined with citrus groves. Most people here work on the farms. As the irrigation canals dried up, so did the economy.

SALVADOR PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish) (Translation) If there's no water, there's no work, Salvador Perez told us.

SIEGLER: Farmworkers like him were getting laid off as local farms ran out of water. Groves were getting pulled up as the citrus trees withered. Taps were running dry, and senior citizens were hauling buckets of water just to fill their toilets. The town's mayor, Victor Lopez, said the drought was ruining the local economy.

MAYOR VICTOR LOPEZ: Oh, you know, one of the most serious things, I believe, that a lot of the people relocate; they'll move out of town. And that's devastation to our community here.

SIEGLER: But today, Victor Lopez is breathing a little easier.

LOPEZ: Well, a lot of people did relocate and left us, but we kept insisting to the people that we were going to be fighting for them, we were going to support them, we were going to be backing them up.

SIEGLER: It's still a crisis, but there's been some rain. And after some delicate negotiations, a bipartisan group of California lawmakers managed to push through an emergency order. It released some extra water into a federal canal system for towns like Orange Cove.

LOPEZ: It meant that it saved Orange Cove 'cause we were totally out of water.

SIEGLER: Totally out of water. The city had even made washing your car or watering your lawn a criminal offense. Orange Cove is one of the hardest hit places, but its problems are not unique. Mandatory water restrictions have been in effect in most cities across the state since the summer. Governor Jerry Brown pleaded with Californians to cut their water use by 20 percent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GOVERNOR JERRY BROWN: Don't flush more than you have to. Don't shower longer than you need to. And turn the water off when you're shaving or brushing your teeth.

SIEGLER: Some people listened to him, some didn't. The governor had more success in pushing through one major change to state law - for the first time, the pumping of groundwater will be regulated and limited. California is the last state in the arid West to do this, and it took a crisis. According to federal data, groundwater levels across the Southwest are the lowest they've been since 1949, and there were a lot fewer people here then.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWN: Today, we do set in law a framework that has been resisted for a long, long time, since before my father was even governor.

SIEGLER: And there's still some resistance to this drought-coping strategy today. For some farmers, pumping groundwater has been a lifeline for crops. A lot of those farmers will wrap up this year with the same anxiety and uncertainty they felt a year ago - maybe even worse. Those recent storms, they did put some water in the reservoirs, but overall, not much of a dent in the drought.

JASON FAMIGLIETTI: The size of that deficit is so big that it will probably take two or three years of above average rainfall in California to satisfy that deficit.

SIEGLER: Jay Famiglietti is a senior water scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. Famiglietti leads a team of scientists that recently used satellite imagery and measurements from space to pinpoint exactly how much more water California needs to bring things back to normal. How much? Eleven-trillion gallons.

FAMIGLIETTI: That's about one-and-a-half times the size of Lake Mead, the United States' biggest reservoir.

SIEGLER: So the recent storms that brought 3 inches here or 5 inches there haven't exactly been drought-busters. But make no mistake, after an otherwise bleak year, they have many here think that things could be a lot worse.

LOPEZ: Thank God, you know, our Lord has been good to us.

SIEGLER: Victor Lopez in Orange Cove, for one, certainly isn't complaining. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

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