More dire by the day

Beto Orozco, whose well ran dry more than a year ago, makes weekly trips the to the local fire station for more water. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Beto Orozco, whose well ran dry more than a year ago, makes weekly trips the to the local fire station for more water. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Stark images of cracked earth and fallow fields tell the story of the worst drought in California history. Reporter Andrea Woo and photojournalist John Lehmann travelled to East Porterville, Calif., where residents have made dramatic changes to their lives

ANDREA WOO – EAST PORTERVILLE, CALIF.

ore than a year after the family well ran dry, Beto Orozco has learned by necessity how to conserve water at the ramshackle one-storey house he shares with 13 others.

When the taps first went dry, the former janitor would drive to a nearby cemetery, which is connected to a municipal water source, and bathe under the timed spray of the sprinklers. But more often, on days when it is warm enough, he takes a small quantity of his county-supplied non-potable water and washes himself by a tree in his front yard.

“I shower by the tree,” the 53-year-old says in a thick Spanish accent, “so the tree can drink the water.”

Mr. Orozco’s rural community of East Porterville, located about 120 kilometres southeast of Fresno, in Tulare County, Calif., is among the hardest hit by the state’s extreme drought, now in its fourth year. The situation has become so dire that Governor Jerry Brown in April imposed the first-ever mandatory statewide water restrictions, requiring urban water agencies to reduce water usage by 25 per cent or face hefty fines.

It adds teeth to a January, 2014, declaration of a drought state of emergency that called on – but did not mandate – Californians to reduce water usage by 20 per cent.

Under the new order, more than 4.6 square kilometres of lawns throughout the state will be replaced with drought-tolerant landscaping, and new homes and developments are prohibited from irrigating with potable water unless water-efficient drip systems are used. Campuses, golf courses and cemeteries – such as the one Mr. Orozco bathed in – are required to make significant cuts in water use.

While affluent communities such as Beverly Hills have been slow to turn off the taps, hard-hit areas such as East Porterville – an unincorporated community that is not connected to a municipal water system – have no choice. There, hundreds of private wells have been dry for more than a year. Parched lawns have long gone brown and the passing of each car sends a plume of dust into the air.

As dramatic images of cracked earth and uncultivated fields continue to dominate coverage of the worst drought in California’s recorded history, people such as those in East Porterville – who have had to make stark changes to their daily habits – quietly endure, waiting for rain.

Continue reading at The Globe and Mail.

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