Planet Money | Podcast Review | July 23, 2015 | By

Planet Money #640: The Bottom of the Well

Planet Money covers the strange economics of the drought conditions in California. The moral? Use more water.



I think radio is at its best when it finds the best and most human stories at the heart of broader topics. Planet Money, a hybrid podcast/radio show from NPR,  does achieves that consistently. The show’s about page describes it like this:

Imagine you could call up a friend and say, “Meet me at the bar and tell me what’s going on with the economy.” Now imagine that’s actually a fun evening. That’s what we’re going for at Planet Money.

But I don’t think that is exactly right. Nominally a show about money and economics, Planet Money, in practice, is a composed of vignettes about people living in a world driven by a global economy too large to comprehend. 1

“The Bottom of the Well” covers the strange economics of the drought conditions in California. The moral? Use more water.

The aquifer under California has approximately 50 – 100 years worth of water remaining at its current use rate. Because of the extreme drought conditions, farmers are relying on it as a far greater portion of their water supply than in past years, when rain water and reservoir supply were more plentiful. The aquifer has been used so heavily that a significant portion of wells in the state are no longer deep enough to reach water.  In practice, this means some people—even whole townships—are without running, potable water.

Enter Porterville, CA. The residents of Porterville used to rely primarily on well water, and because of the drought and ensuing drop in the water table, their taps have now run dry. Karen Hendrickson and her family, interviewed by the Planet Money team,  now must rely upon donated bottle water to drink, cook, and wash dishes.

By contrast, for Mark Watte, a farmer in Tulare, CA, business is booming. While he has had to  deepen wells across his property at the cost of about $2 million, central California happens to be in the middle of something other than a drought: a nut boom, brought about by one extremely profitable crop–pistachios.

Most other crops typically net Watte a thousand dollars an acre, but right now, pistachios bring in $10,000. Why? They need a ton of water to grow, and accordingly, the longer the drought has gone on, the more expensive they have become. And because Watte can afford to drill down to get to the water—using repurposed oil drills, no less—he is making a lot of money from the drought. And others, like the residents of Porterville, just 30 miles east, have been driving for more than a year to specialized stations each morning just for clean water to wash their face.

And all of this culminates in this exchange, which, in turn, is why Planet Money is so interesting. Reporter Stacey Vanek Smith asks Watte if he should be planting something less water-intensive crops, like flaxseed or safflower, instead in the midset of a drought. Here is what follows:

WATTE:
(Laughter). Oh, I – should I be planting it? I don’t know. I mean, we’re trying to make money here.

SMITH:
If Watte were to cut back his water use, he would just lose out. His neighbors would suck up that water. Hedge funds would suck up that water. The result of this is that everyone is using more water, planting more nut trees, drilling deeper wells.

And Portersville continues without water. Perhaps Mark Watte isn’t a bad man for doing what makes sense to earn his family the most money; he can’t stop the drought alone. Planet Money makes no claims about him, and the man seems affable enough.

But it is clearly a crisis, and the show’s even-handed tone and polished production somehow make it all the more scary.

Listen to “The Bottom of the Well” from Planet Money at NPR’s website, here.


  1. One of their best series (which they are replaying all this month) followed the “Planet Money T-Shirt,” a special fundraiser for the show, all the way through its production process, from cotton fields in the southern United States, to so-called “cotton yarn” factories in Indonesia, to sewing shops in Bangladesh, to the NPR offices in Washington D.C. On the way, listeners heard stories about a generational farm hand who regularly picked more cotton in a day than his grandfather had in his entire lifetime, and about a pair of sisters in Bangladesh who, though only a few years apart, led vastly different lives due to the independence gained from garment factory income. It is hard to oversell. ^

About the Author

Eric McDaniel is the founder of Audiologue, where he covers 99% Invisible. Right now, his favorite shows are Mystery Show and Cortex. Find him on Twitter @ericmmcd, or by email at eric@audiologue.xyz.

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