The new Dust Bowl: ‘epochal’ drought hits California’s Central Valley

f13-iconThe Telegraph reports: On the road into the small California farming community of Mendota the signs read “Stop – dust bowl!” and “Save Water” as farmers in orchards are busy bulldozing withered almond trees.

It didn’t used to be like this here. Until recently this town of 11,000 people was proudly known as the “Cantaloupe Capital of the World”. Of all the many local crops its melons were most prized. Mendota’s farmers have been growing them since the 1920s, when Greek immigrants arrived and found the soil was perfect. The lush fields used to provide 70 per cent of America’s cantaloupes.

But today Mendota is becoming known for another reason. It sits at ground zero in an unfolding, slow motion billion dollar disaster, what climatologists are calling an “epochal” drought. Analysis of the rings in ancient sequoia trees suggests the region is experiencing a lack of rain not seen since 1580, around the time Sir Francis Drake reached the California coast and claimed it for Elizabeth I.

In a neat and modern town hall, built in the good times, Mendota Mayor Robert Silva shakes his head ruefully as he looks at the latest unemployment figures. It stands at 34 per cent and is likely to top 50 per cent as farmers leave more fields fallow in the next few months.

“We will soon have the highest unemployment in the nation. Things are really not good,” Mr Silva says understatedly. “There’s going to be a lot of dust flying around all over the place here.” On the streets outside workers in cowboy hats loll on benches under a baking sun, not a cloud or a job in sight. Times are so bad the 99 Cents store has competition from a 98 Cents store, and people are queuing for donated clothes at the youth centre.

Similar scenes are evident in towns up and down California’s Central Valley. The scale of the drought is staggering. The Central Valley is known as the “breadbasket of America” and covers a vast area half the size of England. It produces 50 per cent of the fruit and vegetables in the United Sates. For several years the resolute Mr Silva has been writing to the White House pleading for help. In December he wrote: “Dear President Obama. Our cities, businesses and residents desperately seek immediate relief.”

It now appears someone finally read one of his missives. Mr Obama was due to helicopter in on Marine One to a farm near Mendota yesterday. At the customary photo opportunity he was due to propose a major new $1 billion (£600m) fund to mitigate the impact of climate change, including $100 million aid for stricken livestock farmers, $60 million for food banks to supply hungry families, and 600 sites that will give out free meals this summer in drought-hit areas.

For farmers there was relief that their plight has been noticed, and gratitude that Mr Obama was prepared to stand in a field on Valentine’s Day. But there was also, among some, a feeling that the president has been slow to address this crisis. He has visited Los Angeles countless times to glad-hand movie stars and political donors, but it was his first ever trip to California’s farming heartland. Mendota is four hours’ drive, and a world apart, from Hollywood. [Continue reading…]

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