The Dust Bowl Returns

March 4th, 2014

The New York Times
by Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle

I-522.poster.0828FRESNO, Calif. — EVERY Saturday in late December and January, as reports of brutal temperatures and historic snowfalls streamed in from family in Vermont, New York and even southern Louisiana, we made weekly pilgrimages to our local beer garden to enjoy craft brews and unseasonably warm afternoons.

Normal winters here in Fresno, in the heart of California’s Central Valley, bring average highs in the 50s, steady periods of rain and drizzle, and the dense, bone-chilling Tule fog that can blanket the valley for days and even weeks on end.

But not this year. Instead, early 2014 gave us cloudless skies and midday temperatures in the 70s. By the end of January, it seemed like April, with spring trees in full bloom.

We fretted over the anomalous weather, to be sure. A high-pressure system parked off the Alaskan coast had produced not just our high temperatures but also soaring levels of fine particulate matter in the air and more than 50 rainless days, worsening a three-year drought, the most severe in half a millennium. If it’s this bad in January, we wondered, what’s it going to be like in July? But then we’d return to the beer taps, or meander over to peruse food truck menus.

Life in the Central Valley revolves around two intricately related concerns: the quality of the air and the quantity of the water. Although Fresno is the state’s fifth-largest city, it is really just a sprawling farm town in the middle of the nation’s most productive agricultural region, often called “America’s fruit basket.” Surrounded by mountains, which trap the pollution created by a surging population, interstate transportation and tens of thousands of farms, the valley has noxious air, even on good days.

The political atmosphere surrounding crop irrigation is equally toxic. Some farms in the western Valley — crippled by cuts in water allocations, salt buildup in the soil and depleted aquifers — now resemble the dust bowl that drove so many Tom Joads here in the 1930s. Farmers line highways with signs insisting that “food grows where water flows,” while environmentalists counter that the agriculture industry consumes 75 percent of the water transported by California’s byzantine water system.

Locals assess the situation in numbers and colors. Meteorologists compile and trade rainfall statistics with all the regularity and precision of batting averages, but without any of the fun. The air quality index — ranging from a “healthy” green to a “hazardous” maroon — occupies an ominous presence in the day, not unlike the color-coded terrorism alert scale adopted after 9/11.

Experts offer dire warnings. The current drought has already eclipsed previous water crises, like the one in 1977, which a meteorologist friend, translating into language we understand as historians, likened to the “Great Depression” of droughts. Most Californians depend on the Sierra Nevada for their water supply, but the snowpack there was just 15 percent of normal in early February. And the dry conditions are likely to make the polluted air in the Central Valley — which contributes to high rates of asthma and the spread of Valley Fever, a potentially fatal airborne fungus — even worse.

The current crisis raises the obvious question: How long can we continue to grow a third of the nation’s fruit and vegetables?

Tom Willey — an organic farmer from nearby Madera with the genial manner and snowy beard of a Golden State Santa Claus — certainly wonders. For six and a half years, he and his wife, Denesse, have provided most of our family’s fresh produce through their community-supported agriculture program. The Willeys taught us to appreciate kohlrabi and even turned our 5-year-old into a fan of brussels sprouts, which she likes to eat straight from the farm box.

Twenty years ago, the water table under the Willeys’ farm measured 120 feet. But a well test in late January revealed that it is now 60 feet lower. Half of that decline, Tom estimates, has occurred in the last two years.

The Willeys have done what they can to cope. They’ve cut back on less profitable crops, and they are already dedicated practitioners of sustainable agriculture. But many farmers aren’t, and the future is worrisome. Pumping from aquifers is so intense that the ground in parts of the valley is sinking about a foot a year. Once aquifers compress, they can never fill with water again. It’s no surprise Tom Willey wakes every morning with a lump in his throat. When we ask which farmers will survive the summer, he responds quite simply: those who dig the deepest and pump the hardest.

Yet for all the doom around us, here in Fresno itself it is hard to find evidence that the drought is changing the behavior of city dwellers. Locals have made a few concessions, though mainly to mitigate the effects of the bad air. The two of us, for instance, have skipped afternoon jogs to ease the strain on our lungs.

And while religious communities around the valley organized a day of prayer and fasting, entreating God to send rain, concrete efforts to solve the water problem are less apparent. Gov. Jerry Brown has called on all Californians to reduce their water use by 20 percent, but residential lawns, seeded each year with winter ryegrass, continue to glow in brilliant, bright-green hues, kept alive by sprinkler systems that are activated in the dark of night.

Fresnans have long resisted water-saving measures, clinging tenaciously to a flat rate, all-you-can-use system. Nudged by state and federal officials, Fresno began outfitting new homes with water meters in the early 1990s, but voters passed a ballot initiative prohibiting the city from actually reading them. It took two decades for all area homes to acquire meters and for the city to start monitoring the units. To its credit, Fresno has a watering schedule, limiting when residents can water their lawns. But enforcement, to put it charitably, is lax.

Our behavior here in the valley feels untenable and self-destructive, and for much of it we are to blame. But we also find support among an enthusiastic group of enablers: tens of millions of American shoppers who devour the lettuce and raisins, carrots and tomatoes, almonds and pistachios grown in our fields.

Rain showers moved in Thursday morning, for the third time in a week. The faithful will see signs of divine intervention, but it seems clear we need to stage one of our own. These storms brought less than two inches of rain — merely a drop in our tired, leaky bucket.

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