Farmworkers rally for water solutions


Issue Date: August 6, 2008
Ching Lee

California Farm Bureau Federation President Doug Mosebar, left, confers with a participant at the July 23 farmworker rally at the state Capitol. Mosebar pointed out that the state's water crisis is having a severe impact on farmers and farmworkers alike.

With farmers fallowing their fields and abandoning their crops due to water shortages, farmworkers and their families are feeling the domino effects of the state's drought as they find themselves without work or getting smaller paychecks.

Hundreds of them descended on the state Capitol to urge lawmakers to do something about the current water crisis. Waving signs in Spanish and English that said "Water Means Jobs," "Fix the Delta," and "Water Is Food," most of them came from the parched San Joaquin Valley, where reduced water deliveries have forced some farmers to cut their work force and lay off employees.

The July 23 rally was organized by the California Latino Water Coalition, which supports a $9.3 billion water bond proposal that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein unveiled last month. The plan calls for new water storage, conservation, improved conveyance and other updates to the state's water system.

Joining other legislative and community leaders on the Capitol steps, the governor told the farmworkers that their voices are being heard "loud and clear."

"Every one of us knows how important water is to everything that we do in California," Schwarzenegger said. "This is why it is important that we work and fight for water for our farms, for our families, for our environment, for our future, for our developments, for our businesses and the list goes on and on and on."

California's current water system is no longer working, he added, and the state has not been able to provide an adequate water infrastructure. Two consecutive dry years and court-ordered restrictions on water pumping in the delta have caused the state's reservoirs to be 50 percent to 75 percent lower than they should be, he said.

"Our farmers are cutting back and letting fields sit empty because they can't guarantee adequate water," said Schwarzenegger. "Developments can't move forward, prices are going up on water and we are now water rationing all over the state of California."

Water shortages have also damaged the state's economy. Whole communities have suffered because of lack of irrigation water for Central Valley farms. Crop losses totaled $245 million as of July 11, with Fresno County suffering the largest amount at $73.5 million and Kern County at $69.5 million, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Because farmers in water-scarce regions abandoned existing crops, planted fewer crops and switched to crops that use less water and require fewer workers, unemployment is up. Small businesses in those regions have reported a decline in sales, and school districts have lost students as families move away to seek work.

Mayors, county supervisors, legislators and other leaders whose communities have been devastated by the drought also spoke at the rally to advocate for additional water resources. They included Fresno Mayor Alan Autry; Victor Lopez, mayor of the largely Hispanic Orange Cove, a small town east of Fresno; Robert Silva, mayor of Mendota, on the west side of Fresno County; San Joaquin city Mayor Amarpreet Dhaliwal; Assemblyman Juan Arambula, D-Fresno; Assemblyman Michael Villines, R-Fresno; Sen. David Cogdill, R-Modesto; and Assemblyman Jose Solorio, D-Santa Ana.

"As food prices skyrocket, farmworkers will not be able to find work and there will be more hardship because there is not enough water," said Lopez, who is also co-chairman of the California Latino Water Coalition. "We need more water in the San Joaquin Valley and across California."

California Farm Bureau Federation President Doug Mosebar was on hand at the rally to respond to reporters' questions about the impact of the current drought.

"The turnout here today of farmworkers, local government officials and others who are part of the farm economy is a clear demonstration that the shortcomings of our water supply system are hurting more than just farmers," Mosebar said.

"Farm communities in rural California are suffering, including farmworkers, schools and those who supply inputs to and buy products from farmers," he added. "Lawmakers need to act now to enhance surface water storage in our state."

Mosebar also emphasized that the ability to grow food on American soil is a matter of national security, and crafting a water policy that works for everyone is crucial to this issue.

"'Buy local' will become the buzz phrase of the past if we do not act to preserve the dwindling family farms and ranches that are under pressure as fuel and fertilizer costs rise and water becomes too scarce to take the risk to plant a crop that you may not be able to secure water for," he said.

Javier Negrete, a farm labor contractor from Lemoore who was carrying a sign that read "Aqua = Trabajo," or "Water Equals Work," said of his 100 employees, 25 have already lost their jobs because of lack of work on farms.

"I'm here because people need to keep working and because of the water we are losing," he said. "A lot of people don't have work because there's no water and no crops. If there's no water, they can't do anything."

Paul Llamas, a farmworker from Mendota, said he does not understand all the complexities of California's water woes or issues concerning the delta, but he has seen many of his coworkers laid off because farms don't need them.

"There's probably only half of us here right now," he said. "The other half lost their jobs because there's no water, there's no jobs. There's a lot of people that are not here because they are not working for us anymore. It's a really unfair call, but the only thing I know is there's nothing for them to do."

Merced County cattle rancher Peter Koch, president of the Merced County Farm Bureau, which sponsored a caravan to the event, said he and his group joined the rally more in support of other farmers who are having hardships because of the drought than as an endorsement of the Schwarzenegger-Feinstein water bond proposal.

"We believe there is a concern, so this is a good cause to support," Koch said. "It would be wonderful if we could get some storage built so that we can supply all the needs for the people, for agriculture and for the environment. That should be our goal—to be sustainable here in this state."

(Ching Lee is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.