Skip to ArticleSkip to Radioplayer

Our members keep us going.

Jan 14, 2017

Water wars

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Next to the air we breathe, it’s the planet’s most precious resource: fresh water. And it’s disappearing. The world’s largest food company describes the lack of water as a looming catastrophe that is expected to play out in the coming decades. In this episode of Reveal, we look at what’s happening in places that already are running out of water.

First we go the Middle East, where water shortages have led to fighting in Yemen. The country is locked in a civil war that’s killed more than 10,000 people. From the outside, it looks like a sectarian conflict, but we explore the root causes of what may be the world’s first water war.

Closer to home, we check out what’s going on in California, where farmers are pumping up enormous amounts of groundwater to keep their crops alive. This is taking a serious toll on the land, which has been deflating steadily – like a leaky air mattress. Reporter Nathan Halverson takes us to the fastest-sinking town in America and talks with scientists, farmers and residents about what this means for some of the nation’s most productive farmland.

One of the biggest consumers of water is meat production. It takes a staggering amount of water to produce just a single hamburger patty. But what if there were a way to re-create the burger using a fraction of the water? We go inside the new world of lab-made alternative meats, where cutting-edge science is trying to create a less-thirsty hamburger without sacrificing taste.


  • Read: The drought didn’t make California sink. Its crops did
  • More: Hidden stories from the state’s historic drought


Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

Track list:

  • Camerado, “True Game (Reveal show theme)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Hot Tuna, “Water Song” from “Burgers” (Grunt)
  • Fatimah Al Zaelaeyah, “Ya Mun Dakhal Bahr Al-Hawa (Hey, Who Enters the Sea of Passion?” from “Qat, Coffee & Qambus: Raw 45s from Yemen” (Parlortone/Dust-to-Digital)
  • Chris Zabriskie, “Land on the Golden Gate” from “Stunt Island” (Neighborhood Nuclear Superiority)
  • Ayob Absii, “Bellah Alek Wa Mosafer (Hey You, Passenger!)” from “Qat, Coffee & Qambus: Raw 45s from Yemen” (Parlortone/Dust-to-Digital)
  • Mohammed Ben Mohammed Ba Soweid, “Marhaban Ahlan (Hello,Welcome)” from “Qat, Coffee & Qambus: Raw 45s from Yemen” (Parlortone/Dust-to-Digital)
  • Fatimah Al Zaelaeyah, “Ya Mun Dakhal Bahr Al-Hawa (Hey, Who Enters the Sea of Passion?)” from “Qat, Coffee & Qambus: Raw 45s from Yemen” (Parlortone/Dust-to-Digital)
  • Ayob Absii, “Bellah Alek Wa Mosafer (Hey You, Passenger!)” from “Qat, Coffee & Qambus: Raw 45s from Yemen” (Parlortone/Dust-to-Digital)
  • Blue Dot Sessions, “Watermarks” from “Crab Shack”
  • Discepoli-Barbiero, “The Occulted Measure” from “An eclipse of images” (Acustronica)
  • Jim Briggs, “When it Runs Dry” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Discepoli-Barbiero, “The Stream Under Consciousness” from “An eclipse of images” (Acustronica)
  • Jim Briggs, “Insistence Sink” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “Insistence prelude” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Discepoli-Barbiero, “An eclipse of images: Gathering In” from “An eclipse of images” (Acustronica)
  • Jim Briggs, “Insistence Sink” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “Insistent Subsidence” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “Insistence Sink” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • TLC, “Waterfalls (Instrumental)” from “CrazySexyCool” (LaFace Records)
  • Lobo Loco, “Hometown Streetlife” from “HAPPY HOUR”
  • Lobo Loco, “Mountain Creek” from “HAPPY HOUR”
  • Lobo Loco, “Ten Years Before” from “HAPPY HOUR”
  • Lobo Loco, “High Valley” from “HAPPY HOUR”
  • Lobo Loco, “” from “HAPPY HOUR”
  • Lobo Loco, “Jerry Gamblers Gang” from “HAPPY HOUR”


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
  Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting in PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Around the world, fresh water is growing scarce, even in our own back yard and that's leaving residents high and dry.
Speaker 2: We'd almost be better off if our house were burning to the ground as I speak, rather than having our well go dry.
Al Letson: But, fixing the problem means picking a fight with rich farmers.
Speaker 3: As Mark Twain told us, you know, "Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting."

Al Letson:

And it's come to that in countries like Yemen, where the conflict over water has boiled over.
Speaker 4: People are killing each other and fighting and using even heavy armament, and this happens many times.
Al Letson: Water wars, on this episode of Reveal. But first, this news:
HelloFresh: Reveal is supported in part by HelloFresh, the meal kit delivery service dedicated to making cooking fun, easy, and convenient. Each week, HelloFresh creates new delicious recipes, that give you step by step instructions designed to take around 30 minutes for everyone from novices to seasoned home cooks who are short on time. They source the freshest ingredients, measured to the exact quantities needed, so there's no food waste. It's all delivered for free to your door step in a specially insulated box. For $35 off your first week of deliveries, visit and enter promo code: Reveal35 when you subscribe.

Al Letson:

From The Center for Investigative Reporting in PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.
These are the streets of Yemen, one of the most dangerous places in the world. This middle eastern country located just south of Saudi Arabia, has been torn apart by civil war, with more than 10,000 people killed. It's a story that's played out in other countries on other continents across time, but this war might be unique, a first of it's kind.
[00:02:00] I'm looking at a stack of classified documents, most of which we were never supposed to see. They show that Yemen's war was triggered by something you might not expect. It wasn't radical Islam, or terrorists, or even a foreign power. It appears to be something much more basic, water. Around the world, water is running low according to several classified cables. But no other country has descended further down this dangerous path than Yemen.

Nathan H.:

Water shortages have led desperate people to take desperate measures with equally desperate consequences.
Al Letson: That's Reveal's Nathan Halverson. He's reading from U.S. cables. He came across them after they were released by Wikileaks in 2011 and they paint a drastic picture of the situation in Yemen, where water is becoming more precious than gold.
Nathan H.: Water remains a socially threatening yet politically sensitive subject in Yemen. Government action has stagnated as water resources continue to decline. The Minister of Water and Environment, Abdulrahman al-Eryani, characterizes the problem as insidious and the biggest threat to social stability in Yemen.

Al Letson:

After these cables were written in 2009, the water shortages got worse. The violence went from regional up-risings over water in the early 2000's, to a full blown civil war by 2014. Rebels poured into the capital city of Sana'a and they are still entrenched there today.
[00:03:30] People have been warning about water conflicts for years and we have to ask ourselves, "Has it finally happened? Is the world's first war over water happening in Yemen?" Reporter, Nathan Halverson, takes us inside the story and investigates if water turned to war.
Nathan H.: As I scrolled through the cables from Yemen, one name appeared again and again, Abdulrahman al- Eryani. His dire warnings about water conflicts, his desperate pleadings for help reach out from the cables. As Yemen's Water Minister, al-Eryani,   had a front row seat to what happened. He urged U.S. officials to take water shortages seriously. He told them the problem wasn't caused by drought, or climate change, it was incompetent water management, and it could have been avoided. After reading the cables, I wanted to dig deeper, but with the civil war raging, it was tough to find answers. And then, I caught a break. I found an online video of al-Eryani discussing Yemen's water problems and an email to reach the production company. Within a couple of weeks:

Abdulrahman :


Hello, my name is Abdulrahman al-Eryani.


Nathan H.: I found him living in Helsinki, Finland. He fled there after the war broke out and we connected on Skype. In 2009, according to these U.S. Embassy cables, you told Deputy Assistant Secretary, Janet Sanderson, that Yemen's water shortage was "the biggest threat to social stability in the near future." What did you mean?



Abdulrahman :


This is what half of the time, this is what I'm claiming, that water shortage and water mismanagement will create social instability and economic and political instability and fighting. This is exactly what happened.


Nathan H.: I ask him to walk me through the collapse of his country. But first, he wants me to know how far it's fallen. He says that at one time, Yemen was known around the world for it's agriculture. And coffee drinkers, they pay homage to it every day, even if they don't realize it. Anyone who's been to Starbucks knows the name of one of Yemen's key port cities, Mocha. The first coffee beans that were shipped around the world came from, you guessed it, the port of Mocha.



Abdulrahman :


Yemen had the monopoly for almost 200 years.


Nathan H.: Centuries ago, Yemeni farmers designed a complex system to collect sparse rain water, channeling it into ancient cisterns. Farming was so profitable that in the 1500's they built the world's first skyscrapers, it's like an early Manhattan of the ancient desert.



Abdulrahman :


So they built very good life in our way. Many people were working, even people who were coming from other regions to work at the port of agriculture.


Nathan H.: But then, a few decades ago, in the 1990's, they ran into trouble. Water started running low and tension walked into their lives.



Abdulrahman :


Yes, it has been going on for more than 25-30 years. It started very isolated, but it became very widespread. It started as water conflict between two women probably, but it ended up with major parties involved.


Nathan H.: Tempers were flaring in small villages because wells in the countryside had begun drying up, leaving people without anything to drink and not enough water for farmer's crops.


Abdulrahman : And then the aquifer, the Sana'a aquifer dried up. Hundreds of farms were destroyed because of the lack of ground water. They were drilling, they started drilling, the water level was less than 40 meters. And then, every year it was going down and down and down. At one point they were drilling for 600-700 meters, but the water was not there or it was mineralized because of the dirt.



Nathan H.:


700 meters is close to half a mile deep. And this wasn't just happening in the countryside. In Yemen's capital, Sana'a, water was disappearing. In his meeting with the U.S. State Department Official, back in 2009, al-Eryani said that small water riots were taking place nearly every day in the capital.


[00:07:30] So what does this mean for the people of Yemen? We weren't able to go to Yemen ourselves. Right now, no foreign journalists are allowed in the rebel controlled country, but we did hire a local reporter to take us inside the home of a family in the capital. Water shortages now consume their lives.


There is no water coming out of their tap. That means no water for cooking, cleaning, or bathing. And that's bad for everybody, especially 12-year-old, Muhammad [inaudible 00:08:26].





I had to stay to get water because they filled the tanks today.



Nathan H.:


Muhammad's missing school because he's got to get water for his family. He grabs two large containers, each holds about five gallons, and begins the long trudge to the local mosque which has set up water tanks. When he gets there, he turns on the tap and nothing comes out. It's a bust. The tanks have run dry. He carries his empty containers home and tries again the next day.


Muhammad: Yeah, it's crowded as you can see.


Nathan H.: The crowd is actually a good sign, it means the tanks still have water.





I wait in line at the mosque until it is my turn.


Nathan H.: People are arriving with carts to transport as many as 10 cans at a time. The crowds are big, and sometimes it can get unruly. Fights have broken out. Today, that doesn't happen. Muhammad stands in line and after 45 minutes, he fills up.


This is the life that former Water Minister, al-Eryani, was describing in those classified cables. Frustrated people spending days searching for just a little water. Sometimes getting into fights, even rioting over it. Before the civil war started, the government estimated 4,000 people were killed every year over water and land. Yemen is now in the middle of one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. Farmers don't have enough water for their fields, meaning they can't grow food. Across the country, one in five people are starving according to the United Nations. That's one of the highest rates in the world.




  Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04]
  Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Al Letson: It boggles my mind that conditions were allowed to get this bad. Why didn't the Yemeni government do more to stop this water crisis? There was one person I'm hoping will have an answer. An outside observer who witnessed Yemen's downfall firsthand.


Steve Seche: My name is Steve Seche, during the period of 2007 to 2010, I was the US Ambassador to Yemen.


Al Letson: And he's the man responsible for writing those pathetic cables from Yemen, which I immediately ask him about.



Steve Seche:


I'm not in a position to discuss cables that Wikileaks acquired illegally and published because they're still classified. So, therefore, I wouldn't be able to discuss any of the information that was revealed in those cables, no.


Al Letson: But, he wants to help. Before becoming a diplomat, Ambassador Seche worked as a journalist. Without directly referencing the cables, he agrees to tell me what he saw in Yemen. He says the government failed to step in because of money. Nearly half of the country's water was being used to grow one specific crop. The most profitable one, something called, qat. It's a flowering tree that gives you a mild high when you chew the leaves.



Steve Seche:


The qat industry, because it is so lucrative, has become a favored endeavor and industry for very powerful individuals. Yemen was famed and renowned for its coffee bean growth and they grew a lot of other vegetables, and fruit, and grains, and grapes. This was all displaced by qat, which is an enormous sucker of water.



Al Letson:


Eventually, only wealthy farmers and investors were able to grow qat. That's because the only way to get enough water was to drill wells, and that's expensive.


Steve Seche: There's been a proliferation in Yemen of deep drilling rigs and it's unrestricted. There were never any legislation passed. It's got so bad that I was told, at one point, that there were ... Was in Yemen, a nation of 25 million people, there were 900 of these drilling rigs, compared to the nation of India, which has a billion people and had only 100 drilling rigs because they are regulated.



Al Letson:


The ground water was dropping all over the country as people chased profits. In his cables, Ambassador Seche warned that because of unregulated drilling, 14 of the country's 16 aquifers had been depleted. He wrote, "The rich always have a creative way of getting water. Which is not only unavailable to the poor, but also cuts into the unreplenishable resources." In other words, a few people had used too much water getting rich growing qat, but everyone else was suffering the consequences.



Steve Seche:


They were stuck with whatever was left. They were stuck with the unreliable supplies with the lack of water quality.


Al Letson: But did all this inequity, all this water mismanagement really cause the war, like the Water Minister said. I just want to push back against Al-Eryani's point because he's the Minister of Water, so when you're a hammer everything looks like a nail. Given the complexities of Yemen, how big of a deal really can water be?



Steve Seche:


Water's a big deal in Yemen and the absence of water is a big deal. The prospects of having even less water in the future is a bigger deal. Again, I think you're right that Minister Al-Eryani sees everything from this perspective. He has a bit of that missionary zeal, but I don't see too much hyperbole in what he describes.


Al Letson: A few years after Seche left the country in 2010. The rebel Houthis, who came from the farm country in the north, overthrew the government. I asked the water minister why the Houthis did it. Why they ultimately took the drastic measure of starting a civil war? He said they were desperate, without water to farm, they had no jobs, no money, and they needed to find a solution, any solution.





Many young people became unemployed and the wars, in a way, created jobs for them.


Al Letson: The connection between water and war in Yemen often seems to get lost. News tends to focus on the latest death toll or what other countries are getting involved.


Al-Eryani: People will claim that it's because of Shiite and Iran and Saudi Arabia, but the main environment for this is the water scarcity in [inaudible 00:14:15].



Al Letson:


People are fighting.


Al-Eryani: Fighting and people are killing each other and fighting and using even heavy armament.


Al Letson: For water?


Al-Eryani: For water, yes.


Al Letson: What can the world learn from Yemen?


Al-Eryani: I think the most important thing is to have good governance, but when you have drill rigs that are running wild it's a big sign that you are in Yemeni style crisis.


Al Letson: Our story was produced by Katharine Mieszkowski and [Esodene Alzane 00:14:52] reported from Sanam.


[00:15:00] You may think that Yemen's water problem could never happen here. I mean, you turn on the facet, and water comes out, but there's a place in America, in our own backyard, where the same mistakes are being made and water is disappearing.


Speaker 3: It concerns a lot of people. Without water, what do we have?


Al Letson: That's up next on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and P-R-X.


[00:15:30] From the Center for Investigative Reporting and P-R-X, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.


Here in northern California something strange has been going on this month. It's been raining and snowing, a lot. Now, this is big news here. There have been down power lines, mud slides, and traffic is just insane. You may have heard about that famous Sequoia tree that got knocked down. It was so big that cars could drive through its hollowed out base. But, despite all this rain and snow, the state is still facing a massive water shortage, after five years of drought. There are a lot of similarities between what's happening here in California and what we heard about in Yemen. In both cases, farmers are pumping up too much water from underground. In Yemen, that lead to violent uprisings. Here, something else is happening. The hunt for water is causing some strange, almost biblical changes to the land, actually, deep beneath the land.


[00:16:00] Which brings us to downtown Corcoran, California, halfway between Los Angeles and Sacramento. Smack dap in the middle of the state.


Speaker 6: [crosstalk 00:16:36] and the City of Corcoran would like to thank you for coming out to enjoy our Christmas parade and tree lighting ceremony.



Adrian Veagus:


Oh, look at that Santa Claus. Look at that Santa Claus has a beard.


Al Letson: This is little Adrian [Veagus 00:17:02]. He's four years old and he's watching the holiday parade with his sister.



Speaker 10:


Oh, a little choo-choo train. I love that big thing, whoa. That biggest tractor of all.


Al Letson: The biggest tractor of all. Now, that's a big deal here in farm country. Corcoran is home to about 25,000 people and is known as the farming capital of California. Now, that's saying something considering that the state produces nearly half of America's fruits, nuts, and vegetables, that's right, half. But these days, the town's earned a more troubling distinction. Something that threatens the way of life across a huge region of the state. Corcoran is sinking. The land is deflating like a leaky air mattress. This is the fastest sinking town in America. Reveal's Nathan Halverson has been investigating what's been happening in Corcoran and why it's only a little slice of a much larger problem. One that is spreading around the world.



Nate Halverson:


No one really knew parts of California were sinking. Most people didn't even know land could sink until 2011. That's when a gung ho scientist, a woman named Michelle Sneed, began unraveling the mystery. Michelle spends a lot of her time in the dirt and can usually be found wearing jeans and a t-shirt with her ash brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. She works for the US Geological Survey as an expert on sinking, which scientists call subsidence.


[00:18:30] Let me ask you now, you're really deep into the world of subsidence, right?


Michelle Sneed: I am, yeah, deep into the world of subsidence. I couldn't help but laugh. What are you doing to me Nate?


Nate Halverson: She's not the kind of person who lets a bad pun slip by, not much else gets by her either. In fact, she got her first clue that her home state of California was sinking when she was asked to investigate a strange bit of news. Some land surveyors were working on a restoration project along the San Joaquin River. This is a crucial water supply for farmers that roars out of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, winds through farm country in central California, and empties into the Pacific Ocean. Well, that's in a good year. It's been running dry in the summer for decades.


[00:19:00] The surveyors had discovered a spot where the riverbank had sunk two feet in just a couple years. They thought their measurements were probably just wrong, but the state's water department asked Michelle to double-check the numbers.



Michelle Sneed:


We processed these data and were pretty shocked at the results.


Nate Halverson: Michelle had done a quick computer analysis of satellite images that could detect even puny changes to the earth's surface.


Michelle Sneed: We not only confirmed their survey results, but we found that the subsidence area was huge.


Nate Halverson: She was alarmed to see that more than 1,000 square miles in California's central valley were sinking. The valley is shaped a bit like a banana, only taking-


  Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04]
  Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 - 00:30:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Speaker 1: The valley is shaped a bit like a banana, only taking about an hour to drive across from east to west. But from north to south? It runs 450 miles long. That's like driving from New York City to Durham, North Carolina. It's the most productive farmland in the nation and the sinking means it's in trouble.


State officials wanted to know why was this happening. Michelle had a hunch. The Central Valley sits atop a giant aquifer system, essentially an underground reservoir. And all that water? It props up the land above it. What if that water was disappearing? So in 2011, Michelle started taking groundwater measurements all across farm country. She was trying to figure out why the land was sinking.


[00:20:30] She's still taking those measurements today and I join her on one of her expeditions. We trudge through a field in California's Central Valley. Michelle's boots are covered in mud and her jeans are dusted with dirt.





I usually measure this well with a steel tape and so I put an electric tape down there that beeps when you hit water. Like that.


Speaker 1: Standing in a dirt field with farmland in all directions, Michelle looks down a monitoring well that drops 900 feet. That's deep enough to fit the length of the Eiffel Tower with room to spare. And what's the lowest the water's ever gotten in this well?


Michelle: We're pretty low. So we're just under 200 feet right now. So we're at among historic lows. We're definitely in that territory.



Speaker 1:


This is bad. When groundwater levels start dropping, the land above it begins to sink too. The sinking is a symptom. This region is running low on water. Michelle gathers up her gear. We hop into her car and head out to look for evidence that the land is sinking.


Michelle: You could see the Sierra all driving down all the way today. It was so nice.



Speaker 1:


We drive to the spot where satellite images first showed the sinking is happening fastest. If the land is deflating, it should be damaging roads and other infrastructure. We drive through an area a little north of Corcoran.


Michelle: There's usually a really great taco truck here, by the way. So I remember actually hanging out at this taco truck once, waiting for my food, and there were some highway workers doing the same thing. And they said, "Oh hey, what are you doing out here?" So I told them, "Oh I'm studying subsidence down here." And he said, "Oh really? We're fixing a roadway just up the way a little bit." So that was just a taco truck conversation, you know?



Speaker 1:


Everywhere we go we see other signs of subsidence. Bridges are sinking. Roadways are cracking, and water canals buckling and breaking. But why is the groundwater dropping so fast? As we drive around, Michelle points out a clue. One she has noticed over and over again.


As we're driving now, can you scan around? I mean, are you looking for anything in particular?





One of the most telling signs is a protruding well casing. Anything on the well structures. You can see that pad right there was sticking above the land surface.


Speaker 1: Can we turn around so we can check that out?


Michelle: Yeah. So you can see that the well pad is lifted off of the ground right there.


Speaker 1: We're standing in front of a production well, which pumps up ground water to irrigate crops. And sure enough, the well pad, a large slab of concrete, is floating in the air like a piece of levitating sidewalk. It's held up by the well's metal pipe, which is like a 900 foot long rod anchored deep underground. And this is what really gets me. This concrete slab is not rising up above the land. Rather, the land around it is sinking. I had never seen anything like it before. But in this part of the state, I start seeing it everywhere.


And how frequent are these wells around the valley?





They're everywhere. They're pretty much on every corner of every farm. They're all over the place.


Speaker 1: These wells are beastly. They can pump 5,000 gallons per minute. When Michelle and her colleagues did the math, they realized they'd found the cause of the sinking. Tens of thousands of wells on farms all over the Central Valley of California each pumping millions of gallons.





We're using more water than is naturally replenished every year.


Speaker 1: You might think that water isn't being replenished because of California's five year drought. That's what a lot government press releases and news reports have pointed to. But this all started before the drought, about a decade before. Even during rainy years, farmers out this way are pumping too much water and making the land sink. So the drought didn't start this problem. But it is making a bad situation worse.


Michelle: So we're taking more out than we're putting back in. You can't do that forever without running out.



Speaker 1:


That's not a very hopeful forecast.


Michelle: Well, yeah, I know it's a not a bright sunny picture ahead. I anticipate that there will be continued subsidence for quite some time.


Speaker 1: How did the water problem in California get so bad? I got in my old pickup truck and drove across the Central Valley, talking with dozens of people, landowners, lawmakers, scientists. I dug through two decades of crop reports showing me what farmers harvested and who they sold it to. One thing stands out. California farmers are changing what they grow. Lettuce fields have been replaced by almond orchards. Where wheat once blew in the wind, long rows of walnut trees now shade the landscape. Here's the problem with that. These new crops are some of the most thirsty. It takes 1.6 million gallons of water a year to raise a single acre of almonds. That's four times more water per acre than the lettuce in your salad.


[00:26:00] Why are farmers switching to more water intensive crops, especially in the middle of a drought? How does this make sense?


We'll drive?



Stewart Wolf:


Oh you know what? We can just walk out back. That'll be easier.


Speaker 1: For answers, I meet up with Stewart Wolf. He walks me into a pistachio orchard his family planted about 12 years ago. Their farm is now one of the biggest nut producers in the state. Stewart was raised out here, about a 45 minute drive from the small town of Corcoran, and he loves it.


Stewart Wolf: Oh god, yeah. I mean look at this ranch and everything. It's absolutely beautiful. And to be able to own a piece of California like this, it's spectacular.



Speaker 1:


It feels like I've walked onto a movie set. Pistachio trees are arranged into impeccable rows that march off until they grow small and fuzzy in the distance. But this picturesque scene is masking a dire situation underground. The groundwater levels in this area have been dropping fast. So I ask Stewart, "Why are farmers like him switching to more water intensive crops like pistachios and almonds?"


Stewart Wolf: It's a fantastic product and it's one that we have global advantage producing here. It's like, why wouldn't we produce it? This is the place to produce it.



Speaker 1:


And this is the big change that has reshaped so much of the Central Valley and put so much more pressure on the groundwater. About 15 years ago, Stewart and other farmers realized they could make big profits by selling almonds and other nuts overseas, especially to places like China, India, and Europe.


Stewart Wolf: So we're supplying the bulk of the world with almonds. And as the economies of the world improve people want to eat better and this a fantastic product, so it's hard not to be bullish.



Speaker 1:


The numbers back him up. Here's what I found in the crop reports. The value of food that California exports overseas has tripled in the last decade, now worth about 21 billion dollars a year. Exports have become such a big part of farmers' income, they account for one in every three dollars they earn. But as the cash comes in, the water goes out.


[00:28:30] I think it's widely recognized, California's using more water right now to grow crops than it has. And it's resulting in the sinking, subsidence, the lowering of groundwater levels. Does it make sense to be using this much water and exporting so much of it?


Stewart Wolf: Yeah, so I think that's a great question. I think along those lines, really you've got to go back and say, "Are we managing the waters of the state properly?"


Speaker 1: Farmers like Stewart blame the government for bad water management. In the 1990s, officials began cutting back on the water supplied to farmers. They'd been giving out so much river water, that salmon and other commercial fish were dying off. With less surface water from the government, farmers turned to groundwater to keep their crops alive.



Stewart Wolf:


Water is big deal here. It is the deal. Without it, a lot of theses communities and these businesses and what have you, simply don't survive.


Speaker 1: But tapping groundwater is expensive because it's not just the cost of drilling the wells. Farmers also have to deal with the huge electric bills that come from pumping water out of the ground. The deeper the water, the steeper the bills. Soon the water cost doubled, then tripled, and are now more than 10 times the cost of government water.



Stewart Wolf:


And those electricity bills aren't going down any time soon. We fully expect that our energy costs are going to continue to climb.


Speaker 1: Higher costs, mean fewer options. Farmers switch to crops that pay the bills. Crops that generate less money, like lettuce or wheat, just don't cut it anymore.



Stewart Wolf:


If you really increase the cost of water, you may not be


  Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 - 00:30:04]
  Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 - 00:40:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Speaker 1: If you really increase the cost of water, you may not be able to make it growing alfalfa or grain or cotton, a whole host of things that we grow in California. But, you may still be able to grow almonds, pistachios, possibly wine grapes.


Speaker 2: Farmers in the southern region of the Central Valley are trapped in a vicious cycle. They have little choice but to cut off the lower value crops, and chase the ground water deeper and deeper.


Speaker 1: Most of my farmer friends, they won't let go easily. And so they will chase something and dig the hole a little deeper before they have to actually get out.



Speaker 2:


Farmers are now competing for water, setting off an arms race to drill the deepest well. Stuart says some farmers won't survive. A million acres of farm land could vanish as their wells go dry.


Speaker 1: I don't think we're going to dye. I think we're gonna figure out where the spend the next dollar and how to survive this thing.


Speaker 2: Stuart is now rushing to compete for the last remaining ground water in California. He's searching for new areas to plant trees, even exploring places outside the United States as the hunt for water continues.


[00:31:00] So is anything being done to turn things around? I drove out to the house of State Senator, Lois Wolk, in Davis, California, where she sat me down in her family room.


[00:31:30] So, Senator, can I just start off asking you, how political is water in California?


Lois Wolk: Water is very political. As Mark Twain told us, "whiskey's for drinking and water's for fighting." And that's true.


Speaker 2: Actually, that's one of those Twain quotes, no one can prove he said, but the sentiment stands. And for years, Senator Wolk has been worried by what she calls a gold rush for water in the Central Valley. With farmers drilling more and more wells.


Lois Wolk: Nobody asks the question, "Is there enough ground water? What will happen to your neighbor?" You know, you gotta ask for some evidence that you're not going to create harm. Do no harm.



Speaker 2:


So she picked a fight with one of the most powerful lobby groups in California, The Farm Bureau. It's consistently fought for a farmer's right to pump as much water as they want. Last year, she introduced a bill that would have stopped new well drilling in areas where the land is sinking.


Lois Wolk: It was going to prevent further new well drilling, period.


Speaker 2: So people would have been allowed to replace an old well, and they could have dug the well deeper, they just couldn't put new wells in?



Lois Wolk:


Yeah, this only applied to brand new wells.


Speaker 2: In areas that weren't sinking, her bill would have allowed farmers to drill. But, only if they proved it wouldn't lower their neighbors ground water. As it stands now, in most farming counties in California, getting a permit to drill a new well is simply a matter of filling out a form, paying a small fee, and then you can pump as much as you want. Even in areas where the roads are cracking and canals are buckling.


Lois Wolk: So, you know, I think that's a reasonable request and I thought it was a reasonable piece of legislation.



Speaker 2:


The farm bureau disagreed, and in this case they took a position against.


Lois Wolk: Yes they did. Yes they did. That's true.


Speaker 2: A strong position against.


Lois Wolk: They did. I disagree, but they were victorious.


Speaker 2: And did you think it would pass when you first put it forward.


Lois Wolk: No, we didn't. People who voted for it were people who had to vote against the Farm Bureau. But we thought that it was important to raise the issue and to heighten awareness of what was going on in people's areas.



Speaker 2:


The Farm Bureau helped defeat the bill. I called them to ask for a meeting to understand their position, learn why they opposed Senator Wolk's law. They told me President Paul Wenger would meet with me, told me that several times, but they never followed through. When I finally offered to just stop by, saying I'd wait in the lobby all the day until he could squeeze me in. I was told not to waste my time.


[00:34:00] The state did pass a different piece of ground water legislation back in 2014. But it won't require farmers to reduce pumping for nearly 25 years. In the meantime, the great water rush is moving into new areas. Affecting more people, who are watching with an anxious eye, as their water is threatened.


Andrea: I just describe it as like this cancer that spreading all over.



Speaker 2:


This is Andrea Maderos. She's worried about the plummeting ground water. She's not a farmer, she's taught school for 34 years. She's sitting at her kitchen table, next to her husband, Milt, who's been a cop for 38 years.


Milt: If we're to lose the water here, I really don't know what we're going to do, honestly.


Speaker 2: Milt and Andrea rely on their ground water for everything; showering, drinking water, doing the dishes. They live in a modest house out in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, which spill into the Central Valley. This was one of the last places where ground water had been largely untapped, but that's changing fast.





We just want a nice place where we can raise our children and live our lives, and we just really feel like that's threatened now.


Speaker 2: That's because a few years ago some investors from Silicon Valley decided to plant nearly a million almond trees next to the Maderos's home. They got permission to drill thirty new irrigation wells. This industrial farm is part of the states massive almond expansion, where production had doubled in the last decade. The day I visit them, Andrea and Milt are waiting for an inspector to come measure the water in their well. They've heard about other communities in the Central Valley devastated by dropping ground water, where thousands of residential wells have gone dry. And home owners are forced to drink bottled water and shower under buckets. If their well goes dry, digging a deep well isn't an option. It can cost half a million dollars or more to drill as deep as the farms.





You know, I'm fond of saying "We'd almost be better off if our house were burning to the ground as I speak rather than haveing our well go dry."



Speaker 2:


Andrea called the insurance company to ask if they'd be covered if their water runs out. She was practically laughed at. Their house will be almost worthless without water.


Andrea: People are angry, again, we worked our whole lives. If we lose our home for something that is out of our control, what are we going to do, work another 34 years to get it back? And that's just crazy, to feel like you're being forced out of your home.


Oh, there's the well measuring guy. His name is Terry and he just looks like an old cowboy.





Because he is an old cowboy.


Andrea: Go out that way and make a left.


Speaker 2: Can I follow you?


Andrea: Oh sure, sure.


Speaker 2: We step into the back yard. Right next to an electric fence, which makes a clicking sound in the background.


Andrea: Okay, we just nervously stand off to the side and wait for Terry to give us the verdict.


Terry: We're going down though the top of the well casing and measuring the water level, how far it is to the water. With the device I just dropped down into the water, as soon as it gets wet, it lets out a signal and tells me.



Speaker 2:


How deep was it last time?


Andrea: Ah, 93.


Terry: 93 feet I believe.


Speaker 2: Is there a little bit of anxiety every time it goes down?


Andrea: There is anxiety.





96 feet.


Milt: Its dropped three feet from last month.


Andrea: Three feet in a month.


Speaker 2: I have to say you look pretty frustrated.


Milt: It is frustrating, very, very frustrating. And above that, its just, it's very frightening.



Speaker 2:


Terry, can I ask, are you doing this for a lot of folks around the area now?


Terry: Yes I am. Yes I am. It concerns a lot of people. Without water, what do we have? You know, it's devastating.


Speaker 2: Their water's dropping.


Terry: Yeah, everybody's is. Year after year it's dwindling. It's going down.


Speaker 2: After Terry leaves, I walk back inside with Andrea and Milt. She pulls out a plate of snacks and pours me a glass of water.





If the well goes dry we're just stuck, we're just stuck.


Milt: When is enough, is enough? When do we finally say that its reached critical mass and we have to deal with this? And you know something, it's not just a few people that are going to have to suffer, it means everyone is going to have to do their part.


Speaker 8: That story was from Reveal, Nathan Halverson. The Central Valley is just one example of water disappearing. It's happening in the middle of the country too, place like Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska. In fact, around the world water shortages are hurting farms. The UN predicts their annual production will be reduced by 350,000,000 tons in the coming decades. That's equivalent to the entire US grain harvest. And at the same time, the world is getting hungrier. The population is expected to grow by two billion people by 2050. So how can we produce more food with less water? Next, we meet some scientist who think they have the answer, fake meat.



Speaker 7:


Okay, why is the world not vegetarian? Because people view it as a big sacrifice giving up meat that the love. The beauty of what we're doing is there's absolutely no sacrifice. They're still eating the same meat, which is identical, and I think when they taste it, they'll absolutely switch over.


Speaker 8: Next of Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.


  Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 - 00:40:04]
  Section 5 of 5          [00:40:00 - 00:52:32]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Al: Investigative reporting and PRX.


From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. This is Reveal, I'm Al Letson. Today we're looking at the world running dry. What happens when places start running out of water, and what are the reasons why?


One of the things that uses a ton of water is meat production. Now, the numbers vary but researchers estimate it takes about 600 gallons of water to produce a single hamburger patty. Roughly the amount it takes to fill a backyard swimming pool. [inaudible 00:40:54] Cables, the Mesley Company told US officials that if the rest of the world had America's appetite for meat, the entire planet would have already run out of fresh water back in the year 2000. So perhaps the best way to save water, and I'm sad to be the one to tell you this, is by kicking our meat habit. Now, I know this is a hard thing to ask. I mean I love a juicy steak, but what if you could produce a nearly identical meat substitute using only a fraction of the water? Recently I met a guy who's doing just that.





So, let's see if I can get him in the lab. Okay, there I am.


Al: Welcome to the new world of lab grown synthetic meat.


Uma: This is a small demo space but ...


Al: Uma Valeti used to be a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic. Now he's the CEO of Memphis Meats. He's an energetic 40 something who looks like he's about to give a Ted talk on the future of fake meat. Just don't call it that in front of Uma.





This is real meat. This is not a meat analog or a meat substitute. This is meat.


Al: And it's growing in a lab space above an Office Depot in a big box strip mall in the San Francisco Bay area. It's a lot smaller and more sterile than your typical cattle ranch. And this is how the meatless industry is raising the stakes. See what I did there? Get it?


Uma: So all of this is basic lab space. There is lots of testing that goes on. And then we can go into this room where we can look at some cells.





On a stainless steel table I bend over and look into the microscope. Now, to my untrained eye it's just a bunch of speckled transparent blobs.


Uma: So basically it is is ... These really small little [inaudible 00:42:47]


Al: This is actually how Uma looks at meat on a plate.


Uma: When people go out to a restaurant and order a steak, that steak is essentially two or three billion cells sitting on their plate.





Before those three billion sizzling cells get plated, they grew inside their mother, were born as calves, raised, and eventually slaughtered. Memphis Meats starts a little differently.


Uma: We take a sample, just like if you go to the doctor and take a biopsy, we take a biopsy from an animal and we identify the cells in there that are capable of renewing themselves. We let the meat grow and know that we can harvest it at a point where it's tender enough. We definitely tried variety of things. We said, "Let's harvest it at three weeks, let's harvest it at four weeks, let's harvest it six weeks and see how it tastes."





Earlier this year Memphis Meats produced a meatball that took just one month to grow.


Uma: And now you compare that with the process to actually get a meatball from a beef cattle from the time of artificial insemination, you know compare their pregnancy and then letting the animal grow from 12 to 24 months. This process is about 10 to 20 times shorter.


Al: And it takes a lot less water to produce than traditional beef. According to Uma just one tenth.


[00:44:00] So the question I have now is it like, scalability right? So right now you guys are pretty small, you're just making like one or two meatballs. How much does meatballs cost?


Uma: So the cost of the meatballs that we showed earlier this year.


Al: Yeah.


Uma: That meatball cost about a thousand dollars.


Al: Now that is a pricey meatball. I can't believe I just said that. Uma says that as they begin to scale up, within five years they hope to be able to bring the cost down to make their product competitive with ground beef you currently find in the grocery store. But the big question is, will it taste good enough to compete?


[00:44:30] Last year Memphis Meats released a promotional video for their lab grown meatball.


Uma: You know this is the first time a meatball has ever been cooked with beef cells that did not require cow to be slaughtered.


Speaker 4: It tastes like a meatball. It's good!


Al: The tester doesn't look entirely convinced. Now call it the ick factor, but will people get over the creepiness of eating lab grown meat? Uma's betting they will.





Okay, why is the world not vegetarian? Because people view it as a big sacrifice giving up meat that they love. The beauty of what we're doing is there's absolutely no sacrifice. They're still eating the same meat. It's identical and I think that when they taste it they'll absolutely switch over.


Al: Or will they? Now according to a pew poll just one in five Americans would be willing to eat meat that was grown in a lab. And I wondered how the cattle industry felt about it.





Well my name is Barb Downey. I'm a full time cattle rancher in the Flint Hills of Northeastern Kansas.


Al: We reached Barb at her ranch.


Barb: I've got 20 heifers sitting out here. I can see them just right outside my kitchen window. We've got a little bit of snow on the ground right now. And the grass that's showing through is this incredible bronze color this time of year. It's really pretty.


Al: Now Barb recognizes beef takes a lot of water. She says the industry is trying to decrease its water use, do more with less. As for alternatives to home grown beef?





There's no replacing a good juicy burger or a steak hot off the grill. Beef and a steak brings a whole lot more to the table than just muscle fibers grown in a Petri dish.


Al: Barb says she'd like to learn more about the process of growing meat in the lab. And she'd like to sample it, but she also says Americans have some anti science anxiety when it comes to their food supply. Just take the backlash against genetically modified foods or GMO's for instance.





If GMO's bother the American public I would imagine that lab grown muscle fiber would really bother the average American.


Al: Uma's Petri dish approach is still an experiment, but there's another fake meat recipe that's already being served up. It's a lab designed ground beef replica made entirely from plants. So I head over to a fancy restaurant, Jardiniere, in San Francisco that's serving up a $16 impossible burger.


[00:47:00] Here's Head Chef Traci Des Jardins.


Traci: This is all made from plants. Things that you recognize. It's soy, root nodules, potato protein, coconut fat, vegetable protein that's made from wheat ...


Al: Traci is also a consultant for Impossible Foods, the company that makes the burger. It's come along way from the veggie burgers you see left over at the end of the BBQ. For one thing, it looks bloody.





Exactly, it does have what is essentially plant blood. It's something that exists in plants and so it so really is the thing that changes like blood does in meat, and gives you that really savory meaty flavor that you find in a burger.


Al: The blood is actually something called heme, a molecule that contains iron and oxygen that makes blood red. There's a lot of it in red meat but it also exists in vegetables like soy beans. And when we open the packaging ... Yeah normally that would like be the ... Realize it's a veggie burger





Wait 'till you taste it. Because I really think you're going to be surprised and also watching it cook, what happens on the grill. So I'm gonna go ahead and, ... A little bit of oil on the griddle here. Hear that sizzle.


Al: This glistening juicy burger uses one quarter of the water required to produce a beef version from a cow, according to Impossible Foods. So for those of you keeping track at home, one beef burger takes about 34 days of showers. One of these plant burgers close to nine days of showers. One of the lab grown kind three days of showering.





You can see it changes. You've got the nice browning that's happening. Just like a beef burger. For all intents and purposes it really does cook the same way. Very very appealing. Alright I'm gonna dress this burger up for ya.





Traci puts it on a roll with a few garnishes and it smells like a burger. She cuts it in half and it's pink like a burger. It's crazy to think, but this entirely plant based burger is medium rare. Just the way I like it.


Traci: Alright, we ready?


Al: Yes, let's do it.


Traci: Okay.


Al: Looks good. Mmm, it's good. You know, I think if you served this to me I wouldn't know the difference.


[00:49:30] Seriously, I could barely tell. Now I like to think that I have a pretty sophisticated pallet but I wanted to bring this burger to somebody else for some confirmation. So I brought a to-go box back to the office to the bonafide meat lover.


Eric: Carnivore, like a rampant, blood thirsty, bone gnawing carnivore.


Al: Reveal's data reporter, Eric Sagara. Now, any day of the week there's a good chance he's in the office wearing a t-shirt that reads, "Meat is murder, tasty murder." Please send all your emails to Eric.





Well, I should also admit that my girlfriend is a vegan. So, you have a guy here who really likes his meat, smokes his own meat, cooks with meat as much as possible. And I have a vegan girlfriend who is not very pleased about the idea of that I'm such a carnivorous eater. And so she's actually very excited about these hamburgers. And she wants to try one really badly.





But does it pass the meat lover's test?


Eric: So let's see ... this [inaudible 00:50:39] pouring out. It looks like it's even got like parts are even bloody, right? It breaks apart just like ground beef. You know what it probably is is you guys probably just gave me some ground beef. Holy cow.


Al: I think that's a pass.


Eric: If anything I would say that it's almost too perfect, right? That's remarkable.





But there was one problem. When Eric showed his vegan girlfriend the bloody plant burger she couldn't bring herself to eat it. It was too close to meat.


Samuel: Hmm, this is a tasty burger. I can't usually get them cuz my girlfriend's a vegetarian which pretty much makes me a vegetarian. I do love the taste of a good burger. Mmm.


Al: That of course is Samuel Jackson from the movie Pulp Fiction. To savor some of our other stories visit That story was produced by [inaudible 00:51:36]. Our show was edited by Taki [inaudible 00:51:39] and Andrew Donahue. Kathy Leskowski and Nathan Halverson produced our show. Special thanks to the American Association of Yemeni Students and Professionals and Yemen Kitchen Restaurant in San Francisco. Our sound design team is the wonder twins, my man Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Claire C. [inaudible 00:51:56]. Our head of studios, Chris Texeira from Berkeley, Amy Pauls our editor in chief, Suzanne Reever is our executive editor and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Commorado Lightning. Support for Reveals provided by the Lee and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.


[00:52:00] I'm Al Letson and remember there is always more to the story.


  Section 5 of 5          [00:40:00 - 00:52:32]