What is in this article?:
- High unemployment and food prices predicted in the wake of California drought
- Predictions of at least a million acres of farmland to be fallowed this year
Competing bills in Congress have lawmakers "throwing bombs" at each other
World Ag Expo Water Summit participants include, from left, panel discussion moderator Mario Santoyo, executive Director of the California Latino Water Coalition; and Joe Del Bosque, Central Valley farmer and member of the California Water Commission. Del Bosque hosted President Barack Obama the following day at his Los Banos farm during the president's tour of drought-stricken California.
The grower panel, which featured prominent agricultural representatives like John Harris, owner of Harris Ranch near Coalinga; Mark Watte, a Tulare-area grower and past chairman of the World Ag Expo; Manuel Cunha, farmer and president of the Nisei Farmers League, and Del Bosque, also featured local political representatives including Orange Cove Mayor Gabriel Jimenez, Mendota Mayor Robert Silva, and Fresno County Supervisor and farmer Phil Larson.
That segment of the summit talked about the drought’s effects on cities and farms. In short, California farms are drying up and with them the jobs that support those farms. A second panel discussion tackled how policy makers and water managers are dealing with the drought and the regulatory hurdles they face.
Both mayors talked about how their cities are being devastated by the drought as jobs are lost and unemployment climbs to near 50 percent in some communities.
“When you cut off the water supply to the west side farmers, it in turn affects us,” Silva said.
“That’s why we had 45 percent unemployment in 2009, the highest in California and the nation.”
Harris farms about 14,000 acres in western Fresno County. He said that farmworkers are already suffering because lettuce commonly grown in the winter months in the San Joaquin Valley was not planted because of the drought.
“We should have tens of thousands of acres of lettuce, which is a major payroll generator in the fall and spring,” he said.
Silva’s community sits in the Westlands Water District, which employs many of its residents via the farming operations, packing sheds and transportation companies that support agriculture in the region.
Mendota’s December unemployment rate was already 34 percent, which is above its typical rate for that time of the year of 25 percent to 29 percent. Silva believes it will hit 50 percent this summer. There’s an irony in all of this, Silva said. While the region is one of the richest in the world for agricultural production, residents will be forced to stand in line for food hand-outs rather than working in the fields to harvest that food.
Mendota is a tiny western Fresno County community that became ‘ground-zero’ in 2009 when biological opinions shut off Delta pumps and curbed water flows to the region. That set the stage for growers to fallow more farmland and the long food lines more common in third-world countries where relief efforts are under way.
“People cannot believe that this situation exists in California, in the richest area in the world,” Silva said.
Orange Cove, which is on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley, is in a similar situation. Residents there rely solely on surface water from the Friant-Kern Canal (CVP water) because wells in the region are too tainted with nitrates to be used as drinking water.
Orange Cove is home to several citrus packing sheds and the region home to a considerable amount of citrus groves.
For elected leaders like Larson, the loss in sales tax revenue and the inability for growers to pay their property taxes because fallowed land does not produce an income, are also critical issues to be considered. Issues of erosion and air pollution from blowing dust are others.
“When farmers lose water and they don’t farm; they don’t buy things,” Larson said. “That doesn’t count the lost sales tax revenue that does not come into the county and the state.”
For decades California growers have enjoyed access to surface irrigation water through canals and ditches. Those canals helped keep underground aquifers from being depleted by reducing the need for pumping. All that has changed.
Watte, who farms several thousand acres of row crops and pistachios in the Tulare area with his brother Brian, is in his second year of no surface water allocation from the Tulare Irrigation District. Like his neighbors, Watte must rely upon wells for irrigation water. Many of those wells are going dry and the aquifer is shrinking as growers continue to pump from the basin.
The heavy pumping schedule has backed up well companies to the point that it is months before growers can get a crew out to sink a new well or even make repairs. Cost of a new well is said to be at least $250,000. Further exacerbating issues is the fact residents in the area and local dairies compete for the same well water and well companies.