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The New Dust Bowl

In the 1930s, Okies saw California's Central Valley as a Garden of Eden. Now it's dying of thirst.

That night, a West Side Youth food box sits in Alejandro Roman's rented home, a converted barbershop on the main street where he lives with his wife, Marta, and their two teenagers. In their tiny living room, Alejandro gnaws at a toothpick as Marta knits. She is recovering from breast cancer and can't work; he's lost 15 percent of his hours at an almond orchard. After paying rent, utilities, and medical bills, the family lives on less than $125 a week. The orchard will probably lay off the rest of its workers if its wells fail. But the Romans, who obtained green cards several years ago, remain hopeful. "This country has given us a lot," Marta says, setting down her needles and clasping her heart as her voice trembles. "This country, the future it has given us, is beautiful."


A FEW MILES south of Mendota, a sign along the freeway proclaims, "Congress Created Dust Bowl." The land around it had been green with wheat sprouts before the spring rains petered out. Then pumping restrictions put a stop to water deliveries from the federal Central Valley Project, and farmer Joe Martini gave up on harvesting a once fertile 2,300-acre hillside. Now it is nothing but powdery dirt. Martini blames the government, which has cut off water to farmers while still supplying coastal cities and maintaining water levels in the Sacramento River Delta, home to the federally protected delta smelt. "We're not gonna survive," he says. "We're gonna collect some insurance this year, and then maybe next year there is no insurance and we're done. We'll just let it die."

Empty houses and unfinished slabs fill a subdivision in Lathrop, California. Empty houses and unfinished slabs fill a subdivision in Lathrop, California.

Farmers on the valley's west side have long known that their water supply could disappear at any time, but counted on it anyway. "The dollar signs overwhelmed the warning signs," says Richard Walker, an economic geography professor at the University of California-Berkeley and an expert on the Central Valley's economy. "It's the phenomenon of collective madness, collective belief, which is no different from Wall Street or American car companies."

Some farmers cling to the hope that an ever drier California will be forced back into the business of building massive water projects. "With California's booming population, and with the impact that global warming will cause to our snowpacks, we need more infrastructure," Gov. Schwarzenegger said in 2007, announcing a $4.5 billion proposal for new canals, dams, and reservoirs that he claimed would help restore the ailing Sacramento delta. This summer, Democratic lawmakers sponsored a package of water bills that emphasized conservation over construction. The governor criticized the bills, even though they would allow him to appoint a panel with the authority to approve a controversial canal that would carry more water to the Central Valley and Southern California.

Standing in front of the bathtub rings of the shockingly empty San Louis Reservoir oustide Mendota, the governor quiets a cheering crowd of 10,000 at the conclusion of the four-day California March for Water. He was invited by the California Latino Water Coalition, the group of farmers and Latino politicians who organized the march to create pressure for new water projects.

"Cesar Chavez knew the power of a good march," Schwarzenegger declares, not mentioning that the United Farm Workers, which Chavez founded, boycotted the march, calling it a front for anti-union growers. "He led by example and he never stopped trying until he found a way. And this is exactly what we are going to do."

Waiting for free food in Mendota. Waiting for free food in Mendota.

The desperate men and women who marched for days through the dust and heat see a quick solution to their woes: an executive order by Schwarzenegger or a deal with the Obama administration to create a to-hell-with-the-smelt exemption from the Endangered Species Act that would flood the fields again. There is little talk of the thirsty years ahead or what will have to be done to prepare for them. Someone holds a sign that says, "Don't be a girlie man, be a governor—turn the pumps on." Cheers break out as Schwarzenegger proclaims that he will "not quit until we get the water," though he stops short of saying how he'll make it happen fast enough to stave off the drought. (The State Water Project has said it will provide farmers with 40 percent of their normal water allotment for the rest of the year; the federal Bureau of Reclamation has been providing just 10 percent.)

Afterward, Joseph Riofrío shakes the governor's hand and presses him for more details, but comes away discouraged. "I was expecting something bigger," the former mayor admits. "But it doesn't appear that a switch is going to be turned on."

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