After more than three years without rain, the Central Valley in the heart of California struggles with drought, which depletes soils and men; a terrible reality demonstrated by Matt Black’s images. For 20 years, this American photographer has been exploring this land of farms and poor workers from Mexico from top to bottom.
This is the other California. Far from Hollywood and Silicon Valley, Matt Black’s California is the one of the Central Valley, the depression separating the Pacific Coast from the Sierra Nevada; a region with some of the most entrenched pockets of poverty in the United States, but also its main agricultural wealth. For more than 20 years, this photographer has been chronicling this Central Valley where his parents settled when he was a child. He publishes his "Geography of Poverty" on Instagram and Tumblr, the almanac of his encounters with the dust and poverty of agricultural workers who came from the other side of the border. His photos demonstrate the austerity of the valley. But in recent years, he says "the drought has changed everything.*"
The Worst Drought in Several Hundred Years
California has entered its fourth year without rain. According to climate specialists, it is the worst drought the region has experienced in several hundred years. As summer approaches, Gov. Jerry Brown has taken extreme measures to conserve water. For the first time in its history, the region, the land of the Gold Rush, will experience rationing. The state will have to save 25 percent of its water before the end of February 2016, and individuals will have to do their fair share of the work. In mid-April, Californians received their roadmap. In cities like San Francisco, residents will have to save 8 percent compared with consumption in 2013. In the desert, the golf paradise, and in the posh neighborhoods like Beverly Hills where vegetation is understandably always green, consumption will have to be reduced by 36 percent.
While the rich in San Diego or Palo Alto cry over their lawns or prepare themselves to pay fines if they exceed their water quota, the San Joaquin Valley struggles to survive. "Even the landscape changes,"* says Black. The fields are left fallow by farmers due to lack of irrigation. Wells dedicated to domestic use have dried up in dozens of localities. Residents are provided with drinking water by municipalities, but for the rest — showers, laundry, dishes — they have to manage by themselves. In places, the phreatic layer decreases so much that the valley itself subsides.**
Revenue of $6.5 Billion
The Central Valley fears for its very development model. Urban residents put the blame on farmers who — it is true — use 80 percent of the water in California. Everybody knows that it takes 1 gallon of water to produce just one almond, and that in total, almond farmers (6,500 farms) consume 20 percent more each year than the bathrooms and washing machines of 39 million Californians. Farmers respond that world demand for almonds has exploded, especially in China, and that the trees currently threatened by the drought ensure revenues of $6.5 billion per year.
California produces 90 percent of the grapes, nuts and almonds, 95 percent of broccoli, 91 percent of strawberries, and 81 percent of carrots. Given the fate of the Central Valley, the question we raise concerns the whole country. Under the influence of climate change, will California have to give up being the producer of more than half of the fruits and vegetables in the U.S.?
*Editor's note: Correctly translated, these quotes could not be verified.
**Editor’s note: Phreatic is a term used in hydrology to refer to aquifers, below the water table, in which relatively all pores and fractures are saturated with water.