Dreams of dust

How Central Valley communities are coping with prolonged water shortages.

  • Cella Mendoza is the mother of nine children, ages 8 months to 15 years. She and her husband struggle to make sure they have enough water for basic needs: to drink, cook, and clean. "[Children Protective Services] has been called to try to take our kids away because there's no water," her husband says. Tulare County stepped in and said if they were going to take his kids they would have to take all the kids in East Porterville, California, a community that has seen hundreds of residential wells go dry.

    Sarah Craig
  • Renee Mendoza helps his son Anthony, age 15, throw away a used fly strip. Ever since their well went dry, their septic system started backing up and the smell attracts flies.

    Sarah Craig
  • Julian, age 9, plays with his cousins in their home in Taurusa, California. The house hasn’t had running water ever since the property’s well went dry over a year ago. Julian’s uncle, Renee Mendoza, signed up for California's Drought Housing Relocation Assistance Program to help cover the cost of moving to another house and to help with rental payments for one year. He has been trying to move for months, but he says it's been difficult to find a place that will accept him and his wife and their nine children.

    Sarah Craig
  • Dishes lie drying in the sink of Marcella Ramirez’s home in East Porterville, California. Marcella has lived in a trailer she rents on her landlord’s property for the past 15 years. As the City of Porterville begins to connect residents dependent on wells to the municipal water supply it is uncertain whether Marcella’s landlord will connect her home.

    Zoë Meyers
  • Marcella has begun the process of going through her possessions in anticipation that she may have to move out of her home. For over two years her landlord has run water from a nearby church’s well to Marcella’s trailer after his own well ran dry. If Marcella is not connected to the extended municipal water supply, she will eventually have to move.

    Zoë Meyers
  • Dulcemaria Minjares holds her dog as her brother and a friend look at a dead bird in the middle of their street in East Orosi, California. Her family moved to East Orosi after the well of their home in nearby Orosi ran dry. The unincorporated town of East Orosi has a limited supply of water in its wells, which is contaminated with nitrates and unsafe to drink.

    Zoë Meyers
  • Kids walk in between a walled off reservoir and an empty canal near their home in the Woodville Labor Camp, near Woodville, California. Before the drought, they remember playing in full canals.

    Sarah Craig
  • Elvira Comacho and her husband, Manuel, feed dogs at their East Orosi home as their grand-daughters look on. There’s a large number of stray dogs in the area, many of which are often found hit by cars along the side of roads. Elvira feels compelled to take care of the ones she finds until she can find them another home, even though her resources are limited, and she feels badly about giving the dogs contaminated water to drink. “If the water isn’t safe for us to drink, what is it doing to them?”

    Zoë Meyers
  • Eliseo Garcia helps cool off his wife, Hilda, in a laundromat in Tulare, California, 8 miles from their home in Okieville. "My washer works [at home] but we got no water there," she says. "That's the problem!"

    Sarah Craig
  • Rosemary collects water jugs to fill up using their neighbor’s hose across the street from their trailer in Okieville, California. Her family asked for help from Tulare County to receive a temporary water tank, but their response was slow. "I live in Tulare County, I don't have a vehicle and you can't bring me water?, says Rosemary’s mother. “It's not an emergency? I'd figure it is, but I can't get no help. Who else can I call?" After living without running water for a little over a month, the county installed and connected a tank to her house.

    Sarah Craig
  • Without water to put in her swamp cooler, Hilda Garcia tries to cool down from the 106 degree heat this past summer. The intense heat and no running water has put stress on her and her husband who currently suffer from several health problems. "You can't do without water, it's very very hard. It makes me cry," says Hilda. She says the heat makes her feet swell and makes it painful to walk.

    Sarah Craig
  • Hilda and Eliseo Garcia watch their grandkids light fireworks on Fourth of July this past summer in Tulare, California. She says she can't light any near her trailer in fear of starting a fire; the grass is too dry and there is no water source to fight flames.

    Sarah Craig

 

Autumn rains may have eased concerns about water scarcity in northern California, but the rest of the state remains in a historic drought that has persisted for five years. Among the most affected, is the Central Valley, where the majority of the state’s farmland is. For years, communities in the Valley, many of them Hispanic and low-income, have faced severe water shortages.

Zoë Meyers and Sarah Craig are documentary storytellers whose multi-media project, Dreams of Dust, explores the impact of drought on communities in California’s Central Valley. The project focuses on the reasons behind the instability of Central Valley communities, “migration within and out of the Valley, and what will happen in the future if the area continues to become drier and drier – as is predicted in years to come.”

While reporting in California, Meyers and Craig found that the narrative of people simply picking up and moving away from the Valley in search of water or jobs was an oversimplification of the economic, environmental and social complexities of the Central Valley. Instead, the pair seeks to understand the drought’s impacts on the patterns of their subjects’ day-to-day lives.

Meyers, a documentary photographer and videographer, also produced The Worth of Water, a video series for High Country News that explores how California communities are impacted by water scarcity. 

Lyndsey Gilpin