• In towns like East Porterville, families are have learnt to live without running water. (SBS Dateline)
After 5 years of drought, California has finally had a deluge of rain. But with much of the state’s water supply being sent to LA, people in drought-affected areas feel they’ve been left high and dry.
Tuesday, August 15, 2017 - 21:30

Across rural California, more than five years of severe drought turned lakes into dust bowls and made farmland arid.

The drought was declared over in April after heavy rains in January, but it hasn’t solved the water crisis across the state. A fierce battle is continuing over who has access to water, and how the resource is managed.

It mirrors a similar water usage fight in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin. Here the issue centres around upstream irrigators taking excess water – water that is owned by taxpayers and has been earmarked for environmental use.

In California, the hub of the fight is the Owens Valley, three hours north of Los Angeles, which for more than a century has been the centrepiece of a heated conflict between the city and local farmers – after water from the Valley’s lake began being piped to LA in 1913.

Owens Valley local Kathy Bancroft says at the time the city purchased land and associated water rights, allowing it to send water to LA via a major aqueduct. This legacy has had long term effects.

“When it comes to water a lot of people call us a colony of LA, because the city of LA owns a big portion of the land here in the Owens Valley,” she tells reporter Dean Cornish in this week’s Dateline. “They just do whatever they like with our water and the land.”

The fight over water in California reflects a broader issue facing the entire world; water is becoming an increasingly precious resource.

The United Nations estimates around 1.2 billion people are currently living in areas with water scarcity and that by 2025 two-thirds of the world’s population could be living in “water stressed conditions”.

Conflicts over the control of water could become global, threatening national security.

In Eastern California, it’s caused a major rift between the city, and those who live outside it.

For Native American communities from the Owens Valley, who have lived there sustainably for centuries, the effects of drought have changed their relationship with the land.

Kathy is a descendent of the Paiute and Shoshone tribes in the Owens Valley region. Her people have generations of history there – to them the land is sacred. But mismanagement of water resources, combined with a severe shortage of rainfall, has eroded this area beyond recognition.

“Our creation stories are built on these mountains and places around here,” Kathy says. “That's what I always beg and plead – it’s like, how do I teach those stories and our history and our culture to my grandkids, if you've destroyed them all?”

She says there are burial sites all through the area; “some that are thousands of years old and then we’ve got some that are within a generation or so of us.” Recently, burials are becoming uncovered – bodies that were once six feet underground are coming to the surface as the earth turns to dust and blows away.

Or, even worse, bodies are being dug up by thieves, who pass by hoping to find burial sites and take artifacts they can sell.

In nearby East Porterville, locals rely on bottled water and tanker trucks driving gallons of water into the town. Many backyard wells, which residents rely on, went dry during the drought – causing locals to come up with creative ways of managing their water usage. One local, Angelica, told Dateline water is so precious in her household she rations it out by recycling it three times when cleaning – first washing dishes, then using the same water to mop the floor, before giving what’s left to her plants.

“My daughter said, ‘mum, why can't we have a normal life, you know? Why is this so complicated?’ It’s really hard.”

The town’s local church has converted part of its car park to a makeshift communal bathroom – to allow those without access to water to shower, go to the toilet and brush their teeth.

In the Owens Valley, the heavy rainfall from January brought the lake back to life – but didn’t bring back its water. Much of the new water is being directed straight into the state’s major aqueduct and sent to LA.

As one local in nearby Lone Pine told Dateline, the battle over water could get heated in the coming years. “I’m 34-years-old, it’s going to go down in my lifetime, for sure,” said Blair.

“Water wars. Big water wars.”

Watch the full story at the top of the page.


What the six-year drought did to California in 93 maps and two charts
California's drought is now over, but these maps show the major effects it caused across the state.
World War III will be fought over water
With a growing population and increased demands from agriculture and industry, the world's water crisis is only expected to worsen.
How years of drought led to a fierce battle over water in California
After more than 8 months reporting on the battle over water rights in California, reporter Dean Cornish says the fight has become a case of haves and have-nots, with rural towns ending up on the losing side.
How recycled water could revolutionise sustainable development
By 2025, almost 2 billion people will live in conditions of water scarcity. Is recycled water a genuine solution?


Reporter: Dean Cornish

Producer: Ronan Sharkey

Camera: Dean Cornish, Ronan Sharkey

Editor: David Potts


The Owens Valley, three hours north of Los Angeles, it's an ancient place where precious history is being disturbed.

KATHY BANCROFT: The vegetation all died and the sand started blowing away, so what is left here is a big depression.

Kathy Bancroft is Native American, a descendent of the Paiute and Shoshone tribes. For generations, her ancestors have been buried right here. It is a secret and sacred place.

REPORTER:  Do you know how old the burials are?

KATHY BANCROFT:  We have got some that are thousands of years old and then we have got some that are within a generation or so of us.

But decades of water mismanagement and severe drought has caused the unthinkable - uncovering the dead.

KATHY BANCROFT: Whole burials are becoming uncovered.

REPORTER:  So these would have been 6ft underground at one stage, but you've lost all of that because it's turned to dust and blown away.


With that comes the worst kind of souvenir collectors - grave robbers, stealing a people's history.

KATHY BANCROFT:  Imagine your grandmother being buried and somebody coming and digging up her burial? But you've also got the artifacts. We believe those artifacts still belong to that person that left it sitting there and so that's something we and never bothered. But you have people that come, "Oh, I found this", you know, and they think they need to take it for some reason.

Our stories, our creation stories, are built on these mountains and places around here. And that's what I always beg and plead - it's like how do I teach those stories and our history and our culture to my grandkids, if you've destroyed them all?

This whole area was once a huge lake. Complete with criss-crossing steam boats. And it's here that California water wars began. 100 years ago, in a massive engineering feat, the valley's underground river was diverted to the thirsty new city of Los Angeles, via a 300km aqua duct. Owens valley made LA rich and the lake turned to grey dust, drawing battle lines between the haves and the have nots.

KATHY BANCROFT:  When it comes to water, a lot of people call us a colony of LA because the city of LA owns a big portion of the land here in Owens valley and it's really interesting because they own it, but we have nothing to say about it. And they just do whatever they like with our water and the land.

Owens dry lake became the biggest source of dust pollution in the entire United States and now Los Angeles has to pay to control the dust. So far, they have spent more than $1.5 billion on things like water sprinklers.

REPORTER: Has it made a difference?

KATHY BANCROFT:  Yeah, it's made a big difference. This valley was pretty bad sometimes. You couldn't see anything because the dust was so bad and we kind of all grew up with that and we have got breathing problems and stuff. They have been working on it and we have seen a real drop in the dust problem.

Over 80 billion litres of water a year used to control dust. On the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the historic 5-year drought brought third-world conditions to the farming community of East Porterville. Here they rely on wells and even though California had a deluge of rain earlier this year, backyard wells remain mostly dry. So locals have come up with a range of clever tack ticks to combat the water crisis. For Angelica and for her family, water is so precious, they won’t waste a drop.

REPORTER:  Tell us about your dishwashing routine here then?

ANGELICA GALLEGOS:  OK. I have this bucket I put it right here. This is to cover it, my sink and when I’m washing my dishes it gets a little bit full. When it gets full, I recycle my water. Then I do my floor and then when I am done mopping my floor, I give it to my plants. So I am doing three recycles right there.

REPORTER:  What do the plants think of the dish water?

ANGELICA GALLEGOS:  Ohhhhh, they're unhappy.

Angelica and her family have been surviving without a well for over four years.

REPORTER: Tell me about when it went dry. Do you remember the day when the well went dry?

ANGELICA GALLEGOS: Yeah. I remember the day when it went dry. It was one of those hot days and we just woke up one morning and there was completely like sand coming through the faucets and really dark water, brownish water, muddy water.

The community lives off bottled water and tank deliveries from water trucks. Almost 100 years old, Vicky never thought it was possible for her hometown to run out of water.

VICKY:  I have lived here 66 years and I was born in 1920 and I am 96.

REPORTER:  You were saying that this is the most difficult time you've had living here because of the water?

VICKY:  I have to say yes.

REPORTER: Could you describe what the garden used to look like? Take us around the different tree that you used to have?

VICKY:  Well, right here, I had two plums - One there and one there and then nectarines and then two nectarines and then an apricot - Seven, eight, nine, 10.

Vicky's backyard orchard was her pride and joy for more than 60 years. Now it's gone.

VICKY:  Now I just go out there and a lot of times I cry. I am a cry baby. Well, you would cry too if you had flowers like I did.

East Porterville sits in the middle of the biggest agriculture-producing county in the United States. Whilst the corporate-owned farms in the area have the funds to dig deep wells, the local residents like Angelica are rationing bottled water.

ANGELICA GALLEGOS:  My kids don't drink a whole bottle like this. So instead of giving this big bottle to them, you know, I give them a small one because I know they are going to drink this one.

REPORTER:  So what is it like having to ration out the water for your kids?

ANGELICA GALLEGOS:  They get mad at me, you know. They get mad. They get frustrated because my daughter said, "Mom, why can't we have a normal life?" "Why is it so complicated?" It is really hard.

Everyday battles over a basic necessity.

ANGELICA GALLEGOS:  Me and my husband, we kind of like talked about it so many times and even my girls mention it, like, well why don't we just move, you know, to the city where there is plenty of water. But, I mean, it is easy to say, "Let's move", but when you realise that you're stuck here with the property that in the future it has no value. It is just like, we can't drop everything, you know. Especially when this is you're community. You have got your neighbours that you know. You bond for so many years, you know. It is just really hard. You are stuck. Honestly, you are stuck. Yeah.

This is a tight-knit community and the drought has pulled them together in unexpected ways.

ANGELICA GALLEGOS: You know, some of the homes are out of water, so we are going to stop right here at this home.

Today Angelica and her daughters deliver bottled water to neighbours who desperately need it.



ANGELICA GALLEGOS:  Do you want water? I brought a couple of cases.


ANGELICA GALLEGOS:  These people, you know they can’t drive over there to the water donation centre. Because some of the people as you can see, they have broken cars, so what we do is we try to bring water to them. Alrighty, girls.

This is what I like. People are really open and they get a little treat.

WOMAN:  Thank you.

ANGELICA GALLEGOS: You're welcome.

The church car park is converted into a make shift bathroom where families without water do things that we all take for granted, like shower and brush their teeth. The local county is gradually connecting homes to the main water supply. But no-one knows exactly how long that will take. In the meantime, Andrew Lockman from Tulare county oversees the tanker truck operation.

ANDREW LOCKMAN:  These are the large trucks, anywhere up to 6800 gallons or so. These guys, their job is to go to the water sources that are far away. These guys are doing all of the running back and forth to the hydrants, to the faucets so the smaller trucks can just zip in, fill up and keep going.

For now, the truck drivers are the lifeline of this town and I am keen to talk to them. For some reason, no-one wants to talk back. It is just a controversial place to be to try and get anything done. For example, even the truck drivers who are in some way the saviours of these places by bringing the water and pumping them into these green storage tanks every day, they have been vilified, they've been abused and they are so shy now, they won't even talk to us. I am discovering a new battle line in California's water wars. The truckies are heroes to some, but villains to others.

REPORTER:  Would you mind terribly if I got a shot of you putting the water from the tank into the other tank?

TANK DRIVER:  Keep me out of it, I prefer not to be in it at all.

MAN:  Thank you so much. That is a blessing. Thank you very much.

I never thought it would be this hard to get a truckie on camera, but they have been copping abuse in neighbouring towns where they collect water for East Porterville. That is the thing about water wars - they are complicated and people get very protective. Just ask Robert Galvin who co-owns a mini mart near one of the reservoirs that used to supply East Porterville.

ROBERT GALVIN:  And they were pumping water constantly non-stop 24 hours a day taking water out of the dam neighbourhood back here. And then we finally got tired of it because it was causing all kinds of ruckus back there. And it just made me angry. It made the whole community angry and we all have a right to fight for their water.

REPORTER:  What did you say to the truck drivers?

ROBERT GALVIN:  I can't say that on TV, but they cussed them out. They even had roadblocks where they parked their trucks in front of the tankers so think couldn't back up or back forward. And so finally they said, "OK, that's enough", we need to take a legal stand and do a petition. And now they're going out to nearby towns and grabbing water, but they're no longer grabbing it from us.

Robert is lucky. He has water. But his business hasn't escaped the water crisis.

ROBERT GALVIN:  It's come to the point where it's gotten so progressively worse here in Central Valley. So we're at the point that we're gonna end up selling this at the end of the year and we're gonna move somewhere else. We haven't decided where.

Water is becoming more precious than gold, by 2025 it's estimated two-thirds of the world's population will face water scarcity. With water predicted to trigger global conflicts. So you would think rain would solve everyone's problems.

NEWS REPORT:  Other roadways also washed away by more than 8 inches of rain in some places. Winding rivers on the way to lakes and reservoirs, enough this month to end northern California's 5-year drought.

The end of the drought in California made headlines around the world. When I first came here, Owen's valley looked like this. And now a few months after the winter rains... The place is completely different.

KATHY BANCROFT:  We've just had a great winter. A lot of people are calling it extreme weather, you know. To me, it is how the winters used to be. There is all kinds of little dry lakes that are throughout the valley floor and they are all full now and the creeks are running like they are supposed to be.

However, the snow melt hasn't solved the water issues in this valley. The water war continues.

KATHY BANCROFT: This is great to see, but this runs right into the aqua duct down here.

REPORTER:  And goes to LA?

KATHY BANCROFT:  Yes. We have a big water problem to begin with, so they could be doing all kinds of stuff to make it better, to fill up the aquifers, to keep it in the valley where it belongs, but they are taking it out. They are still taking just even more water out of the valley. I keep saying, "Fill up the lake", of course they don't want to and so, we would like to see it stay here.

In a strange irony, this area is now in a state of emergency because of the excess water. Authorities fear a deluge into the lake will wipe out the water sprinklers that control the dust, the sprinklers that cost $1.5 million.

KATHY BANCROFT:  So they put all of time and money and effort into settling the dust. Now they have got water coming that could settle the dust. It is that simple. But they are doing everything they can to stop it from coming on the lake to destroy the infrastructure that they have to settle the dust.

Hugh definitely is not convinced that the snow melt will bring calm to California's water wars. He's preparing for what he calls Watergeddon.

REPORTER: Bit more protection, you reckon?

HUGH:  That is it. You pack it in, try to get a water-tight seal. When it rains, the water runs off the highway and comes around the bend here and then it all ends up in my front yard and you can see on the house how it has tilted. It is the poor house has been through hell this last year. The house is no gem. It has been here since 1918.

REPORTER:  But it is home.

HUGH:  It is home, yeah. It is going to be paid for next year and I was hoping then I would have a few bucks every month to spend on it and try to fix it up a bit.

Hugh was embroiled in a complicated legal battle in alleged contaminated water which was settled out of court. He also believes the street is sinking because of the pressure being put on ground water supplies.

HUGH:  The system is just being overused.

REPORTER:  There is a lot of pressure on this resource for sure, huh?

HUGH:  Yeah. Water is the new oil.

REPORTER:  Have you thought about what you would do if you did have to move, if the house fell over or flooded?

HUGH:  Yeah. This is not all about leaving. It is about staying.

California is in a cycle of ever-more serious droughts, broken by more intense storms. No-one knows what is next. Just north of Hugh's house is the tourist town of Lone Pine, a popular gateway to adventure in the Sierra Mountains. In this local outdoor shop we stumbled across yet another person who believes the water war is coming.

BLAIR:  We need water to survive. That is the most imperative source of life and it is going to be a tough one. I am 34 years old. It is going to go down in my lifetime, for sure.

REPORTER:  What is?

BLAIR:  Like water wars. Big water wars.

Some say California doesn't have a water problem. It has a water management problem. But if the world's sixth largest economy can't manage water, what chance do the rest of us have?

ANGELICA GALLEGOS:  For those people that have water up there, lots of water, conserve your water because you never know what's going to happen. Love your water. Cause it's just like an oxygen. If you don't have an oxygen, you can't breathe. You can't breath, you will die.

reporter & camera
dean cornish

story producer
ronan sharkey

story editor
david potts

theo dorizac
lucinda edwards

micah mcgown
simon phegan
david potts

titles music
vicki hansen

15th August 2017