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Despair flows as fields go dry and unemployment rises

San Joaquin Valley farms are laying off workers and letting fields lie fallow as their water ration falls.

July 06, 2009|Alana Semuels

MENDOTA, CALIF. — Water built the semi-arid San Joaquin Valley into an agricultural powerhouse. Drought and irrigation battles now threaten to turn huge swaths of it into a dust bowl.

Farmers have idled half a million acres of once-productive ground and are laying off legions of farmhands. That's sending joblessness soaring in a region already plagued by chronic poverty.

Water scarcity looms as a major challenge to California's $37-billion agricultural industry, which has long relied on imported water to bloom. The consequences of closing the spigot are already evident here in rural Fresno County, about 230 miles north of Los Angeles. Lost farm revenue will top $900 million in the San Joaquin Valley this year, said UC Davis economist Richard Howitt, who estimates that water woes will cost the recession-battered region an additional 30,000 jobs in 2009.

Standing in a parched field in 104-degree heat, valley farmer Joe Del Bosque pointed to cracked earth where tomatoes should be growing. He didn't bother this year because he can't get enough water to irrigate them. He's cultivating only about half of the cantaloupe and asparagus that he did in 2007. He has slashed his workforce, and his bills are mounting.

"We can't survive at 10% of our water," said Del Bosque, 60, a white cowboy hat, long sleeves and jeans protecting him from the blistering sun.

Desperation is rippling through agricultural communities such as Mendota, 35 miles west of Fresno, where an estimated 39% of the labor force is jobless. It's a stunning figure even for this battered community of about 10,000 people, which has long been accustomed to double-digit unemployment rates.

Sporadic food giveaways by churches and nonprofits draw hundreds of people. Enrollment in area schools has dropped by a quarter this year. Crime is up, so much, in fact, that the cash-strapped town voted in May to form its own police department rather than rely on the county sheriff.

On a recent afternoon, a dozen men in white T-shirts and jeans were leaning against a liquor store wall across from City Hall, hoping someone would hire them. Others, such as Candelario Torres, sat in the shade of Kiki's Pool Hall, playing cards and swatting flies. They, too, waited for the slim chance a farmer would employ them to weed tomato fields or pick cantaloupe.

"There's no water, so there's no work," said Torres, a 56-year-old father of three who doesn't have a car and can't go far to look for jobs. "Everyone in here is looking."

It's much the same in rural towns such as Firebaugh and Huron, whose jobless farm laborers helped pushed the Fresno County unemployment rate to 15.4% in May, above the California rate of 11.5% and up from 9.4% a year earlier.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last month asked President Obama to declare Fresno County a disaster area to boost federal aid. But that's not what the farmers say they want. At a recent town hall meeting in Fresno, while some women in the audience knitted, men in baseball caps and T-shirts shouted down officials from the Interior Department: "We don't want welfare, we want water."

But climate change is intensifying competition for this resource and may well force changes in the way the valley has been farmed for decades.

This area, once known as part of the great California desert, has always depended on water from somewhere else. In the early part of the century, homesteaders dug wells or hauled water from up north, but in 1952 they banded together to form the Westlands Water District. It later contracted to buy water from the federal government, which built a system of canals and reservoirs that captures water in the northern part of the state and sends it to farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Because of its subordinate water rights, the 600,000-acre Westlands Water District is often last on the long list of groups receiving water from this federal project. In the last two years, below-average rainfall and a shrinking snowpack have made the supply even tighter than usual.

Statewide runoff -- the amount of rainfall and snow melt that ends up in rivers and streams -- was 53% of normal in 2007 and 58% of normal in 2008, said Lester Snow, director of the California Department of Water Resources. The federal government-run water supply allotted only half the water that farmers south of the delta had been expecting in 2007, and 40% in 2008.

This year has been even drier after a federal court ordered that pumps moving water through the system be turned down to protect endangered species including delta smelt, salmon and green sturgeon. The pumps can reverse the water flow and trap salmon in the river, pulverize fish or ensnare them on screens, said Maria Rea, supervisor of the Sacramento office of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

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