Drinking Problem: Well Wishes
Mother Jones|January/February 2022
How thirsty cash crops could uproot vulnerable Californians
By Tom Philpott

THE TROUBLE BEGAN in 2017, when Rafael Bolaños’ sprinklers started to falter. He’d bought his three-bedroom, one-bath house on 2 acres in 2002, when supply from the property’s well was plentiful. But over the years, more pistachio groves sprouted in the grassy fields surrounding his town of Madera, California. After an epic four-year drought, the once-reliable well struggled to pull from the underground aquifer that the Bolaños family and their neighbors shared with the new trees. So Bolaños, a construction worker who lives with his wife, Lorena, and their 14-year-old daughter, shelled out more than $3,000 to deepen the well by 70 feet and replace its pump, worn from drawing ever-deeper water. He let his lawn and most of their prized fruit trees—orange, lime, and peach—die back, and took to hand-pumping to save the new equipment from wear and tear.

That kept just enough water running until May 2021, when California declared another drought emergency in the region, and the well started yielding just a few gallons a day. The family lived off bottled water until June, when a local nonprofit trucked in a 2,500-gallon tank and hooked it to the house’s pipes. They return with a refill every couple of weeks. Households—many of his neighbors are also now hooked to tanks—are given enough for each resident to use about 50 gallons a day; the national average falls between 80 and 100 gallons. Bolaños says a neighbor told him that a new, deeper well would cost at least $25,000. “We can’t sell our house if it doesn’t have water,” he says. “But if we pay for a new well, how can we be sure it won’t go dry in a few years, too?”

Madera lies in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, whose nut groves, fruit and vegetable fields, and industrial-scale dairy operations contribute mightily to the US food supply. But the area faces intensifying climate chaos: record heat, wildfire smoke, and its second historic drought in a decade. These disasters have yet to make a big dent in the bounty that the region provides to the nation’s supermarkets, but residents can’t avoid the wrath. Many face the same riddle as the Bolaños: wondering where the water went and how to get it back.

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