Water supplies are dwindling in California as the state’s historic drought drags on this summer. So, farmers in the state’s multi-billion dollar agricultural industry are looking for water below ground instead. Groundwater is being pumped at record rates, and some of it is being sold for record prices.
In a good year, California’s farmers get most of their water from the state’s vast network of rivers and reservoirs. But in a drought, groundwater makes up 60 percent of the state’s supply. It’s a lot like an underground reservoir – and it’s drying up in many places.
“When the water is gone, all the farming is gone,” says Billy Grissom, a Central Valley farmer and rancher who lined up to speak about groundwater at a recent Merced County public meeting.
Many farmers in the region are relying on groundwater from wells on their land this year. When that happens, the groundwater levels drop, much like having too many straws in the same glass. So Grissom has had to deepen his wells.
“I had to add 40 feet,” he says. “I have the bill right here from Shannon Pump.”
Grissom is one of the lucky ones. It’s tough to get an appointment with companies that drill water wells because they’re booked up for months.
“A lot of people’s wells are going dry,” says Merced County supervisor Deidre Kelsey. “We are over-drafting the groundwater, and it is agriculture.”
Groundwater pumping doesn’t have to be publicly reported in California. There’s virtually no regulation of it, unlike in other western states. So, often, farmers don’t know how much their neighbors are taking until the water starts drying up.
At this public meeting, county supervisors are hearing about a case that’s on the record because the groundwater is being sold.
“This is common practice,” says Steve Sloan, one of two ranchers looking to sell up to 4 billion gallons of groundwater. Under California law, he owns the groundwater under his property. On today’s water market, it could make him millions.
“Water exchanges, water transfers have been done for over 30 years,” he says. “This is how we survive collectively as an ag industry in California.”
The water will be sent 50 miles away to a water district on the other side of the Central Valley. Farmers there are in even worse shape – they are looking at ripping out almond orchards, says local water manager Anthea Hansen.
“We’re in crisis mode,” says Hansen. “I have trees I need to keep alive. We don’t need large quantities of water to do that. “
Hansen is trying hard to make her case at this public meeting, but many farmers in the region don’t want to see water flowing elsewhere.
“What’s going to happen when you take this much water out of an aquifer?” asks Mike Gallo, a neighbor of Sloan’s. “We’re on the same aquifer. I don’t know what it’s going to do. Nobody knows what it’s going to do.”
The federal referee in the sale is the Bureau of Reclamation and the agency has approved it. Under current law, there’s little that local county officials can do.
In the big picture, water sales can help even out the economic impacts of the drought, according to experts.
“One of the ways to deal with shortages is to let water start moving, let the markets start moving water and that actually increases your economic efficiency,” says Jeff Mount, a geologist and senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.
But there are caveats. Groundwater is being dramatically over pumped in many parts of the Central Valley.
“You also have to do it in ways that don’t harm other parties,” says Mount. “And if you start drying up your neighbors' wells to sell water to somebody else, then you are causing harm.”
Some counties have taken matters into their own hands and effectively banned the sale of groundwater outside county lines.
California lawmakers are looking at regulating groundwater for the first time. Two bills are being considered in this legislative session and would have to pass by the end of August.
Older people whose visual acuity has slipped by just one letter on the eye chart are more likely to die sooner, researchers say. New glasses may be all it takes to maintain independence.
The hunt is on to identify the man in the James Foley execution video who speaks with a British accent. An estimated 2,000 Europeans have left home to join the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Earlier in the summer, a U.S. raid failed to rescue American hostages in Syria, including journalist James Foley, who was executed in a video released this week by Islamist militants. The hostages were not where they were thought to be. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston discusses the limits on America's ability to gather intelligence in Syria, as well as the latest developments since Foley was killed.
In Sierra Leone, the vast majority of deaths are not from Ebola, but from more common diseases like malaria, diarrhea and childbirth. The Ebola outbreak has crippled health services for those other diseases.
Two U.S. missionaries who caught the Ebola virus in Liberia have been discharged from an Atlanta hospital after fully recovering. They were the first known Ebola patients flown to the U.S. for treatment. Both received an experimental drug called ZMapp, but it remains unclear what role that treatment played in their recovery.
People are afraid to go to the doctor. Clinics have lost staff to the virus. Basic supplies aren't there. Ebola will have an impact on everything from malaria treatment to maternal health.
In the corruption trial of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, McDonnell took the stand as a witness. Jeff E. Schapiro, politics columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, discusses the testimony with Robert Siegel.
With the economy showing signs of positive momentum, the Federal Reserve is facing familiar questions at its monetary symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Chief among these: Are interest rates too low? Robert Siegel asks Alan Blinder of Princeton University.
In the latest fallout from misdeeds leading up to the financial crisis, Bank of America has agreed to a record $16.65 billion deal with federal and state governments. The deal helps the bank avoid prosecution for the fraudulent sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities to investors.
There are reports of heavy shelling on the outskirts of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, as government forces try to take the city from pro-Russian separatists. Meanwhile, thousands of the city's residents are trying to flee the fighting.
An Israeli airstrike killed three Hamas military commanders, who were buried shortly later amid threats that the militant group would respond.
Two hundred years ago this week, invading British troops destroyed the White House and the U.S. Capitol. NPR wasn't there, but if we were, our coverage might have sounded something like this ...
We think we know what superfoods are. Nutrient-rich, high in vitamins, they're fruits and vegetables with extra oomph that seem to have benefits beyond plain healthy eating.
In a recent Nielsen survey commissioned by Bloomberg Businessweek, 75 percent of consumers said they can manage their health through nutrition. One third say that they can use food to replace some medicines.
Farmers are seeing this trend and turning over crops to accomodate demand for once-unappealing wintry vegetables.
"I know we are not supposed to speak of kale on this show," said Venessa Wong, who reported on the findings for Businessweek. But she did anyway (listen in the audio player above), because its growth has been explosive.
"In 2012, about 2,500 farms harvested 'the k-word,' which is up from fewer than 1,000 in 2007," Wong said, adding, "Farmers are indeed very in touch with what people want to eat right now."
And far and away, 'the k-word' is the thing that people want to eat. But Brussel sprouts, spinach, chard and arugula are also showing a 10-20 percent boost since 2009.
With marketing buzz galore and significant public interest, the CDC journal Preventing Chronic Disease tried to define superfoods.
The produce selected may surprise you: tomatoes, carrots, strawberries, oranges, even iceberg lettuce. Wong notes that there are good reasons for their inclusion, but on a scale of defining a superfood, less trendy veggies stand out.
"The most nutrition dense food are watercress, Chinese cabbage, beet greens, spinach, so things that don't get as much buzz as the pomegranates, the quinoas," Wong said.
And the fact that the most super of foods aren't among the supermarket bestsellers is hardly a surprise.
"As much as people believe in the power of food," Wong said, "half of people surveyed by Nielsen said that they weren't willing to give up taste for health."
Kai's K-Word Chips
(1) Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
(2) Trim kale and toss with olive oil.
(3) Bake until crispy.
(4) Season with salt to taste.
(5) Eat 'em while they're hot.
It’s the rainy season here in Tran De. About a dozen field workers have squished out into a green paddy that goes on for more than two and a half football fields.
They chatter in Khmer as they bend low and pull young rice plants from their monsoon-soaked beds, and toss them into piles for replanting.
“I was born in this area, I’m from this area,” says a 64-year-old farmer named Minh. “I learned from my father and my grandfather, from the time I was a kid, how to grow rice.”
Minh is renting the land to grow his crop. “Rice is good,” he says, “you can always eat it. It’s reliable.”
At least right now it is.
Things will change when the dry season starts in January. That’s when farmers here usually start raising a rice crop, typically relying on fresh water they pump or channel in from some branch of the Mekong River.
But the dry season has been getting dryer. And the South China Sea - less than a mile away - is rising and pushing up into empty river and stream beds.
What little fresh water there is goes salty. So does the soil.
Once that happens, rice farmers like Minh know their crops are history.
“This village is affected by saline intrusion,” he explains. “During the dry season, people here can’t do anything with the land. They just leave it, go somewhere else and work, or try to find some work locally.”
If Minh risked planting a dry season crop, he could earn more than $2,000.
But he won’t take that chance. Instead of fighting saline intrusion, he’s found a way to hedge his bets and make some money off climate change.
He’s gone and bought himself a shrimp farm.
So has another farmer, named Sung. Standing beside two shrimp ponds out behind his house, Sung fires up what looks like a system of small spinning steamboat paddles.
They’re adding oxygen to an opaque brown pool.
This salty water is killing off the region’s rice, while the shrimp, somewhere down at the bottom, are loving it.
They can earn Sung in a year more than four times what an average rice farmer brings home.
“In a good year,” Sung says, “I do two crops. If it hits, I get $4,720 from these two ponds. This is the only thing I can do. Growing rice is not very profitable.”
With very few choices, explains Tim Gorman, a Cornell grad student researching how peoples’ lives in the Mekong Delta are being changed by global warming, some farmers are turning away from rice.
“The biggest option to people here in these areas affected by saline intrusion,” Gorman explains, “is to abandon rice altogether and switch to saltwater shrimp.”
This has been a “winning strategy” for many people in the area, Gorman observes. “Just driving around here you can see that there are big new houses, you see some nice new cars. And so you have some people who really have made a lot of money from growing shrimp, which is primarily exported to markets in Europe, Asia, and the US.”
Shrimp farmer Sung isn’t doing quite that well. He’s helping his daughter pay for college, but there’s no fat new Mercedes in the driveway.
That kind of money goes mostly to big-time farmers. Some people earn tens of thousands of dollars a year in the shrimp trade. With the lure of five and six-figure profits, plus faltering rice crops killed off by rising seas, Gorman says some folks are even taking hammers to the very gates and dykes set up to protect the area from the ocean.
“People are actively manipulating the infrastructure,” he says, “sabotaging the infrastructure, to allow salt water to come in. Not just during the dry season, but all year, so they can switch from freshwater rice farming to saltwater shrimp farming.”
Shrimp is no sure bet, either. Seeds, antibiotics, aeration systems, start-up costs - kilo for kilo, it’s way more expensive to raise than rice. A few sick ones can take out a whole pond.
Sung says he’s gone bust before. “In a bad year, all I have left are the whites of my hands!”
That’s the risk for most farmers here - rice, shrimp, or anything else.
But more and more, those who can afford it are moving away from rice and putting their money down on a changing climate.
Christopher Johnson is a reporter for BURN: An Energy Journal from SoundVision Productions with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
To be blunt, "Expendables 3" was a major box office flop on its opening weekend. Part three of the action-packed franchise was the only one to have a PG-13 rating, rather than the usual R. Although their intentions were to target a younger demographic and broaden their potential audience, the film only grossed approximately $15 million.
"The problem with this movie, and it’s been the problem with this whole series, is that it has this idea that the thing we really want is the great action stars all together, giving us movies they don’t make anymore," says Wesley Morris, critic at Grantland. "But there’s kind of a reason we don’t make those movies anymore. And this movie is just plowing forward. It’s so bad."
Case in point, says Morris, the proposed spin-off of the Expendable's series, in which the leads will all be women, is called "ExpendaBelles." Actress Sigourney Weaver was offered a part.
"She, perhaps smartly, said no," adds Morris.
The Damascus suburb hit by a deadly chemical weapons attack a year ago remains surrounded by Syrian government forces who are still trying to squeeze the rebels out.