As major cities in California fail to cut water use, rural communities have already been exploited


The Gary Bigs family hasn’t had water coming out of their private well for over a decade, a year later multi-year drought and excessive pumping from agriculture and industry.

Now, the eight-acre farm in West Goshen, California, which Biggs passed to his son, Ryan, in the 1970s, is dry and flabby. His son and granddaughter carry water from the sources for drinking and bathing. Bigs says they go to town to wash their clothes.

In recent years, the family has switched from relying on water from tanks provided by government programs, which they say taste bad, to moving water tanks to and from the homes of neighbors — neighbors willing to share what they have left.

Bigs, 72, still remembers when the family property contained a thriving orchard. As a teenager, he planted pecans and orange trees, while his father grew alfalfa and tended cows and sheep.

“Now, it’s all sloppy,” Biggs, a California resident since his life, told CNN. “Central California is dying. We are becoming a wasteland. A hot, dry wasteland.”

“God forbid, I don’t know how long this drought will last,” he added. “Believe it or not, climate change is here, and California is an example of that.”

As cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco struggle to cut back on their water consumption – this water beats it It comes from state treasuries Rural Californians who depend on groundwater have already been exploited. They live with the daily worry of not getting enough water to shower or drink.

Governor Gavin Newsom appealed to urban residents and businesses to cut their water consumption by 15%, but water use in March It increased by 19% in cities Compared to March 2020, the year the current drought began. With the state running out of water, Unprecedented water cuts It went into effect this week for urban residents — in parts of Southern California, residents have been told to cut consumption by 35% to avoid a complete watering ban later in the summer.

The scorching summer heat is also approaching. Water evaporates from the soil on hot days, exacerbating drought – a major cause of unprecedented groundwater shortages. Not only was there enough rain to fill the tanks, but the air sucked up the water from what was left on the ground.

Then there is the pollution from industry.

Ruth Martinez, who lives in the small, unincorporated town of Ducor in Tulare County, has been advocating for clean water for decades. In the town of about 600 people, mostly Latinos, their drinking water was contaminated with nitrate, which is usually caused by fertilizers used in agriculture.

After several complaints from residents, Ducor received a government grant in 2015 that would allow the community to drill a well deeper — about 2,000 feet — to access clean water. But it only operated for three years before Martinez said a new borehole shop was across the street from their residential well, once again threatening their water supply.

“We didn’t even know about it until we saw the drilling equipment, and when we saw it it was drilled, and everything is at the well site,” Martinez told CNN. “The drought has really made it worse, because we don’t have [water] The pressure we are used to. We had water quality issues and had to buy bottled water from the store and things like that. ”

The Dokor well is supposed to help provide access to clean water.

Drilling a new commercial well in an open patch of land in Doukour.

Martinez, a member of the Ducor water board, says she has been addressing the concerns of her neighbors who want to know what the government will do. She told CNN that residents there blame agriculture and industry for exacerbating the crisis by pumping more groundwater, despite dwindling supplies.

Bigs, whose family farm is in Tulare County, points to nearby dairy farms that he says are drilling deeper wells and pumping more water from the ground, leaving less water for residential use.

The groundwater beneath rural communities in central California had not yet recovered from the previous drought when it was exposed again Present. Dry conditions in California quickly re-emerged this spring. Not only is the state not getting enough rain this winter to curb the drought, Snow falling in the winter It was painfully below average, leaving little melt and runoff in rivers, reservoirs, and groundwater.

Indeed, the San Joaquin Valley – where Tulare County is located – is located in US Drought MonitorThe most dangerous category.

Kelsey Hinton, director of communications for the Community Water Center, a group that advocates for affordable clean water, said the problem is complex and can be traced back to outdated planning policies.

“The first thing that’s important to understand is that these communities have been historically excluded from the start,” Hinton told CNN. “They are not even included in the overall planning of the county, or considered viable communities that will continue to grow over time. But these are people’s homes, their neighbors, they have decades of life and community, and they want to grow and they want to have the infrastructure for that.”

Nearby dairy farms — like this one across the street from his property — are drilling deeper wells and pumping more water from the ground, Bigs says, leaving less water for residential use.

This private well on the Biggs estate has been dry for more than a decade.

Water has long been considered a property right in California, which means property owners can pump as much water as they like. This has become a problem in a changing climate. During droughts, water from the aquarium was pumped out faster than it could be replenished.

the states Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, passed in 2014, was intended to address excessive pumping – particularly from agriculture – and balance depleted aquifers. However, permits to drill wells have proliferated “with little oversight,” Hinton said.

In March, Newsom released a file executive order Local agencies are strictly prohibited from granting well-drilling permits to agriculture and industry, consistent with the 2014 law, unless they conduct a thorough review of how drilling is affecting the households around them. But Hinton says the order includes temporary measures that will last until the drought ends. Water advocates rely on Traffic bill A state legislature that would permanently strengthen oversight of the permit issuance process.

Martinez, who has worked alongside Cesar Chavez and the farm workers movement, is the leading voice in efforts to pass this law quickly, as climate change is accelerating the effects of drought.

“We need to get together with lawmakers and the different communities affected and find out and educate ourselves on what we can do to prevent certain things from happening,” she said. “All the water related issues frustrate me. What keeps me going is that I have only seen a slight improvement.”

Bigs said that given how different Central Valley is today, compared to when a kid planted trees on his family’s farm, there’s no doubt that the climate crisis is having a negative impact.

“We are in this part of the state that is slowly dying, because no one takes us seriously,” Biggs said. “I tell my grandchildren, as soon as you go out, leave this area, go to a place where there is water, because this place is dying.”

Ryan Bigs takes care of his family's water tank in West Goshen.  They add small amounts of water to the tank each week.

revision: An earlier version of this story misspelled Gary Biggs’ last name.