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California's Drought Ripples Through Businesses, Then To Schools

Cannon Michael's farm grows tomatoes, melons and onions, among other crops. This year, however, Michael will have to fallow one-fifth of the land due to the drought
Thomas Dreisbach
Cannon Michael's farm grows tomatoes, melons and onions, among other crops. This year, however, Michael will have to fallow one-fifth of the land due to the drought

Cannon Michael runs an 11,000-acre farm in California's Central Valley. His family has been farming in the state for six generations.

Michael's multimillion-dollar operation usually provides a wealth of crops including tomatoes, onions and melons. But recently, he's pretty pessimistic about work.

"It is going to be a year that's probably, at best, maybe break even. Or maybe lose some money," Michael tells NPR's Arun Rath.

Michael says about one-fifth of the land will lie fallow this year. So come harvest season, he won't be able to hire as many people to work the fields.

The reason that Michael and farmers all around the valley are cutting back is California's severe and ongoing drought.

"Without surface water, it's all a big strain, and people are finding whatever means they can to survive," he says.

Running On Empty

Nearly half of the country's fruits, nuts and vegetables come from California, a state that is drying up. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the entire state is considered "abnormally dry," and two-thirds of California is in "extreme" to "exceptional" drought conditions.

Earlier this year, many farmers in California found out that they would get no irrigation water from state or federal water projects. Recent rains have helped a little. On Friday, government officials said there was enough water to give a little more to some of the region's farmers — 5 percent of the annual allocation, instead of the nothing they were getting.

Michael says his farm has been a little bit luckier because of its long history here. His family has what are called "senior water rights" and a stronger guarantee to the region's water.

Those water rights mean they're getting 40 percent of their normal water allotment, and sprinklers are still spraying water across some of the soil, but the farm has still had to cut back.

Many fields remain fallow or are growing a placeholder crop to keep the soil from eroding. Thanks to the drought, much of Michael's wheat crop isn't suitable for human use, so it's already been cut to make hay for livestock. Michael says because of this, they're also buying less equipment, like big tractors that can cost upward of $400,000.

"We had ordered one last year in October in anticipation of using it this spring ... [and] based on the outlook this year, we just can't take it," he says.

Stories like this are playing out throughout the Central Valley. With less water, farmers are making fewer big purchases, fallowing hundreds of thousands of acres and hiring fewer farm laborers. All of this means they're putting less money into the local economy.

No Crops, No Work, No Money

Economists say it's too early to accurately predict the drought's effect on jobs, but it's likely as many as 20,000 will be lost.

That might not sound like a lot, but many of those workers are already living paycheck to paycheck in communities that depend on that work.

Mendota, Calif., is a small farming town of about 11,000 people, not far down the road from Fresno. The majority of the town's residents work in agriculture.

"The ordinary citizen here is going to be facing some of the most drastic situations that I've probably seen," says Robert Silva, the town's mayor.

Silva says Mendota struggles even in wet years. Nearly half of the people here live below the poverty line, and unemployment often hovers around 30 percent.

They've been through bad droughts before; the last hit in 2009, brutally coinciding with the nation's foreclosure crisis. Silva says he's been thinking a lot about that year recently.

"We know exactly, more or less, what's going to happen because we saw what happened," he says. "We experienced these bad problems: The crime went up, there was a lot of spousal abuse [and] expulsions from the school system as a result of those people not working."

Silva says it's been especially hard for men and women used to working hard in food production, to turn around and stand in food lines for handouts. Most hiring happens during harvest season, closer to summer, so people here say the worst is yet to come.

Along Interstate 5, it's impossible to miss the signs of drought: dead almond trees and unattended fields. There are signs everywhere along the road expressing anger about what people here call "The Water Wars."

Signs in Spanish and English say things like: "No Water Equals No Jobs," "Pray For Rain" and "Congress-Created Dust Bowl."

Both the federal and state governments have promised to help. President Obama has promised $183 million in federal funds for drought relief, while California has put forward nearly $700 million on top of that. But farmers and local officials insist that more is needed.

A Ripple Effect For Schools

One area that has officials worried is the effect on education in places affected by the drought.

Jane Brittell, the principal at Lorena Falasco Elementary School in Los Banos, a town about 35 miles north of Mendota, says she's worried that the drought will force families to leave and pull their kids out of school.

"We have an agricultural community, and even if the student's parents aren't involved in the agricultural field, the community is," Brittell says. "So when that starts to dry up and there's not the money generated for the businesses, employment starts to dwindle and parents have to move for better jobs."

The Los Banos Unified School District could lose up to 5 percent of its students, says Superintendent Steve Tietjen. For a district like Los Banos, with 10,000 students, that's about 500 kids. California distributes education funding based on attendance, so losing students means losing dollars — after years of cutbacks already.

"We're still deficit spending this year, so if we were to lose ... 500 students, that's somewhere around $3 million we would be out," Tietjen says. "How many teachers would we have to cut to save $3 million?"

Tietjen says that would mean laying off as many as 20 teachers in the district.

At least this year, he won't have to make that decision. The California Department of Education says it's going to work with schools hit hardest by the drought to make sure they don't lose funding.

Hanging On To Hope

Back in Mendota, 54-year-old Sergio Valdez, who grew up here, says he's proud of his town and has hope that it can survive the drought. While there's talk of people leaving to find jobs elsewhere, he says he's staying.

"It's a little town and it's home, you know, it's home for us," he says. Valdez's parents left Mexico to work in the fields here, and he worries that the new group of people moving to the Central Valley won't have the same chance to succeed.

Valdez says every town has its problems, and right now, in Mendota, they're waiting to find out just how bad the drought will get.

"They say, oh, we're gonna become a ghost town, we're gonna dry up. ... No," he says. "Mendota will continue to live. It's not going to be as big and prosperous as everybody wants, [but] we'll be like the little train that said, 'I think I can, I think I can.' "

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