Inside the California Drought

Mendota, California

August 10, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


California is going through the fourth year of the most severe drought in its recorded history. This year the drought has further intensified, and now the vast majority of the state is in “extreme drought.” The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains this year, which large sections of the state rely on for water in the late spring and summer months, is only six percent of normal. The huge capitalist agribusiness in California’s vast Central Valley has been a focus of complex struggle over allocation of the sharply decreased water—agriculture uses an estimated 80 percent of the water in the state.

A small crew of reporters and photographers spent a day in and around Mendota, California, to find out about the effects of the California drought and to report to Mendota is one of the places where the drought is hitting the hardest. It is a small, largely Latino town of about 11,000 people in the Central Valley, near Fresno. We came away from our short visit with a richer and deeper understanding of just how insane and horrific capitalist development is—how it ravages the land, and savagely exploits the people—and came away also with a sharpened sense of why we need a revolution, now.

Mendota, California
Mendota, California

When you drive through the countryside around Mendota, in California’s Central Valley, you can right away begin to get a sense of the impact of the California drought. You can see whole orchards, with hundreds or thousands of trees, dried out and dead from lack of water. You can see huge fields, stretching along the highway, left fallow (not planted with crops) because the water to grow plants is not available or is too expensive. If you talk to people who operate the farms, you hear that some are planning to uproot thousands of almond trees because of lack of water.

The fallow fields are not a small matter. The California Central Valley is a very big player in capitalist agriculture in America—roughly 50 percent of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables sold in this country come from this huge valley. But in addition to the overt signs of the drought, you also see things that, on the surface, don’t make sense. You see massive fields where row after row of thousands of tiny trees are propped up on stakes to give them a start—they have just been planted, or planted very recently. And it will take years before they yield a profit. And they will have to be irrigated the whole time. Some people with a lot of money are betting that they will manage to make a profit out of these new trees. We wanted to find out what is going on.

And from another angle, in Mendota you can see the hardship faced by the people whose labor has been at the foundation of enormous profits in California agriculture, and how they, too, are deeply affected by the drought. When we visited Mendota, it was 95 degrees in town. And it was probably hotter in the fields surrounding the town. Just standing there in the sun, we broke into a sweat. We met and talked with a crew picking cantaloupes in that sun—it was 4 pm on a Saturday, and they were still working. And we also talked to others in Mendota who were on the desperate edge of being able to survive because their hours were being cut due to the fallow fields and reduced work because of the drought. They were suffering because they could NOT get out into that sun all day to do backbreaking labor.

The California drought is caused in the most immediate sense by a years-long decrease in rain and snow, and is part of a larger and longer drought across the U.S. Southwest and parts of Mexico. Scientists say that some of this is simply the kind of fluctuation that comes naturally, which has happened many times over thousands of years. But some scientists also say that the extent and intensity of this particular drought cannot be explained simply by natural variation alone. They say that the fact that California is warmer because of global warming, driven by human burning of fossil fuel, is a crucial factor—and the warmer climate means that what water there evaporates faster and intensifies the drought. (And this also intensifies the forest fires now raging across the state.)

And even more important is the fact that the whole history of capitalist development of California, and this takes particular focus on the use of water, has been a completely unplanned and unsustainable process driven not by the needs of the people and the environment, but by competition between different groups and factions of capitalists, struggling with each other and ripping off people and exploiting nature. (See the article “California Drought and an Insane System.”)

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Water in California basically comes from three sources. One is rain and snow, which has dramatically lessened because of climate change, (as well as the years of drought). The second major source of water is the Colorado River, which itself has been drained by development and is suffering from drought. (The mighty Colorado, which once entered the ocean in Mexico at Baja California in a vast wetlands, now almost never makes it to the sea at all and the wetlands have almost completely dried up. The water which once flowed to Mexico and the ocean now goes to Phoenix, Los Angeles, and other cities, and to agriculture.) The third source of water in California is pumping from underground aquifers.

A dramatic illustration of the long history of unsustainable pumping of water from aquifers in California is the accompanying picture which shows that just outside Mendota, from 1925 to 1977, the ground level fell 30 feet because of water being pumped from underground aquifers. When the ground falls like this as aquifers are drained, the underground spaces in rock and clay formations that have been holding the water are crushed and broken. The earth itself does not fully recover, and cannot hold as much water again.

The pumping of groundwater went on for decades, and all over the Central Valley. Because the difficult soil conditions in Mendota require a LOT of water for agriculture, groundwater was pumped there more than almost anywhere else. But the pumping stopped, or was significantly reduced, when statewide irrigation systems made water available through canals from the Sacramento River Delta 150 or so miles north of Mendota. Taking water from the Sacramento River Delta had its own bad environmental consequences, and it, too, was unsustainable in the long run. And today very little of that water is available because of the drought, and the pumping of the underground aquifers, in Mendota and elsewhere, has resumed with a vengeance. We were told in Mendota that not only are the well-drillers extremely busy all over the area, but some farmers are bringing in oil companies with their oil-drilling rigs to go far deeper. The deeper you drill, the older the water. Some water 20,000 years old is now being used for irrigation.

All of this is taking place with no plan, no coordination, no regulation. This is fundamentally because the driving force behind development is the anarchic capitalist economy. What is planted is planted because there is a profit in it, not because it is needed or sustainable. Water and other natural resources are sucked into the capitalist production process without regard for social or environmental consequences. This even takes legal expression—California has had essentially no rules for the use of water pumped out of the ground. If you drill a well, the water is yours. You are not required to record how much you use. (There is a new law which requires reporting and some other regulations of groundwater pumping—but the requirements don’t go into effect until 2022 or later.) In short, you can suck everything you can out of your well. The San Jose Mercury News described the resulting water wars going on now:

To ensure they can support their crops, farms are “ordering wells faster than we can put them in,” said Arthur, of Arthur & Orum Well Drilling.

Driller Ron Bradley, of Del Rey, south of Fresno, is busy replacing or deepening dry domestic wells. “Without the groundwater being replaced, they’re not adequate anymore.”

It’s akin to an arms race, said hydrologist Vance Kennedy. Newly deepened wells drain the water below existing wells—forcing neighbors to drill ever deeper or risk going dry.

“People don’t know, or don’t care, that they are also pulling water from thousands of feet around them,” he said. “If their neighbor suffers? Well, it’s a dog-eat-dog world.” (“California Drought: San Joaquin sinking as farmers race to tap aquifer”)

This water is under the ground because of geological processes tens of thousands of years old, and in some cases cannot be replaced. It should be left for future generations—not consumed in a frenzy of dog-eat-dog profit-taking. And there is a further twist—the water from the underground aquifers is saltier than the water from other sources—and some crops cannot grow in it. Mendota once promoted itself as the “cantaloupe capital of the world.” It also grew a range of vegetables. But as the drought has intensified, one consequence of saltier water more and more characterizing what is growing in Mendota is that things like vegetables and cantaloupes have been cut back, and fruit and nut trees, which have greater tolerance for salt, have expanded. At the beginning of this story we posed the question of why huge groves of new trees were being planted. It seems that part of the answer is that some of them are pistachios, which are very tolerant of saltier water.

So this is the emerging picture in Mendota, which is in some ways an extreme expression of what is going on throughout the whole Central Valley: water resources from tens of thousands of years ago are being sucked out of the ground to water crops that are planted on land which is not that suited for agriculture in the first place—and this process is increasingly environmentally damaging and cannot be sustained in the long run. And what determines the course of development today is what can be profitably produced, especially for the large and powerful capitalists that are able to operate in the big-time agribusiness that dominates the Central Valley. Much has been made in the press in California of the fact that it takes more than a gallon of water to produce one almond, and 4.9 gallons to grow a single walnut. But these crops are also immensely profitable. And over the years in the Central Valley, major imperialist investors have shifted toward more water-intensive crops during the drought. The San Jose Mercury News listed a series of major investors, including hedge funds, who have bought out farms and shifted production to MORE water-intensive crops during the years of the California drought. We saw groves of 10,000, or even more, new trees in our trip. So this is another part of the answer to the question of why massive numbers of new trees are being planted—some big capitalists are hell-bent on finding water by hook or by crook (which most likely means ever deeper wells) for what they hope are very profitable investments in water-loving trees.

Crops that need more and more water... ever-deeper wells even as the ground is falling... and water that is saltier and saltier. This is madness, and it cannot be sustained—but this is capitalism at work, driven by the global, anarchic competition between capitalists and groups of capitalists, searching the Earth for ways to extract profit, and fighting it out to dominate each other. A gardener in Mendota, when asked why it was that growers were planting massive groves of new trees, told us, “It’s kind of like the last bite...”

“Taking the last bite” does capture some things about what is going on in Mendota. But here’s the problem—capitalism on its own will never stop taking the last bite—it will go on, digging deeper wells and bringing the surface of the Earth down and down—it will go on squeezing everything it can from the immigrants working in the fields—and it will do this because this is what capitalism is and what capitalism does.

This points to why nothing can really change without a revolution.

Impact on the People: “We are drying up”

But what about the people who live in Mendota? How has the drought affected them and what has been the impact on their lives?

Just as the drought has intensified the madness of this system’s use of water, which was already going on in Mendota, so, too, the drought has intensified the exploitation and oppression of the people of Mendota.

The town is 90 percent Latino. There may well be a higher percentage than that because many people do not have papers. We were told that most people in the town and working in the fields are from Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras. Driven by the search for a better life, by hunger and the way that the workings of the international imperialist system, and most especially U.S. imperialism, have dominated and ravaged Mexico and Central America, people have been unable to live in their own countries and have undertaken the sometimes desperate and dangerous, and always wrenching, journey to the U.S. to serve inside this country as modern-day slave labor. We spoke, for example, to a farmworker from Honduras. He said he made the trip from Honduras because life is so difficult there and because of the violence that made life very dangerous and precarious. To get to the U.S., he came by train—he rode on the famous train, La Bestia, where people come across Mexico on the roof of the train, threatened by police, theft, and rape along the way. His trip took 15 days from the Honduran border to Monterrey, Mexico. From there, it was another seven days to cross into the U.S.

We spoke to people without papers or rights, working at or around minimum wage in the hot sun to make enough to barely survive and send money back to relatives in the countries they left behind. Think about it—on top of the harsh work and low wages, they are hounded by the immigration authorities and vilified and called “parasites,” “criminals,” “drug dealers” and “rapists” by the likes of Donald Trump—while from Obama they face the largest number of deportations in history, along with the holding of men, women, and children in detention under terrible conditions. This whole horrific situation has been made much worse by the drought.

One big part of the difficulty the drought has intensified is that where they once would be able to work long enough to eke out survival for themselves and their families, this is no longer true, at least in many cases. One supervisor told us what he observed: “People would work in the corn and then in the melon, and when that ended, they’d work in the broccoli until January. If before [the drought] people had 10 or even 11 months of work, now they have maybe four.”

A woman whose daughter worked in the onion fields told us, partly in tears, of how this came down in her family: “The work is over already. Just one week more. And then there is no work. My daughter always worked all year and not now. We don’t know what we’re going to do no longer. Work in the tomatillos is also coming to an end. We’ve lived here for seven years.”

We asked, “What do people say they’ll do?” She answered, “They do not know. It helps some because people come from Fresno to give food. But bills and the rent and all that? They come every 15 days to give food in the park. You get rice, beans, milk—they give us all that. But it’s difficult. We don’t know what to do.”

This story is the story of many people in Mendota. This woman was the second person we talked to in Mendota—we drove into town, walked into a laundromat, and started talking to people. Pretty much everyone there worked in the fields or was related to or lived with people who did. And this is the bitter reality—the people whose hard labor produces 50 percent of the fruit, nuts, and vegetables in the U.S. are going hungry.

And it is not just the farmworkers who are the victims and whose lives are being shaken. We talked to a gardener who had owned a small business for 35 years in Mendota:

“For a small business like me, the situation is that the water is being rationed. People are being fined for throwing water, if a sprinkler is running down the gutter. Lawns are drying up. The other day I went to cut about six lawns and four of them said don’t cut it. Let it go another week. Others said, we got our own lawn mower, you know. I’m getting affected real bad—35 years I’ve been in this business and usually by this time I have a little money saved up. This year it’s been real tough. I’ve been 35 years in Mendota and I’ve never seen anything like this before. The only reason people are getting crops and stuff like that is because of well water. It’s not from the mountains or anything else. Another year and the only option I got is some retirement money. I’ll be 62. If it wasn’t for that, I’d have to go on welfare.”

He went on: “We’re drying up. The situation is bad. Everybody I talk to—everybody knows me—you can tell there is something in the air. They’re in distress, under pressure, everywhere you go here it is slow—mechanics, everything. Right now it’s supposed to be going full blast but it’s not like that.”

He told us that the tap water in Mendota—which comes from wells—is undrinkable, that you can smell the chemicals, that he has to buy drinking water, and that this is not just a product of the drought, it has been like this for a long time.

He spoke with passion and bitterness of how much wealth has been taken out of Mendota and the surrounding area—and how little has benefited the people. There is a sense he had—and also among others in the town—that things cannot go on as they have—and not just in Mendota—even if the rains start again in earnest. The drought has brought some things to the surface—and not just 20,000-year-old water, but anger at the long and bitter history of raw exploitation and oppression.

This is what we are dealing with. The U.S. goes around the world and destroys the economies and social cohesion of whole countries; it draws their people here to work as wage slaves; it destroys the planet itself—its air, water, and the extraordinary life on the planet; and it hounds the people who come here to work and to survive with immigration police and poisonous lies about how they are parasites, even as they are the ones who are putting food on our tables. And then, when production shifts from one crop to another, when capital jumps to another field, or another country, because it can squeeze more out of some other worker somewhere else—then, too fucking bad for you, you can just go hungry and your babies can starve.

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

But what really makes you angry is that it doesn’t have to be this way. A whole, radically different world is possible. One where the capitalist system and its mad anarchic drive for profit through exploitation and ravaging people and the Earth itself has been defeated, its institutions of repression and control shattered and broken by a powerful revolution which goes on to immediately build a new state and a new and radically different system based on the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal). And on that basis a new economic system can come into being which is based on advancing the revolution to liberate the whole planet, to meet social needs, and overcome all the oppressive divisions and relations; and which protects, preserves, and enhances the environment for present and future generations.

And in that society, growing food will still be a struggle. We will still have to deal with things like drought. And most likely we will have a big battle to overcome the catastrophic environmental devastation and climate change capitalism has caused, which will include drought and devastating storms along with rising seas, and many other problems. But with revolutionary state power and a powerful revolutionary movement anchored among oppressed people, but extending through all society, we can quickly move to a place where the land itself isn’t owned by big capitalists, but by the revolutionary state, and we can quickly learn how to carry out the production of food in a way that feeds all the people. And we will immediately put an end to the slave-like conditions of labor in agriculture. We can immediately put an end to the obscene inequalities that push people who are producing food for everyone to the edge of starvation. We can quickly leave behind the insanity of private landowners producing for their own profit above all, where stealing water from neighboring farms is what you do if you are going to survive. We can start right away to STOP the endless abuses and discrimination faced by the immigrants in places like Mendota, the suppression of their language, culture, and legal and political rights. We can break down the ancient divisions that have some people working with their hands and others doing the thinking and telling them what to do. We can draw on the knowledge and methods of scientists, activists, farmers, and the workers themselves to organize agriculture in a way that leaves the Earth in a better state, not in a nightmare world where the surface of the Earth itself is falling.

When we get to that world, what has happened to the earth, to the water, and to the people in Mendota (and in places like Mendota all over the planet) will be seen for what it really is—a great and terrible crime. And maybe when we get to that future society there will be a museum in Mendota where there will be a picture of the ground falling 30 feet because of the groundwater being pumped out, and other exhibits which point to the madness and horror of capitalism so starkly manifest in Mendota. And maybe the exhibits in this museum will bring out how this all came not from something evil about humanity, but from the capitalist system and the way it forced people to be.



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