From the parched California coast to soaring water bills in New York, this episode of Reveal takes an in-depth look at water issues around the country.
Reporters track down water guzzlers in the Golden State, where some people are using millions of gallons of water in a year in the middle of a historic drought. But their identities are kept secret.
Further southeast, we explore a fight for clean drinking water that’s been raging for decades along the Texas-Mexico border. To the west of Texas, we travel to a desert to unveil an aspect of the global thirst for water.
And from the desert, we head to New York City, where the buildings aren’t the only things climbing sky high. Water bills are skyrocketing – what’s behind this and who does it affect?
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.
Al: From the Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Paolo: Water flows towards money. It’s not, water flows downhill, water flows towards money, and wherever the money is, that’s who gets to control it.
Al: Take California, right now in the middle of a historic drought, thousands of people don’t have enough water to take a shower, but an elite few are still bathing in the stuff.
Paolo: Is this eleven million gallons?
Katharine: Yes, in fact someone in a year used eleven point eight million gallons of water at their house.
Paolo: How do they even do that?
Al: That’s ninety times more than the average household.
Paolo: That’s asinine.
Katharine: That is a big lawn, that is some serious grass.
Al: We go searching for California’s top water users, people wasting millions of gallons in secret.
Amy: I think it must be real, because there’s a sprinkler on it.
Al: Today on Reveal, is America’s thirst for water leaving some out to dry, but first this news. From the Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson, and right now I’d like you to imagine this future, an America where almost all the water in the west has dried up. Overpopulation, climate change, and a lack of future planning have broken the western states. Thousands die, and society becomes a caste system of those who can afford water, and those who cannot. Cities and states take desperate measures to ensure that they control the little water that’s left.
Las Vegas has a shadowy organization called “The Water Mouse”, vicious enforcers who do whatever it takes from bribes to murder, to make sure the city has the water rights it needs to survive. Phoenix, like the rest of Arizona, is fading away. Sandstorms replace the rain, and Texas is completely dry. The roads leading out of the state are filled with thirsty refugees.
Paolo: For sure the Texans around the pumps stank. They stank of fear and stale sweat that had moistened and dried, they stank of clear sat plastic and piss. They stank of one another, from lying crammed together like sardines in the plywood ghettos that they packed in close to wherever the Red Cross had spiked relief pumps into the ground.
Al: This is the World of the Water Knife, a novel by author Paolo Bacigalupi, set sometime in the not too distant future, society as we know it has broken down from the lack of water. Paolo says the inspiration for the book came from real life.
Paolo: I was down in Texas in the 2011 drought, and their crops were dying, they were having to put their cattle down because the land couldn’t support them. At the same time that everybody is running their air conditioners at max because they’re having record numbers of hundred degree days, they’re also having a lack of electrical capacity. The thing though that really, really struck me was that all of that that was happening there looked very, very much like what climate data tells us Texas’ future looks like. I was time traveling, I was having an opportunity to speed into the future and see what reality looks like in the future, and it was scary.
Al: In the Water Knife the theme is inequity, and water is the currency.
Paolo: Water flows towards money, it’s not water flows downhill, water flows towards money, and wherever the money is, that’s who gets to control it, that’s who will define it, that’s who will move it successfully, that’s who will have ownership over it, and that’s who will share it out to others.
Al: The Water Knife conjures a dark world, what happens when water stops flowing. In some parts of America that’s already happening, and those are the stories we bring you this hour. While you listen to this show, I challenge you to not just think about the stories, but also use your imagination, what will all of this look like in the future, because tomorrow is quickly approaching. We begin in California. The state is in the middle of a historic drought, the Governor is calling for everyone to do their part to conserve. Despite all of that, some people are using millions of gallons of water a year, and the thing is, we don’t know who they are. Katharine Mieszkowski set out to find them.
Katharine: I’m in Los Angeles tooling around with Steve Kasher of LA Insider Tours.
Steve K: I think Bel Air has the biggest hedges.
Katharine: Usually Steve takes tourists to Bel Air and Beverly Hills to gawk at the luxury, what you can see of it from the street that is, like David Beckham’s driveway, and a little corner of Tom Cruise’s house. House is probably the wrong word, these are estates, mansions, temples to opulence. Some of them are thirty thousand square feet. From the street it’s pretty hard to see much, since many are cloistered behind towering gates and hedges.
Steve K: We just passed Madonna’s old house, and that was on the market for twenty five million dollars.
Katharine: Today we’re not here trolling for celebrities, but for extreme water wasters.
Steve K: Huge trees, it’s just green everywhere, you’d have no idea that you’re in California. You’d have no idea you were in a place that has no rain.
Katharine: But finding out exactly who is using that water, or overusing it, is a lot harder than following a star map.
Steve C: Lately our friend, water, has felt a little taken for granted. It’s time to ask ourselves, every time we go to use water, is this good use of our friend?
Katharine: That’s comedian Steve Carell, he’s getting into the water saving act for the city of Los Angeles. He implores residents to take shorter showers, and plant California friendly landscape. In other words, say goodbye to green lawns.
Steve C: Let’s do this LA, or pretty soon our friend may not stick around.
Katharine: Everyone is being asked to conserve. But what about all these people who just don’t? Is anyone trying to stop them? My colleague, Lance Williams, and I, went on a hunt to find out. But first we needed to know who they were, so we asked the water agencies, but as Lance and I found out, it wasn’t that easy.
Lance: Well shucks, I think it took weeks.
Katharine: I actually think it took months.
Lance: Yeah, we did public records act of request under the state open records law, got negative responses.
Katharine: Their answer, there is no way we’re telling you. Not a single agency would cough up the names, and how much water they were using.
Lance: The law allows them to conceal or keep secret utility records, but it says they can make them public if that’s in the public interest. Nobody thought it was in the public interest.
Katharine: We didn’t give up, we made a whole new round of requests. This time we just asked for the amount of water the top customers used without the names and addresses.
Lance: Eight of the biggest agencies did give us information, but fourteen others refused even to disclose water usage info with the names and addresses taken out. The most alarming were the agencies that said they didn’t know who their biggest users are in the middle of a state wide emergency for lack of water.
Katharine: The trickle of information we did get, those results were pretty eye popping.
Amy: We have this zip code, 94528, and …
Katharine: That’s our producer, Amy Walters. One agency in the San Francisco Bay area went so far as to share the actual zip codes of their biggest water users, and some people were using plenty. Take the exclusive community of Diablo, a dozen houses there were using over a million gallons a year. One of them used almost three and a half million gallons, that’s twenty-six times what the typical single family home in California used before the drought.
Amy: We’re going to try to head over there.
Katharine: Some of the biggest properties were on a private road. To even catch a glimpse of them, we had to take a hike.
Amy: It seems like we’re the highest up on the hill, but I’m not sure. That is a big lawn.
Katharine: That is some serious grass. I can’t tell if it’s real though.
Amy: I think it must be real, because there’s a sprinkler on it.
Katharine: We saw orchards, vineyards, swimming pools, even a man-made water fall, but there was no way to nail down who the top guzzlers were. It wasn’t until we got back to the office that we found out none of those properties were anywhere close to the top. The real water wasters, maybe you’ve guessed already, are where we started out, in LA. The worst offender, one house in Bel Air used eleven point eight million gallons of water in a year. That’s enough to fill their hot tub about twenty five thousand times. It’s also the same amount of water that ninety families would use.
To find out what’s going on in LA, I paid a visit to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Before you even get inside the building, you walk by this ginormous reflecting pool with water flowing into it. It’s so big, gulls are floating on it like it’s a lake. I later learned that the pool is part of the building’s cooling system, so the agency can’t just drain it during the drought to show how responsible they’re being. Inside, I met one of LA’s top water honchos. Okay, so now we are recording.
Marty: Live with Marty Adams. Hello, how are you?
Katharine: That was good. Could you introduce yourself?
Marty: I’m Marty Adams, I’m the senior assistant general manager for the water system at LA Water and Power.
Katharine: In thirty-one years at the agency, Marty has seen droughts, but none this bad. He is happy to say that residents have responded by conserving. Los Angeles has slashed it’s water use even more than it’s been required to by the state, but what about those mega users?
Marty: Well, you know, what they’re doing on their property we don’t know. There’s nothing wrong with having a large property, I mean whether it’s one large property or ten properties taking the same space, the issue becomes are we using water the most efficiently, are they following the ordinance.
Katharine: The city’s ordinance doesn’t go after mega users, instead it deals with things considered a waste of water during the drought like hosing down a driveway, or watering your lawn in the middle of the day. For that, you can get a ticket for as much as three hundred dollars a pop.
Marty: There’s nothing that pertains to the actual volume of water, it’s all about following the rules.
Katharine: Basically people can continue to use as much water as they please, as long as it’s not on the wrong day. Some other California water agencies have started imposing fines for using too much water, but not Los Angeles, and those water tickets, so far, no one in all of 90210 has gotten one with a fine in the past year, but David Wilson has. He lives about four miles away from Beverly Hills in a much more modest, mid city neighborhood.
David: I was really embarrassed.
Katharine: I met him on his porch. There was no front gate or imposing hedge, much less a Venetian fountain, just a patch of front lawn. He’s been fined six hundred dollars for runoff and watering on the wrong day of the week. The culprit? Sprinkler malfunction.
David: I was being penalized for not being a good environmental steward, when we do try very hard to be good citizens in that regard.
Katharine: He’s even ripped out some of the thirstier plants in his garden and replaced them with succulents. I showed him a list of the biggest residential LA water users by zip code.
David: Is this eleven million gallons?
Katharine: Yes, in fact someone in a year used eleven point eight million gallons of water at their house.
David: How do they even do that?
Katharine: I explained that we don’t actually know, because these people haven’t been fined. While the water agency had to give out David’s name and address, these jumbo customers get to remain secret.
David: That’s asinine. These are the people that people should be going after, I mean …
Katharine: During the last drought, people did. Let’s take a trip back to the early nineties. George Bush was president, the older one. Baseball slugger Mark McGuire was playing for the Oakland A’s, we’ll get back to him later, and California was in a horrible drought, but not everyone was stepping up to conserve.
Female Speaker: Water, water, everywhere, that seems to be the feeling of a number of East Bay homeowners who have made the notorious list of the top one hundred water consumers in the East Bay …
Katharine: Back then water use was a matter of public record, so the Oakland Tribune was able to expose the biggest wasters in the area.
Male Speaker: Twenty-one thousand gallons of water.
Female Speaker: Rice farmer? Wait a minute, is this a rice farmer? Who is this person?
Katharine: That media even called out the super users by name, and that’s how we get to Mark McGuire, who was on the list. The scrutiny didn’t just expose him and the other big users, the public outcry was so great that the Water Agency had to change it’s policies. It ordered top customers to make substantial cutbacks, but this little drought parable is now firmly a relic of the past.
Lance: In 1997, the state legislature amended the state public records act, they made utility bills secret.
Katharine: That’s my colleague Lance Williams again. The push towards privacy happened at the behest of the city of Palo Alto’s, it’s home to many high profile tech execs down in Silicon Valley. Utility managers there were worried about the privacy of some of those big names.
Lance: The law did include one provision that said the utilities could make utility data public if they thought it was in the public interest, but as we found out in our reporting, they don’t think it is.
Katharine: That’s why we can’t find out who’s using the most water. Unless they’re being fined by their water agency, their names are secret. One house using that much water appalls Tracy Quinn.
Tracy: It’s shocking.
Katharine: She works on water policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Tracy: When people are using millions of gallons of water for their lawn, and a few years down the line if this drought hasn’t ended, we’re going to want that water.
Katharine: The drought is already adding flames to a scorching wildfire season, and it’s thrown the state’s multiple billion dollar agriculture industry into crisis.
Tracy: We’re going to want that water, we’re going to wish we had that water back for our showers, for cooking food, for drinking. I think that it’s really important that we think about the way that we’re using this shared, precious resource.
Katharine: Which is why I find myself driving around Bel Air, home to that eleven point eight million gallon home, with my tour guide Steve, hoping to catch a glimpse of some of this water wasting in action. There’s gardeners hauling dirt, there’s some cars, I think this is a back entrance, like a service entrance?
Steve K: This is a service entrance, yeah.
Katharine: This property is the size of a park, and as green as one. It’s also the former TV home to the Beverly Hillbillies, and it’s actually in Bel Air, not Beverly Hills. And this is all the same property?
Steve K: Same house, yeah.
Katharine: Wow. It just goes on and on. The gardener is looking at us with suspicion.
Steve K: Yes.
Katharine: They’re shutting the gate.
Steve K: Clearly close the gate, yeah.
Katharine: Get away. You’re not wanted here.
Katharine: You’re not wanted here.
Al: That was Reveal’s, Katharine Mieszkowski . She reported that story with Lance Williams and producer, Amy Walters. Do you have other questions about the drought that you want to still investigate? Go to revealnews.org/cadrought and submit questions you want our reporters to investigate. We’ll follow up and publish what we find on our website. Again, that’s revealnews.org/cadrought.
We’ve heard about the haves but how about the have-nots? When we come back, we go to a Texas border town that has been with out clean drinking water for 30 years. Sometimes, it’s gotten pretty ugly.
Karla: I know that it’s pretty much excrement that they were giving us in our water. I thought it was pretty disgusting that they were doing that.
Al: That’s next on Reveal.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. For most of us in America, we don’t even think about clean drinking water. We turn on the tap and it comes out. We tend to think that poor water quality is an issue for other parts of the world. What if I told you there are communities in the US where water has come out of the tap brown or green? It’s got stuff floating in it. It smells bad. If that happened to you, you’d complain. Right? You’d expect something to be done about it. It’s not that simple. Take Rio Bravo and El Cenizo, two Texas towns right on the Mexican border. They are home to nearly 10,000 people. They’ve fought for drinkable tap water for decades. Reveal’s Neena Satija, of our partner The Texas Tribune, takes a look at what’s going on there.
Neena: To understand how far Guadalupe [Elizondo 00:17:04] has come, you have to visit her house.
Guadalupe: I’m sorry. Come in.
Guadalupe: I didn’t hear. I’m Guadalupe Elizondo.
Neena: Guadalupe is short with cropped hair and glasses. When I visited her on a sweltering night in August, she was a great hostess. She offered me peach tea and a grilled cheese, while her grandson played on the floor.
Guadalupe: Did you find it?
Speaker 4: No.
Guadalupe: It’s right there, if you look.
I’m sorry for the mess. This is where they play. They like to be here.
Neena: It’s a cozy, brick house with three bedrooms. The yard is small but well cared for and dotted with colorful plants. A plastic white flamingo leans on the wall outside.
Guadalupe: We like it here. We’re glad we came here.
Neena: Thirty years ago, all this was just an empty lot with nothing but a concrete slab. The family had just moved from a housing project in Laredo. They slept outside.
Guadalupe: We could not afford to make a house. That’s the thing. We did it ourselves, my husband and my sons-in law, and my brother, little by little.
Neena: There was no reliable electricity. Hardly any roads.
Guadalupe: No schools. No stores.
Neena: And one more thing …
Guadalupe: When we moved here, they told us the water was not to drink. It was just to build and for the plants.
Neena: No drinkable water in Rio Bravo or the neighboring town, El Cenizo. In fact, a county engineer told me that, back then, their water came directly from the Rio Grande, with basically no treatment. That river was so polluted at the time that a young boy died from swimming in it, in 1994.
Guadalupe: We just knew that we weren’t going to drink the water. It wasn’t potable to drink.
Neena: It’s hard to imagine getting used to dirty, undrinkable water coming out of your faucet. But, that became a way of life for Guadalupe. She just dealt with it.
Guadalupe: We just bought bottled water. I would be drinking water from the bottles and we bought the gallon jugs and all that.
Neena: A few years after Guadalupe moved to Rio Bravo, the community started to fight for basic services. They formed a city government.
Guadalupe: I became the first mayor of the city. That was in 1989.
Neena: Guadalupe’s house went from a concrete slab to a meeting place. Even today, that’s where activists and lawyers get together to strategize. They fought for paved roads, good electricity, and schools. Almost 30 years later, one thing hasn’t changed.
Do you all remember being able to drink the tap water here or feeling comfortable drinking it?
Neena: For 30 years, they’ve had no clean drinking water. Guadalupe remembers a time when she thought things might get better. It was back in 2006. Webb County opened a new water treatment plant for Rio Bravo and El Cenizo.
Guadalupe: We were glad. We were happy that we were going to have a plant. It was a very good investment.
Neena: A 12 million dollar investment. The tap water was still brown. A guy named Johnny Amaya was in charge of the plant. They took their complaints to him. People said he didn’t listen.
Guadalupe: You could never talk to the person in charge. It was like that and people were afraid to go to the plant to complain.
Neena: To turns out that a lot of the key pieces of equipment at the plant never worked. A couple of years ago, Guadalupe connected with a new generation of activists.
Karla: Usually when I wake up for work, I wake up at 3:30, 4:00 ish, more or less, the water has this smell to it.
Neena: Karla Tamez is a nurse who lives in El Cenizo. She’s kind of like a younger version of Guadalupe, who was actually her kindergarten teacher. Karla founded a group called “The Community of United Citizens of El Cenizo”. She’s always spoken up about the dirty, smelly tap water.
Karla: Even the water that we’re receiving today and the water that we’ve been receiving all of these years, even though it’s been dirty, we still pay for it. This past month, I believe we paid $87.00 or close to that amount.
Neena: Her family had run out of water when I visited, meaning she wouldn’t brush her teeth that night.
Do you wash these dishes with the tap water?
Karla: We try not to. That’s why we have them dirty, right now. We don’t have the water to wash them with.
Neena: Karla was just starting to wonder what could be in the tap water when Guadalupe had all but given up on the problem. In 2013, something happened that made them join forces.
Guadalupe: I’ll tell you my little story about the fish bowl. That’s when I noticed what was going on.
Neena: That’s Guadalupe again.
Guadalupe: I had a little fish in a bowl. When I opened up the faucet, it was brown. You could see little particles, you could see particles. I changed the water twice. I was like, ” I could not believe what I was seeing.”
Neena: Guadalupe was one of many people who went to the plant to try to complain. Karla went one step further. She called the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality who came out to take a look. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing either. The water plant was a shambles. Records were missing, equipment had been broken for years. Workers wouldn’t talk. The water’s turbidity, basically of measure of how cloudy it is, was 50 times higher than the acceptable health standard. Karla got her hands on an email with the results from the water tests.
Karla: It was a copy, the scanned paper of the results. It said that there was e-coli in the water.
Neena: What did you think when you saw that?
Karla: I know what e-coli is. Most people here, I would tell them, “Oh, there’s e-coli in our water.” They didn’t really know what it was. I know where it comes from. I know what it is.
Neena: E-coli infections can cause severe or bloody diarrhea or even kidney damage. In this case, it probably came from the untreated sewage that spills into the Rio Grande every day.
Karla: I know it’s pretty much excrement that they were giving us in our water. I thought it was pretty disgusting that they were doing that.
Neena: After the e-coli discovery, the state told 10,000 people living in Rio Bravo and El Cenizo, they had to boil their tap water. It lasted 3 weeks.
Guadalupe: What could I say? I couldn’t believe that all of that bacteria was there. For how long? We don’t know. How long had it been? We were drinking it and we would get the swimming pool and the kids would bathe in the swimming pool and all that. I didn’t know that all of that was in the water.
Neena: Local TV stations and newspapers covered what was happening. State regulators finally started asking questions. Criminal investigators got involved. They started with the man that Guadalupe and Karla had been complaining to for years, Johnny Amaya.
Johnny: I’m not being arrested or anything.
Speaker 5: No. Not at all, sir. Again, we just want to have nice …
Johnny: Can I go to my car? [inaudible 00:23:52]
Speaker 5: Yeah. You can go however you like, sir.
Neena: These are recordings investigators made while questioning Amaya.
Speaker 5: We’re wondering if we can schedule an interview with you, to get your side of the story.
Neena: It was Johnny Amaya’s job to send a monthly report on water quality to the State. Those reports never mentioned anything about cloudy water or e-coli. That made investigators suspicious.
Speaker 5: Now is the opportunity, Mr. Amaya, to be as forth coming as possible.
Johnny: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Speaker 5: We wouldn’t be knocking on your door if we didn’t have enough information to investigate.
Neena: While talking to investigators, Amaya said he tried, unsuccessfully, to fix problems at the water plant for years.
Johnny: To take my job seriously. [inaudible 00:24:40]. We would work at it, work at it and couldn’t correct it.
Neena: But investigators didn’t believe him.
Speaker 5: The records that were turned in by you, showing pristine condition of the facility, when otherwise we’ve already discussed and shown to you that it wasn’t. You know that. That is why you are here.
Neena: Last fall, Johnny Amaya was arrested for allegedly tampering with government records. His trial began in August. Isidro Alaniz is the Webb County District Attorney.
Isidro: My motivation and my concern was that human lives were being endangered. Being endangered by a governmental department, and agency that was entrusted in servicing these people.
Neena: Johnny Amaya didn’t want to be interviewed. I talked to his lawyer, Fausto Sosa, a few days into the trial.
Isidro: My client did not … Mr. Amaya did not tamper or physically change anything. We’re saying that we didn’t physically tamper anything. Nothing. We didn’t touch anything.
Neena: Sousa told me his client isn’t responsible for all of that missing information on the monthly reports. He said other, lower-level employees were responsible, that Johnny Amaya was being used as a fall guy.
The discovery of e-coli was a turning point. Karla’s community group kept up the momentum. A group lead by Guadalupe joined in. They sued Webb County under the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act, last year. The county settled. Now, they have to provide information about the water to the community. It’s the same information that county officials resisted giving out for years. Guadalupe is running regular meetings where she can demand answers from water plant supervisors. A Spanish translator has to be there too.
Speaker 12: [inaudible 00:26:33] Guadalupe Elizondo. [inaudible 00:26:36]
Neena: At the last meeting, she grilled the plant manager on recent violations.
Guadalupe: Nitrate monitoring must be done at the entry point.
Speaker 13: That’s being done already.
Guadalupe: Being done. The county needs to log testing and maintenance generators.
Speaker 13: Yes, we’ve started log testing.
Neena: About 25 people showed up to the meeting. Most of them weren’t experts on how a water plant works, they just wanted the plant manager to hear their message. [Florencio Cantana 00:27:07], an elderly man, was there along with his wife.
Florencio: [inaudible 00:27:10]
Neena: In a nutshell, we want better water, whatever happens.
Florencio: [inaudible 00:27:21]
Neena: Let the County, the City, the Feds come. We just want good water. That’s all we’re asking for.
Florencio: [inaudible 00:27:28]
Neena: He got up to leave, adding a parting phrase.
Florencio: [inaudible 00:27:31]
Neena: Clean Water.
Florencio: [inaudible 00:27:35] me soy? Buenos Naches.
Neena: A few days after the meeting, a jury came to a verdict in the Johnny Amaya trial. He’s the guy accused of hiding water problems at the water plant. The verdict, not guilty. For Guadalupe, it was a blow.
Guadalupe: Who’s guilty then? Nobody? Like I said, the water is still not clean. Children at school, they still don’t have clean water. The children at church, we still don’t use the fountain.
Neena: What do you think you might be able to do? What do you think you’re going to do?
Guadalupe: I have no idea. We were hoping for something good to come out of all of this. At this moment, no, I’m not too sure. I don’t know where we’re going from here.
Neena: Okay. When I called Karla up about it, she was more optimistic. For her, it’s a victory that people are even paying attention to the water.
Karla: It’s an issue that everyone talks about. Now everyone is, in a way, monitoring. I feel that, that’s something that we did. Before, everybody knew that there was something wrong with the water but nobody spoke about it.
Neena: Even after everything that has happened, Guadalupe still has hope. “Maybe next year”, she said. “After 30 years of waiting, we’ll be able to drink the water.” “Maybe next year.”
Al: That story was from Reveal’s Neena Satija of our partner, The Texas Tribune. We’ve been hearing about water haves and have nots. What if you have no water but lots of money? So much money that you can essentially terraform a desert into a farm. That’s what Reveal’s Nathan Halverson and Ike Sriskandarajah found in the middle of an Arizona desert.
Ike: I see white sands with some scrubby bushes in the desert.
Nathan: I don’t know, Ike, what is it like 115 degrees right now? It is sweltering hot.
Ike: Just beyond that scrub grass is a …
Speaker 1: And just beyond that scrub grass is a gigantic hay field. Just beyond that are rows and rows and rows of processed golden stacks of hay like an entire city of hay. How does this make sense?
Speaker 2: We’re driving with Charlie [Hivrenich 00:30:35] in his jacked up GMC truck with huge tires. Charlie is a real estate agent, a farm consultant and the kind of guy you want showing you around the desert.
Charlie: Anybody want a bottle of water? I got cold water in that ice chest there.
Speaker 2: We pull up in front of a farm outside Vicksburg, Arizona.
Charlie: You’re looking at hundreds of thousands of tons of hay waiting for export.
Speaker 2: It looks like the Fort Knox of stacked hay.
Charlie: All of that is going to be exported to Saudi Arabia.
Speaker 2: That’s because last year, Saudi Arabia’s largest dairy company, Almarai, about 9600 acres or nearly 15 square miles of land in the Arizona Desert and converted it into hay field. Let that sink in for a minute. A dairy based in one desert is growing hay halfway around the world in another desert and they’re able to do it because of groundwater, lots of it.
We pull over next to an electric ground water pump. The pump is making this high pitched humming noise.
Charlie: That’s the sound of that electric motor turning. It runs a turbine pump down below that lifts the water up.
Speaker 2: It looks like an oversized fire hydrant sitting on top of a 12 inch metal pipe that goes straight down hundreds of feet to the aquifer below.
Charlie: 1600 to 1700 gallons a minute.
Speaker 2: The pumps which are scattered across the fields are running night and day. Over the course of a year, in an area that normally only gets five inches of rain, they pump up 10 feet of water on to the land.
Charlie: We are basically mining ancient water. This is water that was probably part of an ancient sea or seepage from rainstorms and accumulation of water over the eons of time. Very productive ground once you’ve got the water for it.
Speaker 2: By buying the land, instead of just purchasing the hay, Almarai can better control its prices. This is the most productive ground in the country for growing hay. Unlike in Iowa or Nebraska with their idle winters. In the Arizona Desert, you can grow hay all year long assuming you have the water.
Abby: Where we’re at now it outside of any kind of groundwater pumping regulation. They’re able to pump as much as they can get.
Speaker 2: Abby York is a land use expert at Arizona State University. She met us at the Saudi’s new farm known by locals as the Vicksburg Ranch. I asked Abby if the groundwater might run out here.
Abby: There’s definitely a concern that within 50 years, few decades, that water level will have dropped significantly. If you look at some of the policy reports from the state, that’s what they’re indicating.
Speaker 2: That means that within a generation or two this part of Arizona could go dry and the Saudi’s hay operation just accelerates this problem. Arizona has had groundwater laws since the 1970s which limit pumping in many parts of the state. This area where the Saudis have come isn’t covered by regulators.
Abby: There’s no way that we can change how their using this land. If there were problems it would be very difficult to stop. Yeah, the decisions are wherever the corporate headquarters are. In this case, in another country.
Speaker 2: If I’m understanding you correct, the local land use here, the local decisions on how much water to use is actually being made in Riyadh.
Abby: Yeah. Right.
Speaker 2: We were really surprised by this that in the middle of a drought, in executive halfway around world is making decisions that might deplete the aquifers here.
We wondered if people were flipping out about this. We went to Kurbis Country Market just a few miles from the Saudi Farm and we asked locals if they cared that the Saudis were buying land here.
Speaker 5: No. If whoever they could sell it to. They’re welcome to sell to whoever they want.
Speaker 6: If I knew exactly where it’s gone, that could make a difference to me.
Speaker 2: Would it make a difference if it was going to Saudi Arabia?
Speaker 6: No. It wouldn’t make any difference to me. If it’s going to Saudi Arabia that’d be fine.
Speaker 7: No, I wouldn’t. No. No bothering me then. They got to make money then [inaudible 00:34:53] make money and throw out their corn.
Speaker 2: At you all concerned about water?
Speaker 7: I worry about losing water, yeah, because water table goes down every year and we’re afraid we’re going to run out of water here one of these days.
Speaker 2: Saudi Arabia knows what happens if you farm the desert too long. About 30 years ago the Saudis began digging deep under the sand for something other than oil.
Elie: You’ll bring in enough dollars and find enough water and you will grow the desert green until either the dollars become scarce or the water runs out.
Speaker 2: That’s Elie Elhadj, he’s the former CEO of a major Saudi bank. He also wrote a critical report about Saudi Arabia’s forêt into agriculture. He called it Camels Don’t Fly, Deserts Don’t Bloom.
Elie: There is no magic in turning the desert green.
Speaker 2: With the groundwater, Saudi Arabia became an agricultural powerhouse.
Elie: The Saudi desert became the 6th largest exporter of wheat in the world.
Speaker 2: Elie says exporting crops like wheat and hay is the same thing as exporting water.
Elie: Agricultural goods are encapsulation of water, virtual water.
Speaker 2: Why would a county with so little water become the world’s 6th biggest exporter of wheat?
Elie: Well, frankly, it’s crazy. Time really proved that it was an insane decision.
Speaker 2: Saudi Arabia has nearly ran out of ground water. The Saudi government announced that the country’s last wheat harvest will be next year and dairy companies like Almarai have been told to begin growing nearly all their hay in other places like Sudan, Ethiopia, Argentina and Arizona. All of it will get shipped backed home to feed their dairy cows.
We reached out to Almarai and the Saudi government for comment on our story but they declined.
Elie: Bottom line is that the current generation sucked the aquifers dry to deny future generations of their rightful endowment.
Speaker 2: Saudi Arabia isn’t the only one running low on water. Other countries like China and India are discovering they don’t have enough farm water to meet growing demands either. Like the Saudis, they’re looking oversees putting increase strain on the world’s water.
Speaker 2: As Nate and I were driving away from the Saudi farm we noticed another big farm along the road. The name of it, [Aldara 00:37:26].
Nate: It appears to be another Middle Eastern company has come out here and has started up a huge other hay operation.
Speaker 2: We pulled in where we saw a line of semis all being filled with hay. We climbed up to a truck driver’s window to talk.
That makes it a lot easier for us.
Speaker 10: Yeah. Thank you.
Speaker 2: Hey. I never get to see inside of this.
This 18 wheeler was being loaded with 44,000 pounds of hay and he told us it was going to a shipping port in California. From there, on to China.
We went inside this small office and met Nate Melton. He told us a company from the United Arab Emirates bought the farm about two years ago and hired him to manage it. Nate has deep roots here. His family farmed in Arizona for generations growing melons, cotton and other crops.
Nate: I’m not in the family business no more. This is all corporate farming now and this is different.
Speaker 2: Corporations are shipping crops, virtual water from one part of the world to another and the water laws written decades ago to regulate family farms are still in place despite the fact the whole world is now coming for this water.
Nate: If were going to say we were going to ship hay overseas back then, you would have left. Now, it’s what we do and makes money. A lot has changed over the last 10, 15 years.
Speaker 2: It’s growing. A few miles away, the Saudi company Almarai has bought thousands more acres and it’s announced plans to expand into the California desert.
Nate: As long as there’s still water.
Speaker 2: Yeah. As long as there’s still water.
Al: That was Reveals’ Nathan Halverson and [inaudible 00:39:07].
One place where there’s plenty water is on the East Coast, in New York City. Even there, people are finding the price of water is rising so fast they’re having to make some tough choices. That’s when we come back on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
For the Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
We started this hour talking about water inequity in the west where people are dealing with drought and the water is running out. Even in areas where there’s plenty of water, it can be expensive.
New York City gets more than 50 inches of rain and snow a year, but the cost of its water has almost tripled in the past 15 years. Reporters Kat Aaron and Matthew Schuerman from Public Radio Station WNYC explain why.
Kat: Maria Munoz and her husband raised three kids in a small condo they bought 20 years ago. It’s up the hill from a subway stop in the South Bronx and I was a little overheated when she let me in.
Maria: You want water?
Kat: Yeah, that would be great. Thank you.
She handed me an icy bottle of Poland Spring from her freezer.
Of all the things to offer, water.
Bottled water is much more expensive than tap water. For Maria, the bills for tap water have grown out of control.
Maria: [Language 00:40:40].
Kat: Maria says the rates began to climb about 10 years ago. She’s done everything she can think of to cutback. She has a washer dryer in her small kitchen.
Maria: Before, but now no using because [language 00:41:03].
Kat: She takes the family’s clothes to the Laundromat.
Maria: [Language 00:41:08].
Kat: She says it’s better to pay in quarters than get a bill that she can’t predict.
Matthew: Maria’s husband used to run a newsstand then he got sick. Her family now lives on about $1400 a month. The mortgages, $565, they pay 175 a month for maintenance and about $100 a month for water.
Maria: [Language 00:41:35].
Kat: Yes, she’s checked her meter to see if her pipes leak. I checked too. We crowd into the utility closet to verify that indeed when the taps are off the meter doesn’t run.
Maria: [Language 00:41:47].
Kat: The only possible culprit we could find was a slow drip on one toilet.
Maria: [Language 00:42:03].
Kat: She tells her son that when he goes to the bathroom, “Don’t flush it.” She’ll flush later when she uses it the next time.
Matthew: Maria owns her condo and pays her own water bill, but most New Yorkers rent. High water rates affect them in a different way.
Kat: Take this five story building in the Bronx. It was built in the 1920s and its loudly as adorned with marble trip and mosaic floor tiles. It’s a little grimy.
John: In the 1970s and 80s, it went through some very tough times where it was nearly abandoned.
Matthew: John Riley is with a nonprofit group that operates affordable housing in the Bronx. They took over the building in 1980.
John: The water bills have become, over the years, a much bigger factor in the building’s finances than they were. They used to be a nuisance tax at first. People didn’t even realized you paid for water in New York City, but now you pay big time for water in New York City.
Matthew: John says last year water bills were more than 10% of this building’s income.
John: In some buildings now [inaudible 00:43:09] cause us to put fuel on the building.
Kat: In New York, landlords in rich neighborhoods often pay a smaller percentage of their rental income for their water than landlords in poor neighborhoods do. One study found that a building on the prosperous [uppery 00:43:26] side that’s similar to the five story one in the Bronx we just looked at spends only 3% of its rental income on water bills. Jim Buckley is from the university neighborhood housing program which conducted that study.
Jim: When buildings are paying for water in the Bronx, it’s substantially higher than other sections of the city.
Kat: The reason Jim says is that even though rents are lower in poor neighborhoods, each apartment uses more water because more people are squeezing into each unit. Bigger households mean more showers, more cooking, more flushing of toilets. Plus, the cost of water per gallon has tripped over the last 15 years.
Matthew: We looked at the numbers over the past 10 years for New York City rent regulated buildings. They showed that water bills have on average increase faster then the cost of heat, fuel, labor and even real estate taxes. Jim says that’s but nonprofit groups that run their own buildings in a bind.
Jim: The goal is to try to create larger units, more two bedroom, three bedroom units to try to house larger households and more people in the apartments living there year round and using more water.
Kat: About 15 years ago, New York City began undertaking major projects like a water treatment facility and a filtration plant in order to comply with federal clean drinking water mandates. That’s why affordable housing advocates say high water rates are unfair to low income people. Here’s John Riley.
John: The real costs of the city that’s been escalating is that water. The real cause that’s been escalating are all of the infrastructure that they have to provide to get the water to us. When somebody needs a pipe on 57th Street, we’re paying more really for that pipe in the Bronx.
Matthew: The water bills also pay for sewage treatment and for containing storm water runoff. Rain that has nothing to do with these apartment buildings but runs off the city’s street and parking lots picking up dirt on their way and polluting the city’s rivers and bays. With a few exceptions, the only way the city covers these costs is through the water bills.
John: Operators of those buildings are saying that it’s too big a percentage of the budget now has to go for water.
Kat: As a result, landlords postpone maintenance. They might paint less often or take a few more years to replace a boiler raising the risk it could breakdown in the middle of winter and leave tenants without heat. City officials say they’re open to considering ways to reduce the burden on low income buildings and property owners. Federal regulators like Judith Enck are the ones who prompted all these infrastructure.
Judith: We are concerned about the impact on low income New Yorkers with fixed incomes.
Kat: Enck is the regional administrator or the Environmental Protection Agency for New York and New Jersey.
Judith: We don’t want to see water rates going up, but at the same time you need to make investments in your drinking water infrastructure or you will pay the price later. People should not get sick from drinking their water.
Matthew: Judith Enck says congress should give more federal funding to help local water companies make sure their product is safe.
In cities around the country water rates have climbed in recent years in part because of the federal mandates to overhaul ageing sewers and treatment plants. New York’s water rates are average, about 1.3 cents a gallon.
Kat: Back in the Bronx, Maria Munoz’s unpaid water bills kept pilling up and she was afraid the city would cutoff her water completely.
Matthew: She entered into a payment plan with the city a couple of years ago, an extra $100 a month to catch up including 9% interest. To keep up with those payments and keep her water from being shutoff, she fell behind on her mortgage.
Kat: When we visited her over the summer, she was fighting her lenders attempt to foreclose on her condo.
As I left, I complemented Maria on the plant she’s growing in a narrow strip of dirt in her front yard, peonies, recaito, beans. They were looking a little wilty though.
Maria: [Language 00:47:30].
Kat: She told me they only get watered when it rains.
Maria’s story at least has had a happy ending. At the last minute she was accepted into a state program that helps New Yorkers cope with their mortgages. She’s paying off her mortgage and her outstanding water bill.
Al: That was Kat Aaron and Matthew Scheurman of WNYC.
We started this hour in the world of The Water Knife, a dystopian future as envisioned by author Paulo Bacigalupi. In the novel, most of the water in the Western States has ran out and humanity struggles to survive.
Speaker 22: Lucy woke to the sound of rain. A benediction, gently pattering. For the first time in more than a year, her body relaxed.
The release of tension was so sudden that for a moment she felt as though she were filled with helium. Weightless. All her sadness and horror sloughed off her frame like the skin of a snake, too confining and gritted and dry to contain her any longer, and she was rising.
She was new and clean and lighter than air, and she sobbed with the release of it.
And then she woke fully, and it wasn’t rain caressing the windows of her home but dust, and the weight of her life came crushing down upon her once again.
She lay still in bed, trembling with the loss of thet dream. Blotting away tears.
Sand slushed against the glass, a steady etching.
Al: In the story, Phoenix is bombarded by sandstorms and water is even more scarce than it is now. Paolo says while his book is fiction, there are lessons about what shape the future could take.
Paolo: The point of writing these kinds of stories, these terrifying futures is that you’re trying to contextualize our present moment. If I can give you the experience of living as a water refugee in the future and that’s frightening enough to you, then the next time you open up the newspaper and you’re reading a story about, “Oh! Drought on the Colorado River. Whatever.” “Lake Mead is low.” Suddenly you see that photo of Lake Mead and because you’ve lived insidee of the story of The Water Knife, suddenly Lake Mead means something to you.
Al: I read The Water Knife a couple of months ago before we started working on this show and it made me think about the issue differently. Because like the novel, water has become a currency and with all currency, there are people who have it and people who don’t.
For more of what you just heard, plus our latest stories, go to revealnews.org. Join our conversations on Facebook or Twitter. Thanks for listening.
Our show was edited by Deb George and produced by Stan Alcorn, Julia B. Chan, Delaney Hall, Peter Haden, Laura Starecheski, Michael Montgomery, Neena Satija, Ike Sriskandarajah and Amy Walters.
We had additional editing help from Andy Donahue, Cory [McLaugin 00:50:56] and David Pastor.
Thanks to KQED for the use of their audio from this week in Northern California. Our lead sound designers and engineers, my man, Mr. Jay Breezy, Jim Briggs. Our editorial directors Robert Salladay and our managing director is Christa Scharfenberg. Susanne Reber our executive editor and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan.
Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Reveal is a co-production of The Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson. Remember, there is always more to the story.