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The Central Valley News Collaborative includes The Fresno Bee, Vida en el Valle, Valley Public Radio and Radio Bilingüe. The project was announced in late 2020 and began its work in 2021 with the Collaborative's reporters shining a light on how the Central Valley’s communities of color have been disproportionately impacted, physically and financially, by COVID-19. The Collaborative is now exploring how the drought and climate change could reshape the valley, and the lives of the people who work in the agriculture industry. The Collaborative is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation, with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.

These small Fresno County farmers are struggling to get water from their wells amid the drought

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June Moua looks to see how the groundwater pump is working on her small farm west of Fowler on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. CRAIG KOHLRUSS CKOHLRUSS@FRESNOBEE.COM

June Moua started growing cherries, tomatoes and grapes in east Fresno County 10 years ago. Now she grows a few different types of crops. But her most profitable are the water-intensive Asian greens like mustard greens and bok choy. 

“Every other day you have to water to keep going, otherwise it won't work,” she says. “They're just going to die.”

She says she learned how to farm from her father when she was younger. Since then, she’s learned even more through trial and error. She enjoys bringing these Southeast Asian crops to farmers markets in Los Angeles, but the drought has put her in a tough position.

“It’s a challenge like, ‘what are we going to do?’” she says. “Are we going to plant or are we not going to plant?” 

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June Moua walks among the crops on her small farm featuring many Southeast Asian vegetables west of Fowler on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. CRAIG KOHLRUSS CKOHLRUSS@FRESNOBEE.COM

Moua gets her water from a well. She says before the drought, water would flow effortlessly from the well through a pipe into her fields.  But since August, she’s had to turn her water pump on and wait.  Sometimes it takes up to half an hour.

“You just have to sit here and maybe wait and wait,” she says.  

Ruth Dahlquist-Willard is a small farms advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension, which helps growers identify problems and solutions on their farms. She says many of Moua’s problems stem from the fact that her groundwater level has dropped during the drought. 

“So her pump is working harder to bring the water up from below the ground,” she says.

“And there's also less water and the flow rate is a lot less than usual.”

Small farmers face less water, higher electricity bills

Moua says running the pump for that long has more than doubled her electricity bills. Last year she paid $300 a month. This year, she’s getting a lower yield and paying closer to $1,000 a month.

She uses a flood irrigation system, meaning she flows water down small trenches running through her crops. But this year, the water isn’t reaching some of the crops on her 10-acre farm. 

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Asian vegetables grow in June Moau’s small farm west of Fowler on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. CRAIG KOHLRUSS CKOHLRUSS@FRESNOBEE.COM

 “And you don't get a lot out of the field,” she says. “You get a little but pay more.” 

Dahlquist-Willard says the solution is either building a new well or deepening the existing one. But for small farmers it’s not that simple. She says they’re already dealing with higher electricity bills due to pumping. And if they rent their land like Moua, it becomes more complicated.

“That's not really up to them if they don't own the land,” she says, “because the well is the responsibility of the landowner.” 

As groundwater drops, farmers struggle to pump water

Twenty minutes east of Moua’s farm, Antonio Cabrera is dealing with his own groundwater issues. He

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Antonio Cabrera walks among the lemon trees with his dog Bakhu on his farm in Reedley on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. CRAIG KOHLRUSS CKOHLRUSS@FRESNOBEE.COM

says having his own land to farm has been a dream of his since he was a kid living in Mexico. 

“But because we didn’t have the means for me to go to school, that is why I came here,” he says.  

He worked in the fields during the day and attended English classes at night. Eventually, he got his masters degree in civil engineering at Fresno State. 

He now owns 20 acres of lemon trees in Reedley. 

Last year, he says, groundwater levels on his farm dropped to 90 feet -- that’s 40 feet deeper than his well could reach. Through a loan from the United States Department of Agriculture, he was able to make his original well deeper. 

But, he says, “when they finished the pump, I was not able to get water.”

The drought worsened this year and the water level dropped again. This time, it fell to 142 feet below the ground. His new pump only reached 120 feet. 

“So I tried to set my pump at 145, but I was getting so much sand,” he says. “And I was burning my pump so I said, ‘nope, this is not going to work.’”

The only other option he says is to drill a new well on another part of his property. This time, he’s drilling it 500 feet deep to ensure he reaches groundwater for the next few years. In the meantime, he’s been pumping water from his neighbor. But it’s come at a higher cost. 

He said he’s now paying his own electricity bill and his neighbor's but, “at least I’m able to maintain the trees”

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Antonio Cabrera takes a look at a lemon on his farm in Reedley on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. CRAIG KOHLRUSS CKOHLRUSS@FRESNOBEE.COM

He says a grant from the state will help cover some of the electricity costs. Without support from the state, he says his farm would not be able to survive.

“It’s extremely hard for a small farmer like me to have the cash to address those issues,” he says.  

Cabrera is hopeful that these new investments will help keep his small farm afloat. As for June Moua, she says she’s not sure what the future holds. Her lease ends in November, and she would like to purchase the land. But without the cash on hand she will need to get a loan.

This story is part of the Central Valley News Collaborative, which is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.

 

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