Why California Is Running Dry

60 Minutes: Three-Year Drought Is Bringing A Decades-Long Fight Over Water To A Head

Water is in short supply. You don't have to go to Africa or the Middle East to see how much the planet is running dry. Just go to California, where, after three years of drought, dozens of towns and cities have imposed mandatory water rationing and a half million acres in the country's agricultural breadbasket are lying fallow.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the action hero governor, has thrust himself into the fray by requiring towns and cities across the state to reduce their water use by 20 percent over ten years. That means less water to drink, to bathe in, and to water the lawn.

Governor Schwarzenegger only has a year left in office, and he's well aware of the old saying "Whisky is for drinking, water is for fighting."

Web Extra: The Water Diet

"People have died over water. You know, movies have been made about the wars of water in California," Gov. Schwarzenegger told 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl.

"Chinatown," Stahl remarked.

"Exactly," Schwarzenegger replied. "So water has been one of those issues."

It's one of those issues that is pitting Californians against each other for every last drop.

Schwarzenegger says his state is in crisis. "We've been in crisis for quite some time because we're now 38 million people and not anymore 18 million people like we were in the late 60s. So it developed into a battle between environmentalists and farmers and between the south and the north and between rural and urban. And everyone has been fighting for the last four decades about water."

He took us to the San Luis Reservoir in California's farm country.

"Everything that you see here was all full of water," he told Stahl.

He showed us how desperate things are: the drought that has affected the western part of the country has left its mark there - water levels are only half what they should be. It's like a bathtub ring, showing the previous water level.

"It's a disastrous situation and we got to do something about that very quickly," he told Stahl.

The reservoir is a key part of the water system that has kept southern California - and one of the most productive agricultural basins in the world - green and arable, until now.

"It looks like sand. It looks like a desert, actually," Stahl remarked, while talking with Todd Allen, a wheat, cotton and cantaloupe farmer in California's Central Valley.

"This right here is 150 acres, and there hasn't been anything planted on it," Allen pointed out.

"This is all fallow out here?" Stahl asked.

"Yes," Allen replied. "Nothing has been grown on this, this year."

And because of that, his bank cut off his line of credit.

"You know, I've got a wife and kids," he said. "The thought of bankruptcy is something…I don't think I could deal with that."

But he doesn't blame his troubles on the drought. He blames the environmentalists who sued under the Endangered Species Act to protect a tiny little fish, the Delta smelt, that was being killed off by California's main water pumps.

A federal judge ordered that the pumps be turned down, and Allen's taps almost ran dry.

"When you can put the needs of a two-inch fish above me and my family and that thing could potentially bankrupt me, I got a serious problem with that," Allen told Stahl.

"Here's the way I've heard it described: fish versus farms," she remarked.

"Well I would say I'm at the bottom of the food chain. I even told Schwarzenegger to put all of us farmers out here on the California Endangered Species Act. Because that's what I feel. I feel like I'm being punished, and I haven't done a darn thing wrong," Allen said.

  • CBSNews

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