Drought Hits Farmers, Ranchers In California, North Dakota : Consider This from NPR Large parts of the West have been hot and dry for so long that reservoirs are running low and some communities are mandating conservation. California is talking about a statewide mandate, too. Meanwhile, farmers are preparing to flood their fields to replenish aquifers, while ranchers are selling off parts of their herds and worried about feeding the rest.

NPR's Dan Charles reports from California and NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from North Dakota.

Also in this episode: water rights lawyer Christine Klein, who originally spoke to NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money, in one of a series of episodes on the drought and the economy. Listen to more of The Indicator via Apple, Spotify, or Google.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

Desperate Times, Desperate Measures As Water Runs Short In The West

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1045330150/1046451995" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Some places in the West are running out of water.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FLOWING)

CORNISH: So in California's Central Valley, they're pumping it out of aquifers, hundreds of feet underground. That's what you see and hear right alongside fields and orchards that feed a good part of the U.S. To keep production running, farmers have pumped billions of tons of water from their wells. And that means the water table has fallen so much that hundreds of smaller wells have gone dry.

ESTHER ESPINOZA: I see how the big pumps are pumping a lot of water. And I don't have water, so it's something so sad for me.

CORNISH: Esther Espinoza told NPR that she and her family outside the town of Riverdale now depend on water from a big, black tank in their front yard. And a local nonprofit fills it up each week.

ESPINOZA: We don't have water for nothing, for the bathroom or my kitchen. So it's something that is necessary but we don't have.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: In California and across large portions of the Western U.S., it's been abnormally hot and dry for so long that reservoirs are running low. Cities and towns are mandating conservation. And the drought is threatening a lot of places where America's food is grown and raised.

CHRISTINE KLEIN: No matter what we do, we have a lot of stress ahead of us, a lot of climate and water stress.

CORNISH: Christine Klein is a water rights lawyer. She started her career working for the attorney general's office in Colorado.

KLEIN: If you've ever been in Denver underneath the Golden Dome of the Capitol, there's what I think of as a cathedral to water. And it has a poem. And it starts with, here is a land where life is written in water. So it's - you just cannot overstate the importance of water in the West.

CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - with climate change fueling heat and drought, the most valuable resource in the West is becoming more scarce. Our reporters have been traveling there to learn just how desperate things are getting as water runs low. From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Friday, October 15.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. One of the big question marks out West is, what happens this winter?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAVIN NEWSOM: We are encouraging people to do the commonsense things, like reducing the amount of irrigation water you're doing out on your lawns, for example...

CORNISH: That was Governor Gavin Newsom of California back in July, asking state residents to voluntarily reduce water consumption by 15% compared to last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEWSOM: ...Taking a look at where leaks may be occurring on your property. When you're doing a load of laundry, make sure it's a full load of laundry, reducing the time that you are in a shower, not eliminating that time.

CORNISH: Again, all voluntary measures with a 15% conservation goal voluntary. So how did that go?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Well, tonight, the first report card is out - 1.8% statewide. That's far short of the governor's goal.

CORNISH: That was according to an early set of data released in late September. The fear now is that California and other regions out West could be in for another dry winter, with many reservoirs already at or near historic lows. And if that happens, mandatory statewide restrictions might be on the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WADE CROWFOOT: We understand that a clear statewide message for conservation helps local communities weather the drought.

CORNISH: That's California's secretary for natural resources, Wade Crowfoot, in a briefing late last month. Crowfoot said some cities and towns have made progress with mandatory conservation measures at the local level, but it might not be enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CROWFOOT: We're going to be watching very closely here in the coming couple few months how that voluntary water conservation goes. The governor's been clear that mandatory restrictions, you know, need to be on the table if and when the drought worsens.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Yes, many people out West might soon be forced to make tough choices about water, but some are already in that situation. Here's NPR's Dan Charles on the measures some farmers are taking to make sure they have enough water.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: There's a big patch of dirt behind Aaron Fukuda's office at the Tulare Irrigation District in California's Central Valley that he gets very excited about.

AARON FUKUDA: For a water resources nerd like myself, it's a sexy piece of infrastructure (laughter).

CHARLES: It's a 15-acre sunken field just sitting here surrounded by pistachio orchards and cornfields. It was built to capture a flood. California does get floods sometimes during the winter. Fukuda says in the past, a lot of people just considered those winter floods a nuisance. But among people here who grow a lot of the country's vegetables and fruit and nuts, that attitude has changed completely.

FUKUDA: It's liquid gold. Cold, crisp flood water is gold these days.

CHARLES: When it starts raining and the rivers rise, Fukuda and his colleagues open some gates and send water surging through irrigation canals into a bunch of giant basins like this one.

FUKUDA: We fill everything up. This will be brimful.

CHARLES: So when it's full, how deep is the water?

FUKUDA: I think it's about 6 or 7 feet deep.

CHARLES: And then the water seeps slowly into the ground, eventually all the way to the aquifer hundreds of feet below us. This is called a groundwater recharge basin.

FUKUDA: It really is the difference between our communities surviving and not.

CHARLES: That water has become precious because it's now a scarce and regulated asset. Farmers have pumped so much water from their wells over the years, the aquifers have become depleted. A new law just now taking effect will limit that pumping, which will hurt some farmers. But the law also says if people replenish the aquifer, like making deposits in an underground bank account, they'll be allowed to pump more out later. And farmers all over the Central Valley are grasping this idea like a lifeline. Jon Reiter, a rancher and water consultant, works with some of them.

JON REITER: I want to show you over here.

CHARLES: This is your friend's vineyard.

REITER: Yes, this is raisins.

CHARLES: The soil's sandy, looks like it would just suck up water. There's already an embankment around three sides of this field. It's almost a ready-made basin for flood water.

REITER: But you can imagine how much water you could get stored into the ground in a location like this.

CHARLES: But he's growing raisins.

REITER: He is, and he's made the determination that he would be willing to actually remove the raisins.

CHARLES: The water he'd store here might be more valuable to him than the raisins he'd grow because it would earn him the right to pump more water from the aquifer during a future drought to irrigate some of his other fields.

REITER: It's like a savings account.

CHARLES: And another farmer half an hour southwest of Fresno may have the biggest groundwater ambitions of all. His name is Don Cameron. He's been worried about the aquifer for many years. Ten years ago, during a winter with lots of rain, he decided to use his irrigation setup to just flood some of his vineyards and orchards at a time when they didn't need water.

DON CAMERON: A lot of people were skeptical - our neighbors, especially. I mean, they thought we were crazy, that we were going to kill our vineyard.

CHARLES: But the grape vines and trees survived just fine, and water levels in the aquifer increased. Now Cameron's persuading his neighbors to do the same thing on their farms, creating, in effect, a recharge basin that could cover tens of thousands of acres. All he needs is for Mother Nature to deliver a flood.

CAMERON: I know we'll have another one. There is no doubt in my mind we will flood again, and we may see more severe flooding in the future.

CHARLES: Climate experts agree. Warmer temperatures will mean less snow but more rain in the Sierra Nevada mountains, so it'll runoff and flood more quickly. And the biggest reservoir available to store at all is underground, that aquifer that California's farmers have been draining for most of the past century.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: NPR's Dan Charles.

We just heard a lot about California. One place that gets less attention when it comes to heat and drought - North Dakota. In that state, the water crisis is drawing comparisons to the Dust Bowl. And cattle ranchers have been forced to sell off their herds at historic rates. Now they're worried they won't have enough feed to keep the remaining cows alive this winter. Here's NPR's Kirk Siegler.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Towner, N.D., proudly boasts it's the capital of the state's cattle country. Joey and Scott Bailey own a slice of it, a remote ranch about 60 miles south of the U.S.-Canada border.

(SOUNDBITE OF GATE CLICKING)

SCOTT BAILEY: Come on, girl.

SIEGLER: After feeding, sitting in their kitchen, they're trying to figure out how they'll get through these next few months.

S BAILEY: Any of your prairie hay, just your grass hay that we would spend $30 a bail, people are spending $150 a bail, and they're driving 250 miles to get it.

SIEGLER: The couple sold 20 cows a few months back because they couldn't afford to keep them fed. It's been so dry, they could barely make any hay.

JOEY BAILEY: We didn't have any rain last fall, and we had hardly any snow. And we had a super warm winter, which, yeah, we were excited about. But when we don't get snow in North Dakota, that hurts us a lot in the spring because we need the snow to make it grow right away in the spring.

SIEGLER: So they may have to downsize even more just to stay afloat through winter. The historic drought has put a serious strain on forage, meaning hay and feed are at a premium.

S BAILEY: So you're fighting with your neighbor, your friend, the guy down the road, you know, because there's only so much feed out there. It's extremely stressful.

SIEGLER: Scott is in his early 40s, Joey in her late 30s. It's hard enough to get young people to stay in agriculture, even in normal times. And they worry this drought will cause even more of their neighbors to have to take on 8-5 jobs in town or just get out of the business altogether. A few miles east along highway 2 on his family's farm, James Green says you just have to keep going, adapt and survive. There have always been cycles of punishing drought.

JAMES GREEN: Honestly, I'm going to plan for next spring to be like a normal spring because if you doomsday it, you're just going to be doomsdaying (ph) the rest of your life.

SIEGLER: Green is adapting by making hay bales out of failed crops rather than drive the 250 miles for expensive hay.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRILLING)

SIEGLER: He drills into a bale to get samples to test for nitrates. He wants to make sure there aren't any harmful contaminants from farm fertilizers.

J GREEN: You just don't want to turn your cows out here and get them sick. And you want to know what they're eating.

SIEGLER: An endless blue sky with big, puffy white clouds above him, Green is standing in a field of mostly brown stubble.

J GREEN: I've never seen a June or July as hot as we had it. And it just - literally, these plants would get, you know, four or five inches tall, and they'd burn off.

SIEGLER: Look closer, though, and there are little shoots of green grass popping up. It did finally rain some - not a drought-buster but life-saving rains, at least enough to make James' 72-year-old mom Gwen, who's standing behind him, smile in relief.

GWEN GREEN: If we can get a month of grazing here, that's a godsend.

SIEGLER: It's also been a godsend having her sons around to keep the farm going. Her husband passed away last year. She says they're doing what they've always done - getting creative, finding unconventional feed. She also got some grant money to buy new, more efficient watering systems. But this drought also feels different.

G GREEN: This is much worse than anything I've been through in 44 years out here. James asked me one day, what would Dad do? I said, Dad hasn't seen anything this worse either, so we just have to do what we're doing.

SIEGLER: Keep doing what they're doing. If you get depressed, they say, you're not going to make it. Still, the long-term outlook from climate scientists isn't good. North Dakota is already a place of extremes. State climatologist Adnan Akyuz says the effects of climate change may be even worse here than other states that are closer to the oceans.

ADNAN AKYUZ: I would say it is the epicenter. With the 2.4-degree Fahrenheit per century, it is one of the highest in the nation.

SIEGLER: North Dakota is nearly 2.5 degrees warmer than it was a century ago. Akyuz says, just back in 2019, North Dakota had one of its wettest years on record, only to be followed by 2021's historic drought and heat waves. This September 30, the capital, Bismarck, hit 98 degrees.

AKYUZ: North Dakota has the geographical center of North America and makes it very prone to these climatic shifts.

SIEGLER: Ranchers have already sold off nearly 25% more cattle than last year. Drive around the state, and it's an ominous yet all-too-familiar scene - trailers lined up outside the auction barns. It's the sound of wealth being drained from the prairie.

(SOUNDBITE OF CATTLE MOOING)

SIEGLER: Some barns have reported a tenfold increase in sales. Here in Devils Lake, men clutching whips herd a drove of Black Angus into a chute, opening a huge, hulking metal door.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Seventeen-thirty-four.

UNIDENTIFIED AUCTIONEER: (Unintelligible).

SIEGLER: The anxious cows, white tags clipped to their ears, are funneled into a fenced pen and sawdust floor.

UNIDENTIFIED AUCTIONEER: Here we go. (Unintelligible) $60.

SIEGLER: It is a short-term boon for sale barns, but no one is celebrating. In the back office, this barn's owner, Jim Ziegler, sighs as he swats flies off a desk cluttered with paper and receipts. He figures a lot of his older customers won't be back next year.

JIM ZIEGLER: The cost is just prohibitive. Around the coffee table over there in the cafe, the guys talking around about hay costing $100 a bale. That isn't something you do if you have a large cowherd.

SIEGLER: Ziegler opened this barn in 1988, the last real bad drought year. In those days, ranches tended to be smaller, he says, and people could figure a way through. Now it just costs too much to keep a big operation going. He says this crisis feels different.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZIEGLER: People just did not get in a position where they felt comfortable going into winter, and there's going to be more and more of that. There's going to be more decisions that have to be made here as we go through the next 30 days.

SIEGLER: Make-or-break decisions as the prospect of another dry winter looms.

CORNISH: NPR's Kirk Siegler in Devil's Lake, N.D.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.