Farm employees press for reliable water supplies

Issue Date: August 20, 2008
Ching Lee

Kenny Watkins, California Farm Bureau Federation second vice president, speaks at a state Capitol rally at which farm employees urged a solution to California's chronic water problems.

On a more typical day, Rolando Lopez would have been hard at work in the fields during one of the busiest times of the year in one of the most agriculturally productive regions of the state.

But last week he was one of several hundred farm employees rallying at the state Capitol for the second time in less than a month, pressuring lawmakers to find a solution to California's chronic water problems, which have had devastating effects on farming communities throughout the state.

"We're here for the future," said Lopez, who works in a vineyard near the Fresno County city of Mendota, one of the hardest hit by the current water crisis.

Carrying a sign that read "Water Is Life," Lopez said life for many employees of San Joaquin Valley farms has been rough as a result of water cutbacks, which have led some farmers to abandon their fields, plant fewer crops and switch to ones that use less water and require fewer employees.

Lopez said lack of water and work on the farm has forced his employer to cut his hours. Some of his family members have not worked in three weeks and have moved to Fresno and Madera in search of employment.

"But all the valley is in the same situation," he said.

The Aug. 13 rally, like the one on July 23, was held to push legislators to place a water bond measure on the November ballot. A $9.3 billion proposal by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein would include money to build new water storage, bolster conservation, improve conveyance and allow for other updates to the state's water system.

But getting the water bond package on the ballot has been an uphill battle. It already missed the initial Aug. 16 deadline because the state Legislature could not agree on a state budget that has been overdue since July 1.

Addressing demonstrators on the Capitol steps, Schwarzenegger said letting California run dry is not an option and vowed to fight on to secure both a budget and clean, reliable water for the state.

"With two dry winters and a court restriction on delta pumping, we now have a full-blown crisis," he said. "Many of our reservoirs are now half empty and we have to change that. Farmers are already cutting back and letting fields sit empty because they can't guarantee adequate water."

California Farm Bureau Federation Second Vice President Kenny Watkins, who attended the rally, said water cutbacks have damaged crops in many parts of the state.

"People are losing crops and jobs, and they're frustrated," Watkins said. "We've heard from farmers and ranchers around the state who are awfully worried about their future. That's why Farm Bureau is working so hard to find and support water solutions that benefit all of California."

The California Latino Water Coalition organized both rallies. This time, the group was led by Fresno Mayor Alan Autry, whose city is part of a region that has been pummeled by the economic downturn caused in large part by the drought and by court-ordered cuts in water allocations.

Wayne Albrecht, who farms in the Del Rey area of Fresno County and participated in both rallies, said agricultural communities such as Mendota are perhaps facing the most dire circumstances.

"Even the stores are drying up," he said. "There are people in that town that don't even have enough money to buy a tank of gas to leave."

A recent study commissioned by the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which represents water agencies and communities west of the San Joaquin River, paints a grim picture of the region's economic outlook in the face of the current water crisis. The study found that cutbacks in water deliveries to farms could cost the region $84.6 million in economic activity. That comes on top of an estimated $33.9 million in farm income loss and more than 700 jobs lost. The study also projects an overall reduction in regional payrolls and proprietor income totaling $24.2 million.

Agricultural commissioners in Fresno and Kern counties earlier estimated that crop losses in their counties totaled more than $175 million, while the California Department of Food and Agriculture put total crop losses from Central Valley farms at $245 million as of July 11.

Ara Azhderian, water policy administrator for the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority, said court-ordered restrictions on water pumping in the delta already cut water deliveries to Central Valley farms by 20 percent. Then the record-dry spring further reduced those allocations after farmers already planted their crops for the year.

"This was a dramatic and instantaneous cutback in their water supply, and at a time when all of their management decisions have been made. That was what made things particularly difficult," he said.

Mendota Mayor Robert Silva, who also participated in the rally, said many jobs have left his community because farmers didn't get enough water to maintain their crops, so they had to lay off their workers. He noted that unemployment in Mendota has reached 40 percent, the highest in Fresno County.

"And that's hurt a lot—not only for the farmworkers but businesses also are suffering," he said. "We're facing the worst economic times in our community right now. The simple reason is there's no money being spent locally. If people are not working, they're not spending their money."

Those unemployed are also going hungry, Silva said, which is why the small town has been organizing food giveaways to help those in need. Silva said he hopes the state's legislators will work together to resolve their differences and support the governor's and Feinstein's water plan.

While he acknowledges that the bond measure will not solve any immediate problems for his community, he said something needs to be done as soon as possible.

"We understand it's not going to happen overnight, but we've got to start now. This is something that should have happened 25 years ago," Silva said.

(Ching Lee is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

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