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California Towns Shrink Amid Drought, in More Ways Than One

The land in Stratford, California, isn't sinking as it has in some towns, but business is drying up as the town is ravaged by an historic drought.
/ Source: NBC News

Tony Azevedo’s a third-generation farmer in California’s Central Valley. For decades, his family has grown cantaloupes. This year, he won’t — and he’ll leave a third of his 11,500-acre farm fallow.

"This field would have been cantaloupes, had we had the water," he explained, pointing to some of his unplanted acres. "Tomatoes, garlic, beans — there are plenty of crops we could have grown."

Azevedo says he needs to be strategic with how he allocates his groundwater, which he pumps from underground aquifers to irrigate his crops.

"It’s very unusual for us to use well water 100 percent like we're using today," he said. "You take a glass of water and you put one straw, two straws, three straws — eventually you're going to run out of it, right? Well, that's what the aquifer is. It’s a big cup, and we're all pulling out of it."

Water levels in underground aquifers near the small farm town of Stratford have dropped an average of eighty feet in three years, according to California’s Department of Water Resources.

"Without water you got nothing. Nobody can live. Nobody can survive. Its that's simple."

Strain on groundwater resources can cause land above aquifers to drop. Some parts of the San Joaquin Valley are sinking as fast as a foot as year. It’s not happening as quickly in Stratford — but the town is sinking in more ways than one.

"The local hardware store, the auto parts store, the tractor dealership: everybody counts on [farmers] to keep rolling and that's not happening right now," Azevedo said. "When we have a third of our ranch is idle, that's a third less we're spending in the community, and so it affects everybody."

Along the main drag in Stratford, many buildings are boarded up.

The gas station is gone and so are the restaurants, although you can find a fresh cup of coffee at the auto parts store where Wesley Rodrigues works.

"I wish it was better," he said, "like it used to be. But things happen, I guess."

At the grocery store across the street, Mahmod Almihiri watches business dry up. "No water, no workers," he said.

Some of the customers who do shop at his small market find it hard to make ends meet. Almihiri finds it hard to turn them away. "I can't say no," he explained. Instead of cash, he sometimes collects IOUs on slips of paper. Right now, he says he’s owed about $7,000 dollars.

It’s the price he pays to help his neighbors in need. He believes his business – and his town - will survive for the next generation.

"I have hope, but it’s just a matter of getting water here," said customer David Hartsburg. "Water brings people. Without water you got nothing. Nobody can live. Nobody can survive. Its that's simple."