Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a statewide drought emergency. The declaration relaxes previous environmental regulations to facilitate emergency drought responses, like supplying bottled water to affected areas.
California’s previous drought, which lasted from 2012 to 2016, threatened not only the source of the nation’s produce, but the stability of the ground beneath it—with lasting consequences for the area’s most vulnerable residents.
And with little recovery time between droughts, advocates worry about the consequences of another prolonged dry spell, especially on three of the state’s most vulnerable communities who were disproportionately affected by the last drought: rural farmworkers, communities of color in the state’s Central Valley, and Indigenous communities.
Few options for rural farmworkers
California agriculture produces one-third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of its nuts and fruits. Many of those farms lie in the Central Valley region, where water supply makes or breaks the economy.
During good water years, farms irrigate using both surface water from precipitation and snowpack runoff, and groundwater from aquifers. When surface water runs dry in a drought, farms become increasingly reliant on groundwater—and many will drill deep to get it.
Heather Cooley, director of research for the Pacific Institute, said that while sourcing water underground may help the agriculture industry stay financially afloat, there’s a hidden price.
“There’s a cost to maintaining that agricultural output in revenue, and it’s in the form of damage to infrastructure,” she said, citing buckling roads and collapsed canals.
However, not all farms have access to groundwater, and some owners decide it’s not worth the risks. Instead, they opt to sell their water rights and fallow their farmland.
“[Fallowing], of course, has implications for farmworkers,” Cooley said. “Those [farmworker] jobs may not be there.”
While it usually takes a few years for fallowing to occur, it’s inevitable during prolonged droughts.
“We see fallowing in all droughts,” Cooley said. “It’s just a matter of when.”
During the height of the drought in 2015, California experienced a 45% increase in idle land area, along with losing over 10,000 seasonal farming jobs.
Drinking water for communities of color in the Central Valley
Latinx residents make up about 40% of the population in the Central Valley, and nearly a quarter of households in the region experience poverty, according to the latest census data. Those low-income residents were some of the hardest hit by the previous drought, comprising a majority of rural farmworkers vulnerable to job losses, as well as disproportionately living in areas that lost access to safe drinking water. Historically, droughts produce elevated levels of toxic chemicals in drinking water. That includes fertilizer runoff and higher levels of arsenic, a known carcinogen.
There’s also the possibility of water shortages, which were widespread at the height of the last drought. According to Madeline Harris, a regional policy manager with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, some wells never refilled.
“There are people who still have tanks on their roofs and don’t have functioning wells,” she said, “so there’s people who have been relying on bottled water delivery and water tanks for years.”
Some of this comes down to basic economics. The deeper a well goes into the ground, the more energy it takes to pump the water back to the surface—and the more expensive it costs.
While Newsom’s drought declaration allows nonprofits to use emergency funds to help replace dry wells, that system gets backlogged during times of high need. Low-income residents typically can’t afford the $30,000+ price of constructing a deeper well. As a result, they usually rely on shallower wells.
But there’s often another complicating factor: Industrial agriculture can afford to dig deeper wells.
Harris pictures agricultural and residential wells like two straws both sucking water out of the same underground “pot,” but at different depths.
“If you have a straw that’s going deep into a pot of water, then it’s basically sucking the water from underneath,” she explained. “There isn’t water for the shallower straw.”
The problem is magnified in small unincorporated communities, which aren’t always connected to deeper municipal water systems. Harris connects this back to legacies of systemic racism, like segregation ordinances barring Black residents from settling within city limits, and patterns of continued disinvestment since.
“A lot of communities in the San Joaquin Valley that are reliant on domestic wells in the first place—it’s due to environmental racism,” Harris said.
In 2014, California passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act to curb over-pumping and make groundwater sustainable by 2042. Harris said many affected communities are still waiting for those reductions to take place.
Salmon troubles for Indigenous communities
Tribal communities along the San Joaquin, Sacramento, and Klamath river basins rely on salmon populations for both sustenance and cultural traditions.
“We consider ourselves to be salmon people,” said Brittani Orona, a member of the Hoopa Valley tribe near the Klamath River. “Our ceremonies depend on the water.”
But this year, 97% of juvenile salmon in the Klamath River basin had an infectious parasite caused by decreased water flow and warmer temperatures. Sixty-three percent are expected to die.
“That’s really devastating for us,” Orona said. “That basically killed a generation of salmon that won’t come back.”
Orona cited interstate dams and policies to divert river waters as heavily impacting Indigenous land.
In 2020, Newsom and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown agreed to remove four dams in the Klamath River basin. But while original legislation was drafted in 2016, the project is now delayed to 2023. Orona said there’s skepticism about whether it will actually happen.
“We’re constantly at the whim of both administration changes and regulatory agencies deciding what to do for us,” Orona said. “There are tribes that are involved … doing a lot of amazing work through very difficult circumstances. But it’s not like we’re in control of our lands.”
Ultimately, Cooley believes this drought highlights the alarming pace of the climate crisis.
“This is what the models have suggested is going to happen, it’s just happening more quickly,” she said.
Both Harris and Orona have ideas for long-term mitigation. In the Central Valley, Harris wants bold action to prevent over-pumping.
“Maybe that looks like incentives for fallowing land, and creating buffers around disadvantaged communities, and creating green space instead,” she said.
And for tribal communities, Orona hopes to restore Indigenous control of the land and water management.
“It can only benefit people for Native peoples to be the head of this,” she said. “We know our land better than anyone.”
For now, Newsom’s emergency declaration encourages all California residents to reduce water consumption by 15%. The declaration stops short of enacting the kind of conservation mandate enforced by Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration in 2015.