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Fresno County, left in the dust

Drought, water politics and tough economic times have turned a once-vibrant region into California's Detroit.

July 19, 2009|Rick Wartzman | Rick Wartzman is the executive director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University. He is the author, most recently, of "Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath.' "

A couple of years ago, were you to have swung by Westside Grocery in the town of Mendota on a Thursday or a Friday, you probably would have had to linger for a while in the sizzling Central Valley heat. The little store was so busy that the line of customers waiting to cash paychecks and make purchases would often spill out the door and halfway down 7th Street.

But now the paychecks have dried up, along with the farmland in these parts, thanks to a cruel confluence of drought, environmental regulation and years of political neglect.

On a recent end-of-week visit to the market, I found the place empty, save for two jobless men loitering inside and the owner, Joseph Riofrio, and his teenage son, who stood behind the front counter hoping for customers. Over the next hour, half a dozen or so folks trickled in. A couple bought snacks. Most, though, had stopped by to take care of their utility bills -- many of them delinquent. Westside Grocery doubles as a Pacific Gas & Electric payment center.

"People don't know where they're going to get the money," said Riofrio, shuffling through a stack of orange PG&E past-due notices. "Some are paying with pennies and dimes."

Riofrio's own business has fallen off 60% in the last six months.

Mendota (population 9,870) has gotten a lot of attention of late, what with its unemployment rate now topping 40%. The state secretary of Food and Agriculture showed up here last month. So did Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has called on President Obama to issue a federal disaster declaration for Fresno County.

But what Riofrio and others will tell you is that, despite the surge of interest in this region, the crisis did not materialize suddenly. Rather, the people of Mendota and their neighbors -- in Kerman, Firebaugh, San Joaquin and a handful of smaller burgs -- are the victims of a long and painful slide. This is California's Detroit.

The 47-year-old Riofrio, whose grandfather settled in Mendota in the early 1940s and started the grocery, has watched the area mature from a temporary outpost for migratory labor to a permanent home for tens of thousands of farmhands and others. Along with this transformation has come a rise in Latino political power. (Riofrio himself serves on the City Council.) And though unemployment has always been high and poverty severe, for a time a vibrant rural culture was being forged out of the fields.

"You saw the establishment of a real working-class community," said Don Villarejo, an agricultural policy consultant and a longtime observer of Mendota and nearby towns.

But the realities of water shortages -- and water politics -- have taken a huge toll. Riofrio says that things began to slip away about five or six years ago. That's when he began noticing the effects of farmers in the 600,000-acre Westlands Water District fallowing and permanently retiring more and more cropland as a way to cope with too little irrigation and major drainage problems that have led to salty soil.

About a year and a half ago, well before Mendota started making headlines, things had gotten bad enough that Riofrio stopped selling fresh milk at his store. Too few could afford it anymore. In the last few months, the downward spiral has greatly accelerated. Farmers in Westlands, who've yanked about 100,000 acres out of production since 2000, say they may now be forced to idle as many as 150,000 more for lack of water.

The issues at play are complicated. They're also fraught with bad blood. Farmers are set to receive only 3.7 million acre-feet of water this year from federal and state plumbing systems--about 2 million acre-feet less than in a normal year. Some environmentalists, however, have been quick to accuse the growers of overstating the problem. They say farmers have extra water stored both above and below ground and have gotten supplies transferred from other locations.

The environmentalists' instinct to dig in on this point is understandable. Many of the giant growers in Westlands have been less than honorable over the decades, gaming the system to claim more than their fair share of cheap, federally subsidized water. And there is something rather unseemly about the way the growers are using the plight of poor farmworkers to help aid their own cause.

The truth is, though, not every farm has access to multiple sources of water, resulting in a crazy patchwork of dusty and well-irrigated dirt that's hard to miss these days as you drive across California's interior.

And if environmentalists tend to distort the problem, so do many farmers, blaming what's happening mainly on a series of court decisions and federal agency actions that have reduced pumping and diverted river flows in order to protect fish. State officials say that the environmental rulings are responsible for about 25% of the current mess, while the rest is due to drought.

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