Days before the April 1 snow survey, it was clear the news was going to be bleak. Another dry winter combined with warm weather made the pole Frank Gehrke carried just a prop. It wouldn't be used for measuring snow that Wednesday. Instead, the California Department of Water Resources spokesman pointed to the tape at his eye level showing where the snow level should be at that time of the year.
California Gov. Jerry Brown used that moment to announce a mandatory 25 percent cut in water usage. The snow-less background made it clear the state would be entering the fourth year of its drought.
Since 2011, regions of the state haven't just had below-normal rainfall; they're facing rainfall deficits of more than a full calendar year. Throughout most of California, the end of April means the end of hope for more rain. Historically in the Sacramento area, rain isn't impossible in May, but it's a far cry from the wettest months of December and January.
In years past, the dry conditions have given birth to devastating wildfires. In 2013, the Rim Fire grew to the third-largest in state history, burning into Yosemite National Park and leaving the landscaped scared for miles along the drive to the park. In 2014, the King Fire burned nearly 100,000 acres in El Dorado County, claiming 12 homes and 68 structures.
So far in 2015, Cal Fire officials have responded to nearly 200 wildfires—70 percent above normal.
With surface water scarce and water districts cutting back, the search for alternatives has farmers and residents looking to the ground and air for answers. All the while, they're dreading what another dry winter could mean for the state.
This week, CBS13's Nick Janes will be getting answers on the important questions facing Californians in Year 4 of the drought.
In a tiny, dusty shed in Los Banos in the sun-soaked, parched San Joaquin Valley, USGS hydrologist Michelle Sneed is measuring a vast problem hidden just beneath the surface.
“Since the ’20s or ’30s, this area has sunk about 10 feet,” she said.
What her calculations show is startling—about 3,000 miles of the land is sinking at some of the fastest rates on record. In some areas, it’s dropping by more than a foot a year.
The phenomenon is called subsidence, caused by growers pumping more and more groundwater during California’s drought, which is in its fourth year.
“We should be worried. It is a concern. It's expensive. It's impacting farming activities; it's impacting delivery of water,” Sneed said.
We didn’t have to go far to see the impact of overpumping. The concrete liner of the Delta-Mendota Canal is crumbling in several spots.
“Water can seep behind it, and start eroding the levee that we're standing on here,” Sneed said.
Subsidence isn’t just cracking canals and leaving wells above ground. The sinking land is buckling roads and damaging bridges. Experts warn repairs could cost taxpayers millions.
A bridge that was built decades ago once allowed people to boat under it. Now the water is level with the road, and the bridge has sunk about a foot in the last couple of years. Before long it will have to be replaced.
Subsidence isn’t new. Hydrologists say the land was giving way in the region during the Great Depression and World War II. It was slowed when canals were built. Farmers didn’t need to rely on wells for the underground water since there was plentiful surface water.
“It essentially fixed the problem for many years except during droughts,” Sneed said.
Now, with California deep into its drought, surface water is dwindling, leaving growers heavily dependent on groundwater. They’re drilling deeper and deeper depths.
Scientists say they’re sucking far more water out of the ground than what’s replaced. While that’s true in non-drought years, it’s even worse now.
Without the water itself holding the land in place, the underground clay layer is compacted, and the land begins to collapse.
Chase Hurley with the San Luis Canal Company calls a spot in Fresno County ground zero for subsidence.
The Sack Dam was built to divert and push water from the San Joaquin River to his canal, which carries water to farmers as far as 45 miles away.
“It's our only way to get water to 45,000 acres of productive farmland,” he said. “It’s getting tougher every year.”
That’s because the dam itself is sinking and not pushing the water as powerfully into the canal, which is also sinking. Canals are built on careful slopes so water flows downhill. Subsidence slows that water when the ground sinks and reduces the flow to farmers.
One fix is a costly option—installing a pumping station to make up for the lost canal slope would run about $15 million for just one spot. Experts say some canals in the San Joaquin Valley have lost 50 percent of their delivery capacity.
“We’re actually starting to have to push water uphill, and obviously gravity diversions don't work well going uphill,” Hurley said.
So what happens then? It’s a vicious cycle. Growers drill more wells, which causes the land to sink even more, slowing the canals even further.
For farmers with permanent crops, it’s quite literally a matter of survival. But groundwater pumping has gone largely unregulated and unmonitored for decades.
It wasn’t until last September that Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation overhauling the state’s management of its groundwater supply. California was the last Western state to regulate its groundwater use.
But those rules won’t take effect for years, so Hurley is working with local leaders to come up with a plan.
“We've gotta get a handle on it, and if we don't, my dam and my diversion is gonna need some work, ASAP,” he said.
As troubling and expensive as the immediate infrastructure impact may be, hydrologists like Sneed say at least it can be fixed. The most pressing long-term problem caused by subsidence cannot.
The Central Valley Aquifer, which extends some 400 miles, is the state’s biggest underground reservoir. But as the ground sinks, it’s causing the aquifer’s capacity to shrink.
Once that water storage space is gone, it’s gone for good.
It’s a heavy price to pay for taking too much groundwater during a drought.
“Just like a bank account, you can't do that for too long without paying penalties,” Sneed said.
While many Californians are looking for ways to save their lawns during the drought, there are hundreds who are facing live with no water at all.
It’s in Tulare County, south of Fresno where we find the hardest hit area in the entire state.
“The situation really is comparable to Third World conditions in some of these communities,” said Ryan Jensen with the Community Water Center.
Pastor Ramon Hernandez will tell you it’s already far worse than he ever imagined it could be. In the Iglesia Emmanuel Church parking lot, people with no water use community sinks and showers. The individual shower stalls are reserved for women and children.
“There’s not a whole lot of privacy there for the men,” he said.
Families pick up rare and precious donated drinking water from a trailer that’s half empty after a day. Hernandez doesn’t know where the next shipment is coming from.
Welcome to bone-dry Tulare County, where two or three wells run out every day. Across the country, there are few places like it.
“I never thought we'd see this here in the United States or even in California,” he said.
James Reed brings a few gallons of water to his friends whose well just gave out in unincorporated East Porterville.
“I’m paying it forward, you know? Family takes care of family,” he said.
Unlike the city of Porterville, which has a comparatively stable city water system, East Porterville residents have only their own private wells. Since the county started keeping track last summer, more than 300 wells have dried up.
It’s now estimated that 1,000 people are without water and that number is growing. Ruben Herrera replenished his supply at the tank outside the county fire station.
“Oh it's like gold,” he said. “This water's gold to us because we don't have any.”
His well ran dry on Saturday.
Ruben’s family will use the water for showers and flushing toilets, but it’s too contaminated to drink or even wash dishes.
“I've been here all my life and I never thought I'd see this, not like this, where I'm out here filling gallons just to survive,” he said.
About once a week, county water trucks refill the tanks. Some locals have tanks in their front yards. There aren’t enough tanks to go around, though, and even these folks have to look elsewhere for drinking water. Some have already abandoned their homes and left town. Hernandez says some have even taken water from a park pond.
Things are about to get even harder for the people of East Porterville. Porterville turned down a mutual aid request to buy water for East Porterville. It seems here, water is more valuable than money.
“I'm appalled, I'm hurt and I'm angry,” said Donna Johnson, who took a moment from delivering water to the needy to wipe away angry tears. “I heard that they actually clapped! I didn't go to the meeting last night. I wish had but it would've destroyed me, and I heard they actually clapped because we didn't get water out here. I don't understand that. I just don't understand it.”
Ryan Jensen with the Community Water Center is advocating for poor, rural communities dealt the drought’s harshest blow. He says Tulare County is the hotbed for wells drying up, but it’s happening as far north as Modesto, and as far south as Kern County.
“The scope of the problem in rural California is really not on the radar of a lot of people in the urban areas of this state,” he said."
Even those with well water may not be able to drink it. Jensen says few are aware that 1 million Californians can’t drink their own tap water, because it’s contaminated with nitrates, arsenic or uranium.
The problem has been brought into sharp focus by the drought, but Jensen says it’s nothing new and will take years and millions of dollars to fix.
“People don't realize there are people in their own backyard who haven't had safe drinking water for decades, in some cases,” he said.
Ironically, scientists say the areas largest economic driving force is responsible for polluting groundwater. A UC Davis study traced 96 percent of contamination to farming chemicals.
Without water, orchards are being left to die and farm jobs are drying up. Hernandez says some farm workers drive two hours to find part-time work, with their wages eaten away by the cost of gas to get there.
“At this point, yes, we're in a survival mode right now,” he said.
With little water and few jobs, the pastor prays his community makes it with the unrelenting triple digits of summer promising even more misfortune.
“Every family that comes by tells me, can you imagine how it's going to be here in a couple of months? And I don't, you know? It's bad already, but it's going to get worse,” he said.
Drilling deep into the Butte County ground, farmer Ryan Schohr is searching for the precious commodity that will keep his crops alive.
Nearly 500 feet down, he’s struck liquid gold—water.
“This is the first well we've put in in a generation,” he said.
Schohr will need every drop his well can spare. As it is, half of his rice fields and other crops will be fallowed, meaning the crops won’t be planted.
His surface water was severely cut this year to just 40 percent of what he’s used to. Schohr considers himself lucky, knowing some farmers are getting no surface water at all.
“Many farmers below Sacramento are at zero percent. Ag has been hurt tremendously by this,” he said.
Like many growers relying on more on groundwater, he’s emphasizing efficiency to maximize what little water he does have. His tractor uses precision GPS technology. A white box is one of two receivers controlling the blade smoothing the field down to one-tenth of an inch, making sure not a single drop of water is wasted.
“We're trying to use water efficiently to squeeze every last drop of water we can to make sure we have a crop,” he said.
Up and down the state, Jas Thiara with Mechanical Solutions is putting in micro-sprinklers he touts as a water-wise alternative to traditional flood irrigation. Not only will the sprinklers save water, he says there’s no run-off. That means more water ends up where it needs to be—closer to the young Yuba City peach trees. He estimates he gets about 50 to 60 percent water savings over the course of three to four years.
Farmers that are forced to cut back on water are turning to the efficient irrigation systems largely funded by government grant money.
Now, Thiara’s business is practically 24-7 with installations by day and parts orders by night. He’s running at least six weeks behind, because his suppliers can’t keep up with demand.
“We're trying to put systems in on weekends, Saturdays, Sundays; guys are running anywhere from 14 to 16 hour shifts right now,” he said.
In central Sutter County, rice farmer Steve Butler is strapping on his boots and readying for another rough year without rain. If the drought doesn’t end, there’s fear last year’s sobering stats could grow.
Agriculture took a $1.5 billion hit in 2014 with 17,000 farming jobs lost statewide and more than half a million acres left fallow.
But recently, the industry is under fire for using too much of the state’s water.
“I do think there's some misinformation,” Butler said.
He calls the widely circulated figure that agriculture uses 80 percent of California’s water an inaccurate exaggeration. He’s also pushing back against critics arguing farmers escaped Gov. Jerry Brown’s 25 percent statewide cutback.
“The big cuts in agriculture really came last year. The news stories this year are coming because the cuts are really starting to hit home,” he said.
According to the department of water resources, agriculture uses about 40 percent of the state's water. The 80 percent figure comes from the water diverted from streams and rivers.
In a few weeks, Butler will have a well driller come out, an expensive insurance policy for his crops. They can cost $150,000, and that’s if you can even get one drilled. So many growers need them, the wait is anywhere from six months to a year.
Six hours south of Schohr’s ranch, some farmers are drilling thousands of feet deep with some wells already going dry.
“It's a matter of survival for our family, for our farm and for our community,” he said.
Schohr is a six-generation farmer whose family has been in this business since the 1860s, and this is one of their toughest challenges yet. The search for water has them scrambling for survival.
It’s drought-busting technology that sounds so futuristic, it’s right out of Star Wars.
Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle in Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope ran a moisture farm where they would draw moisture from the arid climate of Tatooine with moisture vaporators.
Nearly 40 years after that movie was released, a Bay Area company is making something similar called atmospheric water generators.
The machines from Ecoloblue make purified drinking water out of thin air in Pacheco.
People are starting to realize that they need to make changes. The water's running out and they're looking for options
After eight years in business, owner Wayne Ferreira says it took a historic drought for people to finally take notice.
“People are starting to realize that they need to make changes. The water's running out and they're looking for options,” he said.
As his guys fire it up, Wayne explains the device sucks in air and takes the humidity out. It works sort of like a dehumidifier on steroids.
“However much wetness or humidity is in the air it gets stuck onto the condenser, and then the rest of the air is blown out the back,” he said.
The company video shows how humidity from the air is turned into water that then goes through a filtration process making it cleaner than any tap water.
The machine works best in hot and humid weather, but Ferreira says it will make drinking water even on dry days. The company says the industrial units make anywhere from 25 to 2,500 gallons a day. Ecoloblue’s smaller household versions make up to eight gallons a day.
For Michael DiBenedetto in nearby Walnut Creek, the atmospheric water generator is his sole source of drinking water.
“It is definitely a part of the solution,” he said. "We usually wait until a crisis to do something. I believe that the atmospheric water generators their time has come."
UC Davis professor Ralph Aldredge cautions there are drawbacks. For one, the units are costly—$1,300 and up for home units, while the industrial versions run up to $250,000. Perhaps more importantly, the professor says it takes lots of energy to run atmospheric water generators, especially on a larger scale.
He says the technology is worth exploring, but says unless water prices increase considerably, the machines alone might not be the solution to our drought.
“It is worth the cost certainly on a small scale, but on a larger scale one has to consider the cost of energy but the cost of infrastructure,” he said.
Back at Ecoloblue, we wanted to see how much water was made from a few hours in the morning and half an hour while we were there. There are easily several gallons in the tank ready to be filtered.
Ecoloblue is working on installing entire water stations in the Middle East and South America to produce 100,000 gallons a day.
Ferreira envisions a day when the technology will be everywhere.
"It’s not maybe going to save, but it can certainly help the drought that we're having."
For now, he’s content with being part of the solution to California’s crippling drought.
“It’s not maybe going to save, but it can certainly help the drought that we're having,” he said.
He acknowledges the devices use a good amount of energy, but that’s because the technology is in its infancy. He says they’re working to make the machines more efficient.
High above the suffering Sierra snowpack, Rich DeHaven captured an eye-opening perspective in California’s drought. Where snow that makes up one-third of California’s water should be just isnt’ there.
“We’re seeing a little bit of snow here, but not what I'd hoped to see,” he said.
We’re all starting to see the days of taking water for granted are over.
Sacramento homeowner Khristine Terlinde has taken that critical message to heart, ripping out 1,200 square feet of lawn and converting it to a drought-tolerant garden.
“If we want to live here, we need water,” she said.
Her toilet is dual flush and even her washer is waterwise. In one year, her water use plummeted about 75 percent and her bill dropped $100 a month.
“We’re very conscious of it, we're very conscious of the water we use."
If that doesn’t convince you to conserve, maybe an expert who helped lead her country through one of the toughest droughts the world has ever known.
Karelene Maywald, the chair of the Australia National Water Commission, spoke to CBS13 about the devastating millennium drought. California’s four-year drought looks small compared to Australia’s, which stretched from 1995 to 2012.
“We were running by the seat of our pants and we really had to manage as we went and adapt as we went,” she said.
Water leaders in California are now asking the Australians how to put their hard-won lessons to use.
“Because we certainly had to do the hard yards. There was nowhere else in the world we could find that had lived through what we were living through,” she said.
She says the country moved water around to those who needed it most. It spent $4.5 billion on drought assistance on things like incentives for home conservation including water-wise landscaping, rainwater tanks and shower timers.
When all was said and done, some Australians cut their water use in half.
“They really worked at treating water as the precious resource it is,” said Felicia Marcus, the chair of the State Water Resources Control Board in California.
She’s traveled down under and says the most valuable lesson for the state is conservation is the best, fastest and cheapest option. It took years to sink in in Australia.
“That is what we learned from the Australians: they thought they were in a three-year drought for about six, and then they had to take really dramatic action,” she said.
In some ways, California is emulating Australia by focusing on more efficient industry, recycled water and groundwater storage. As in Australia, we’ll use some desalination plants to convert salt water from the ocean into drinking water.
Following their lead does come with challenges. Marcus says Australia tracks its water use more efficiently than we do. In Sacramento, nearly half of the homes don't have water meters. The city says it intends to speed up the installation of meters, but even then, they don't expect to have them finished until 2020.
And though the country is about 20 times larger than California, the state has nearly twice as many people and it’s more politically divisive.
Still, Marcus says we have to find a way.
“If we’re in a major urban center and we only have one year of water left, that is nothing to sleep easy about,” she said.
If Australia drew up the drought-beating blueprint, then the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo, in the second year of its drought, is the cautionary tale.
They’re marching in the streets and praying for rain. Water is simply running out in the booming metropolis of 11 million, with reports that people have running only a few hours a day.
“If that happens in two or three years, people are going to think watering their lawns less is hardly an imposition,” Marcus said.
We’ve seen the drought’s impact first hand in this five-part series, whether it’s the San Joaquin Valley sinking, farmers and residents desperate for water, a Bay Area company’s innovation, or the warnings from Down Under.
The truth is there will only be one solution—rain. But that’s not happening anytime soon, and it’s unclear when California will have another wet winter.
“We have to stop wasting water on things that really don't contribute to our lives,” Terlinde said.
It’s a message echoing across California, and now, from overseas from someone who knows first-hand what happens when a drought doesn’t end.
“If you don't conserve early on and you use up what's left, the consequences down the track will be quite severe, very severe,” Maywald said.
An interesting thing happened in Australia after their drought ended—they haven’t seen a water-use bounceback as people are still conserving.