Orange Cove citrus farmer Justin Brown has struggled with stress since he was forced to bulldoze the orchard that his grandfather and great-grandfather planted in 1956. Renée C. Byer rbyer@sacbee.com
Orange Cove citrus farmer Justin Brown has struggled with stress since he was forced to bulldoze the orchard that his grandfather and great-grandfather planted in 1956. Renée C. Byer rbyer@sacbee.com

Water & Drought

Way of life withers in California’s parched citrus belt

By Peter Hecht

phecht@sacbee.com

May 16, 2015 11:00 AM

MONSON, Tulare County – People don’t easily forget the moment the water dies.

For Maria Jimenez, 54, it happened just over two months ago. A former poultry house worker, Jimenez was hand-washing dishes in the sun-baked bungalow she shares with her farmworker husband, Ramon Jimenez, 47, her daughter, Monica Mendoza, and two young grandkids, Richard and Caleb.

The faucet made an ugly gurgling sound. The flow thinned and turned a putrid yellow. Bits of sediment spat out into the sink, like earthy bursts of coagulated blood.

Maria Jimenez ran outside to an old well that had long supplied water to five houses in Monson, an oasis of trailers and stucco dwellings, 41 homes in all, set amid prickly cactus and bushy shade trees. The farm-patch town borders vast fields of oranges, mandarins and table grapes, all fed in part by the same shrinking groundwater supply.

Be the first to know.

No one covers what is happening in our community better than we do. And with a digital subscription, you'll never miss a local story.

Opening the well’s electrical breaker box, Jimenez pounded on a circuit switch, trying to revive a pulse. But the well only hissed out a gust of air, followed by some hiccuping gasps. Then it was quiet, and deathly dry.

“There was no water,” Jimenez said. “That’s when I got sad, and very scared.”

In this corner of the scorched Tulare Lake Basin, where lives and livelihoods depend on water that comes from the ground, a human crisis is accelerating amid California’s unrelenting drought. In northern Tulare County, drinking-water wells are running dry in Monson and other farmworker communities, unincorporated specks on the map called Cutler, Orosi, East Orosi, Sultana, Yettem and Seville.

Scores of people who rely on groundwater for drinking, cooking and bathing are anxiously turning to jugged water supplied by the government, makeshift residential tanks and human ingenuity to sustain their existence.

As Gov. Jerry Brown calls for 25 percent cutbacks in urban water use statewide and urges Californians to rip out their lawns, the challenges in this sensitive basin are particularly poignant. The pain is shared broadly as the state’s prolonged drought desiccates a verdant agricultural landscape, long supplied with water from both groundwater aquifers and the vast network of government pipelines that move water from north to south in California.

In the southern Fresno County town of Orange Cove, also near Monson, farmers are bulldozing lush groves of orange trees in the heart of California’s $2.4 billion citrus industry. For two years straight, the federal government has cut off water delivered through its massive Central Valley Project, which includes the 152-mile Friant-Kern Canal through Fresno, Tulare and Kern counties. Last month, the Orange Cove Irrigation District, the major provider for the eastern San Joaquin Valley’s citrus belt, severely curtailed deliveries.

Farmers, who typically require 2.5 acre-feet of water to produce an acre of oranges, were used to getting more than half that from federal supplies, reducing their need to pump well water. This year, the water district’s distribution of leftover federal reserves amounted to an average of 0.012 acre-feet. Growers seeking additional supplies were charged up to $1,500 per acre-foot – an amount that cost $90 a few years ago.

Within days of the district’s announcement, farmers began bulldozing healthy orange groves. Last year, 10,000 acres of citrus were leveled in response to water shortages in the three-county region. Agriculture officials say a total of 20,000 acres of orange groves could be toppled by summer, more than 10 percent of the total in the San Joaquin Valley.

In Orange Cove, Carlos Gutierrez had worked his way up from field worker to farm-labor contractor to a citrus producer growing on his own 117 acres. With his wells depleted and the price of imported water at a premium, he hired bulldozer crews to uproot 45 acres of trees that could have produced more than 300,000 oranges this year.

Afterward, he wandered forlornly beneath a splintering stack of citrus packing boxes.

“These were 60-year-old trees,” Gutierrez said. “They produced some of the best fall navels. I watched them all go down. To have to push them out because there is no water is a sad thing to see.”

Race for groundwater

For more than a century, this eastern San Joaquin Valley region has tapped its groundwater, the precious liquid that shimmers between sand and clay layers above the hard rock base of the Sierra Nevada. That supply helped build a mammoth agricultural economy that, in turn, helps California produce 85 percent of America’s citrus.

In Orange Cove, where hot summers and foggy winters have provided an ideal climate for navel and Valencia oranges, the groundwater table has dropped to its lowest point since 1953. That was two years after the Friant-Kern Canal opened in 1951, a government project intended to supplement the groundwater pumping and avoid draining the Tulare Lake Basin.

These days, farmers and residents once again are racing to extract whatever they can from the ground, risking the future to subsist in the present.

“All of this is interconnected,” said Ryan Jensen, an organizer for Community Water Center, a Visalia advocacy group working to help low-income residents get clean water. “You’re dealing with communities of farmworkers whose livelihoods come from the farms. Groundwater aquifers don’t respect property lines. People are competing for scarce resources, whether for agricultural or public consumption.”

California, in 2014, became the last Western state to regulate groundwater pumping, approving steps to improve local oversight over property owners who historically have been allowed to extract any water beneath their land. But that hasn’t slowed a fever of new drilling.

Growers, water districts and residents in Tulare County last year bored 1,900 new wells – more than three times the yearly average – as old wells ran dry, said Chris Kapheim, general manager of the regional Alta Irrigation District in Dinuba.

Six thousand more wells are expected to be drilled in the region this year, Kapheim said.

“The water tables are dropping, and people are chasing the last drop,” he said.

In Monson, ever since Maria Jimenez saw the last filthy drop spit into her sink, life has changed.

Maria’s husband, Ramon, hauls home five-gallon buckets of well water from the farm fields where he works. He climbs onto their roof and pours the water into a sawed-off metal barrel. It connects to a garden hose that flows to their shower head, complete with a shutoff valve he installed.

Meanwhile, the California Office of Emergency Services, State Water Resources Control Board, Tulare County and nonprofit community groups are working to bring tons of bottled drinking water to residents in Monson and replenish household supplies. They’re setting up outdoor porta-potties to replace toilets that have no water to flush.

For houses with wells still pumping, the local irrigation district has helped install water purifiers, because some wells are contaminated with nitrates or an agricultural fumigant banned in 1977. In dusty yards that once brimmed with flowers, the latest landscaping features are black plastic tanks storing emergency water.

Jimenez lugs heavy jugs into her kitchen. She uses disposable dishes as much as possible and draws on sparse water to wash the rest. She warms water in a large pot for the grandchildren’s baths. On a nearby wall, portraits of angels look over her. They are paired with images of the Virgin of Guadalupe and, from her native Mexican state of Jalisco, Nuestra Señora de San Juan de los Lagos – known as Our Lady of the Lakes.

These days, Jimenez says, “We pray to Our Father. And we pray for favors.”

A volatile basin

For generations, in one of the hottest, driest regions of California, the Tulare Lake Basin has served up a glistening bounty of favors.

In Orange Cove, orange growers Andrew and Justin Brown grew up hearing hallelujahs to the groundwater: fable-like stories of Sierra snowmelt rolling down the mountains to nourish subterranean water flows. The legend was passed down in a family lineage of citrus producers that includes dad David Brown, grandfather Robert Brown and two great-grandfathers, Elmer Brown and William Barnhill.

“We heard that back at the turn of the century there were artesian wells here, and you could poke ’em with a stick and water would come up,” said Andrew, 39.

More than 80 percent of California’s agricultural groundwater is pumped from aquifers in three hydrologic regions: the Sacramento River, the San Joaquin River and Tulare Lake Basin.

Tulare Lake was once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, supplied by runoff from rivers including the South Fork Kings, Kaweah, Tule and Kern. It went dry by 1899 as water was diverted from the rivers.

Now the shallow Tulare Lake Basin is the most volatile of California’s major aquifers. Across the San Joaquin Valley, agricultural wells commonly reach deeper than 1,000 feet. In the Tulare basin, particularly on its eastern edge along the Sierra, wells can hit bedrock as shallow as 50 to 120 feet.

The basin dramatically drains out or replenishes depending on climate patterns. It also spans a region that today includes 4 million people and the urban centers of Fresno, Visalia and Bakersfield. It supplies rural towns, where tens of thousands of residents still rely on wells for drinking water.

Over good years and bad, the aquifer has been steadily shrinking amid increasing agricultural and human needs – and, now, sustained drought.

“In general, the groundwater resources have been overtapped,” said Claudia Faunt, a supervising hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey who studies Central Valley groundwater resources. “The amount of water in storage has been declining for decades. There is not much coming in from rain and from mountain leakage. We’re pumping more water out of the system than we’re putting in on average. And that’s been true for 50 years.”

Last year, even as farmers near Orange Cove began drilling new wells, many made harsh economic decisions to cut down orchards.

First, they targeted the vulnerable trees. Those were the ones that produced tiny oranges or were so weakened from diminished water that they barely held onto their fruit after the first sweet-smelling blossoms of spring sprinkled down from branches.

Now, with well water even more scarce, farmers are toppling “good productive citrus,” said Joel Nelson, president of California Citrus Mutual, a trade association representing 2,200 member growers.

Last summer, the well supplying one of Andrew Brown’s orchards – and his house – abruptly stopped pumping as the family was doing laundry and watering the lawn. He ordered that the yard go dry and imposed strict household conservation rules.

The well sputtered back to life, as Andrew also paid peak rates for emergency surface water for his 100 acres of citrus. He drilled four test wells – at depths of 115 feet, 130, 140 and 150. All came up dry.

Last month, Justin Brown, faced with underperforming wells on a neighboring property, bulldozed a 10-acre orchard his grandfather Robert Brown and great-grandfather William Barnhill jointly planted in 1956.

“I had a physical last week,” Justin said. “My doctor told me my blood pressure is too high. I’m only 35. It’s very stressful. I don’t think anyone knows what is left in the ground. There is a gigantic unknown.”

Smaller oranges, less pay

At the Cecelia packing house in Orange Cove, where fruit-filled conveyer belts carry the economic life of a community, there are measurable impacts.

Cecelia’s president, David Roth, said that the plant this year will pack 80 million cartons of navels, Valencias and mandarins for supermarkets and export. He said that’s down from 92 million cartons in non-drought years – “the good ol’ days.”

Much of the fruit the plant is getting is smaller than normal. Roth said they’re losing $250,000 because many of the oranges are too puny for produce sections and he is diverting more fruit to the less profitable juice market.

Roth is trying to maintain working hours for his 65 employees, who earn $27,000 to $45,000 a year harvesting and packing fruit. But employees such as Laura Gonzales, who gets paid by the number of orange boxes she speed packs from the conveyer, is seeing her earnings plummet.

A 14-year employee, Gonzales can fill 700 citrus boxes a day, her hands feverishly grabbing and packing the tumbling fruit. But smaller oranges take longer to gather. They fill fewer boxes. In past years, Gonzales has earned as much as $680 a week working 35 hours. Recently, she has been earning $280 a week in 30 hours.

$2.4 billion annual earnings for California’s citrus industry

“When your work suddenly changes, your bills don’t go down,” said Gonzales, a mother of two who lives in nearby Orosi. “We’re still paying our bills, just no longer all at once.”

Last month, Roth ordered the bulldozing of 50 acres of citrus groves managed by Cecelia, with potentially more cutting to come. In 2014, the company took down orchards in 110 of its 2,000 acres. Many of the fields will be replanted, with seedlings requiring little water – but will take five to seven years to bear fruit.

The fallen orchards dry in the blazing sun, waiting to be ground up as biomass for a co-generation plant. Roth, who has spent his 63 years in this corner of the Valley, can’t stand the sight. “It’s like watching a dog suffer and die,” he said.

End of Eden

Back when his residential well in Monson could churn out a steady, clear stream of water, Ignacio Avila turned the grounds around his weathered white-plank home into a place of beauty – his personal Eden.

Avila, 53, a veteran laborer in the nearby orange orchards, planted a mystical garden of red roses, yellow sunflowers, multicolored chili peppers, red radishes and stalks of sugar cane. He kept a manicured lawn in harmony with 10 goats, dozens of chickens and pigeons and a quarter horse named La Tormenta. He used to ride the horse to the corner market, tie him up and savor a soda or a beer.

That was before his well water became murky gray from nitrates and unsafe for human or animal consumption. Now, in his residential dust bowl, his garden and lawn are gone. He has sold off his goats and horse.

“This place was so beautiful, like a park, just green, green, green,” Avila said. “Now it’s a desert.”

6,000new wells expected to be drilled in the region this year

Avila’s family is one of the lucky ones. His well still pumps out a trickle – enough for showers and to run an old washing machine. He uses leftover water from the wash to irrigate some cactus plants he preserved. He grills the cactus for his favorite napoles, which he serves with skirt steak.

Now the family’s drinking supply, including the water for his wife Constanza’s signature pozole stew, is delivered by a Sparkletts truck. Funded by the state, it drops off 18 boxes of six one-gallon water jugs twice a month.

Similar emergency efforts abound in the stricken valley. In East Porterville, where the first widespread human impacts of the drought emerged last summer, trucks brought in potable water and portable showers. Bottled water is being delivered to residents in East Orosi, where groundwater is contaminated.

Tulare County and local water officials are working to secure $4.8 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a state cleanup fund to drill new drinking-water wells in the community of Sultana and extend a $1 million freshwater pipeline to Monson.

Though severely stressed, the Tulare Lake Basin aquifer isn’t in imminent danger of permanent failure. Water officials say its underground clay and sand layers have not started compressing to cement, meaning that the basin could recover if the drought eases.

But on the land above, there is worry over the diminishing groundwater – and envy over who can get to what’s left.

When the water gave out in Maria Jimenez’s kitchen, and in the homes of four other farm-labor families, landlord Servando Quintanilla scrambled for solutions.

Quintanilla, a broad-shouldered 75-year-old with a thick gray mustache, straw hat and hands calloused from decades of field work, rents houses for $425 to $575 a month to farmworker families. He called a driller and got a $25,000 estimate for a new well. He checked into whether he could use his properties as collateral for a loan, while awaiting word on officials’ plan to build a drinking-water pipeline to the community.

“So do I drill, or do I wait?” Quintanilla asked in bewilderment.

When Jimenez came by recently to pay her family’s rent, Quintanilla refused the money, even when she insisted. “I said, ‘Maria, I’m not going to take anything until I fix everything,’” he said.

“I identify with these people,” he explained. “I have worked in the fields as they have. There is no question for me. I am not charging anybody rent for houses without water. How could I?”

Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.