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The sun sets at the southern end of the parched San Joaquin Valley: America's salad bowl no longer. (David McNew/2009 Getty Images)
The sun sets at the southern end of the parched San Joaquin Valley: America's salad bowl no longer. (David McNew/2009 Getty Images)

Sonia Verma

How green was my valley: California's drought Add to ...

"We can barely pay our bills," she says, in Spanish. "I feel desperate. My kids are always asking for money for food."

If things don't turn around, she will pack up her family and leave, but she has no idea where to go.

Towns like Mendota are already emptying out. What began a trickle now feels more like a torrent, and as people leave, Fresno County's tax revenue evaporates.

Some towns have begun to explore the possibility of simply shutting down, transferring their authority to the county because they can no longer afford to provide basic services.

In the meantime, they are doing all sorts of things to balance their books - from not filling potholes to firing the sheriff and replacing him with volunteer police.

In Firebaugh, the closest town to Mr. Allen's farm, the sales tax usually funnelled to the town from its two biggest businesses - the Ford and Chevrolet dealerships - has fallen off a cliff. The Chevy dealer has been ordered to close by November, and the town's reserves are tapped out, municipal manager Jose Antonio Ramirez says.

"This is all 95-per-cent due to the water crisis," he says. "The farmers who normally buy the trucks are broke."

A coalition of farmers has filed a lawsuit claiming that state officials overstepped their authority by ordering the water cuts.

There is also talk of short-term solutions, such as diverting water from other areas to the San Joaquin Valley or rebuilding the pumps so they don't kill the fish.

Environmental groups still maintain that's not enough, and that any form of diversion is ultimately damaging and unsustainable.

Some economists say Fresno County may not survive this economic reckoning in its current form and may fall off the fiscal rails. And farmers wonder, if politicians can suddenly decide that social services are too expensive, why can't they relax environmental rules that no longer seem to make sense.

"This is a place that started out poor and has had this huge loss of wealth because they were ground zero for the housing crisis and now ground zero for the water crisis," says Steven Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, a private research organization in Palo Alto.

Without water, he concedes, "it's hard to see where a recovery will come from."


The farmers, meanwhile, say they may not be able to hang in long enough to find out.

Todd Allen is waiting to hear from the bank whether he will get financing for next year. The bank, he says, is waiting to hear what his water supply will be. If the money does not come through, he will be forced into bankruptcy. And like the labourers he once employed, and who now wander the roads looking for work, he has no idea what he will do.

"You just look around and you think, 'Why is this happening in America?' "

Sonia Verma is a reporter with The Globe and Mail.

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