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As California’s big cities fail to rein in their water use, rural communities are already tapped out

By Rachel Ramirez, CNN Photographs by Ryan Christopher Jones for CNN

Gary Biggs’ family hasn’t had water coming out of their private well for over a decade, after a multi-year drought and overpumping by agriculture and industry.

Now, the eight-acre farm in West Goshen, California, which Biggs passed down to his son, Ryan, in the 1970s, is parched and fallow. His son and granddaughter carry in water from sources to drink and shower. They go to town to wash their clothes, Biggs says.

In recent years, the family has gone from relying on water from cisterns provided by government programs, which they say tastes terrible, to hauling water containers to and from neighbors’ homes — neighbors who are willing to share what they have left.

Biggs, 72, still remembers when the family property had a thriving orchard. When he was a teenager, he planted pecan and orange trees, while his father grew alfalfa and raised cows and sheep.

“Now, it’s all dirt,” Biggs, a lifelong California resident, told CNN. “Central California is dying. We’re becoming a wasteland. A hot and dry wasteland.”

“And God forbid, I don’t know how long this drought is gonna go on,” he added. “Believe it or not climate change is here, and California is a poster child for it.”

As cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco struggle to cut their water use — water that overwhelmingly comes from the state’s reservoirs — rural Californians that rely on groundwater are already tapped out. They live with the daily worry that they won’t have enough water to bathe with or drink.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has pleaded with urban residents and businesses to reduce their water consumption by 15%, but water usage in March was up by 19% in cities compared to March 2020, the year the current drought began. With the state running out of water, unprecedented water cuts went into effect this week for city dwellers — in parts of southern California, residents have been asked to cut consumption by 35% to avoid a full ban on watering later in the summer.

Scorching summer heat is also approaching. Water evaporates from the soil on hot days, which worsens the drought — a key reason never-before-seen groundwater shortages are cropping up. Not only has there not been enough rain to fill reservoirs, the air is leeching water from what’s left on the ground.

Then there’s contamination from industry.

Ruth Martínez, who lives in the small, unincorporated town of Ducor in Tulare County, has been advocating for clean water for decades. In the town of roughly 600 people, mostly Latino residents, their drinking water had been contaminated with nitrate, which is typically caused by the fertilizer used in agriculture.

After several complaints from residents, Ducor received a state grant in 2015 allowing the community to drill a deeper well — about 2,000 feet — to access clean water. But it only operated for three years before Martínez says a new well set up shop across the street from their residential well, threatening their own water supply yet again.

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

Martínez, a member of Ducor’s water board, says she’s been fielding concerns from her neighbors who want to know what the government is going to do. She tells CNN that residents there blame agriculture and industry for exacerbating the crisis by pumping more groundwater, despite dwindling supply.

Biggs, whose family farm is in Tulare County, also points to nearby dairy farms that he says have been drilling deeper wells and pumping more water out of the ground, which leaves less water for residential use.

The groundwater under central California’s rural communities hadn’t recovered from the previous drought when it was hit again with the current one. And drought conditions in California have reemerged rapidly this spring. Not only did the state not get nearly enough rainfall this winter to put a dent in the drought, wintertime snowfall was painfully below average, leaving little to melt and runoff into rivers, reservoirs and groundwater.

Already, the San Joaquin Valley — where Tulare County is located — is in the US Drought Monitor‘s most severe category.

Kelsey Hinton, the communications director at the Community Water Center, a group advocating for affordable access to clean water, said the problem is complex and can be traced back to decades-old planning policies.

“The first thing that’s important to understand is these communities have been historically disinvested in since the beginning,” Hinton told CNN. “They weren’t even included in general planning for the county, or considered viable communities that were going to continue to grow over time. But these are people’s homes, it’s their neighbors, they have decades of life and community, and they want to be growing and they want to have the infrastructure needed for that.”

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

The state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, passed in 2014, was intended to address excessive pumping — particularly from agriculture — and to balance out depleted aquifers. Nevertheless, well-drilling permits have proliferated “with little oversight,” Hinton said.

In March, Newsom issued an executive order that strictly prohibits local agencies from granting well-drilling permits for agriculture and industry, consistent with the 2014 bill, unless they perform a comprehensive review of how the drilling would impact households around them. But Hinton says the order includes temporary measures that will only last until the drought ends. Water advocates are banking on a bill to pass through the state legislature that would permanently strengthen oversight of the permitting process.

Martínez, who worked alongside César Chávez and the farmworkers movement, is a leading voice in the effort to get that bill passed quickly, as climate change accelerates drought impacts.

“We need to get together with the legislators and the different communities impacted and find out, educate ourselves on what we can do to prevent certain things from happening,” she said. “All the problems that have got to do with water frustrate me. What keeps me going is I’ve only seen little improvement.”

Biggs said seeing how drastically different the Central Valley is today, compared to when he was a child planting trees on his family’s farm, there is no doubt that the climate crisis is taking a toll.

“We’re in this part of the state that is slowly dying, because no one’s taking us seriously,” Biggs said. “I tell my grandkids as soon as you get out, leave this area, go somewhere where there’s water, because this place is dying.”

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

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