July 28, 2009
FIREBAUGH, Calif. — The road to Todd Allen's farm wends past irrigation canals filled with the water that California's hot Central Valley depends on to produce vegetables and fruit for the nation. Yet not a drop will make it to his barren fields.
Three years into a drought that evokes fears of a modern-day dust bowl, Allen and others here say the culprit now isn't Mother Nature so much as the federal government. Court and regulatory rulings protecting endangered fish have choked the annual flow of water from California's Sierra mountains down to its people and irrigated fields, compounding a natural dry spell.
"This is a regulatory drought, is what it is," Allen says. "It just doesn't seem fair."For those like Allen at the end of the water-rights line, the flow has slowed to a trickle: His water district is receiving just 10% of the normal allocation of water from federal Bureau of Reclamation reservoirs. He says he's been forced to lay off all his workers and watch the crops die on his 300 acres while bills for an irrigation system he put in are due.
"My payments don't stop when they cut my water off," Allen says.Although some farmers with more senior water rights are able to keep going, local officials say 250,000 acres has gone fallow for lack of water in Fresno County, the nation's most productive agriculture county. Statewide, the unplanted acreage is almost twice that.
Unemployment has soared into Depression-era range; it is 40% in this western Fresno County area where most everyone's job is dependent on farming. Resident laborers who for years sweated in fields to fill the nation's food baskets find themselves waiting for food handouts.
"The water's cut off," complains Robert Silva, 68, mayor of the farm community of Mendota. "Mendota is known as the cantaloupe capital of the world. Now we're the food-line capital."Three years of dry conditions is being felt across much of the nation's most populous state.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a water emergency in February and asked for 20% voluntary cuts in water use. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Drought Monitor lists 44% of the state as in a "severe" drought.
In arid Southern California, cities and water districts have raised rates to encourage conservation and imposed limits on use. In Los Angeles, restaurants are banned from serving tap water unless diners ask for it. Residents can't hose down driveways or sidewalks. Lawn watering is permitted only on Mondays and Thursdays.
This drought is in line with conditions two decades ago, says Elissa Lynn, senior meteorologist for the California Department of Water Resources. But the new federal rulings to protect smelt and salmon have limited water pumping from the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta, a vital link between water and its users.
Here in the state's biggest farming region, fingers are pointing at the government, not nature. "As California standards go, this is not a drought," says Bill Diedrich, a Firebaugh farmer and director of a water district.
"It is the pumping restrictions."The federal restrictions arise from environmental suits brought under the Endangered Species Act that argue pulling water out of the delta harms fish. A federal judge in 2007 ordered new biological studies and restrictions on water pumped out of the delta for farmers.
A group of water authorities filed countersuits. While the issue remains unsettled, the rulings have idled the water pumps for 11 months a year, Westlands spokeswoman Sarah Woolf says. Environmental groups say water officials and farmers are overstating the problem.
"This is not a fish vs. farms problem," says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, an environmental research group in Oakland. "I believe they're using the drought as an excuse to try and overturn these environmental decisions."Richard Howitt, professor of agriculture and resource economics at University of California-Davis, estimates that statewide about 30% of the water shortage is a result of the environmental restrictions and 70% is drought. But the impact of the regulations hits particularly hard here in the farm region, he says, because complicated water-rights laws leave Allen and his neighbors at the end of the line in water distribution.
Howitt says his studies suggest that the restrictions could put as much as 45% of irrigated acreage in the Fresno area out of production — jacking up prices for melons, broccoli, tomatoes and other produce. The area also is a big producer of almonds, pistachios, lettuce and wheat.
Potential solutions such as more dams or a canal to bypass the delta and bring water to users are pipe dreams for a state with a huge budget deficit.
Meantime, the roads along this farm area are filled with signs warning that less water means less food. "If you like foreign oil, you'll love foreign food," says a sticker on Allen's truck.
"I wish they'd just put humans first and turn those pumps on," Allen says.
September 2, 2009
California's Central Valley normally serves as the nation's food basket. But amid a severe drought in the region, so many farmers have lost their jobs, they are being forced to line up for food handouts and other assistance.
Selma, Calif. - The combined punch of drought, water restrictions and recession has created an ironic situation in California's Central Valley: Officials are handing out tons of food in the heart of one of the nation's most productive agricultural regions.
At a dusty flea market in this Fresno County town last week, more than 800 people -- many farmworkers -- lined up for two weeks' supply of cereal, rice, canned tomatoes and other basics. They waited in 99-degree heat as the food was distributed from 6 a.m. until late afternoon.
"We either have money for gas and medicine, or food -- not both," Helen Hernandez, a 51-year-old mother of four, said after collecting a pallet of food from the relief drive. Ms. Hernandez said her husband, David, 49, has been out of work since losing his $1,200-a-month job at a tomato-packing house last year.For the 12-month period ended June 30, the Fresno Community Food Bank distributed a record 14.5 million pounds of food to residents of a three-county area -- double the previous year. So many people mobbed one food-distribution center two weeks ago that some who had waited in triple-digit heat for hours were turned away empty-handed after the food ran out. Unemployment in the counties in July ranged from 13.9% to 15%, compared with 11.9% for California as a whole, state officials say.
"There's never been this kind of need in the Central Valley, ever," said Dana Wilkie, chief executive of the Fresno food bank. "In some communities, we're serving 80% of the residents."The Central Valley, a 400-mile-long, 18-county inland area that relies heavily on agriculture, has suffered in the recession amid low demand for products like milk and almonds as well as a collapse in its once-booming housing market. At the same time, the region is grappling with drought and federal environmental rulings that have reduced water shipments to local farmers to as little as 10% of their normal allotments.
Some farmers have sidelined much of their acreage, throwing packers and field pickers out of work. In the Westlands Irrigation District, which serves about 700 farmers in the western part of the valley, more than 260,000 of the 600,000 acres that are typically home to tomatoes, lettuce and other crops have been taken out of production this year, officials say.
In all, farmers in the valley stand to lose between $1.2 billion and $1.6 billion in revenue this year, with 60,000 to 80,000 people thrown out of work, projects a study by the University of California, Davis.
"This is the worst I've ever seen it in the valley," said John Harris, chairman and chief executive of Harris Farms in Coalinga, Calif., which is farming about 4,500 acres compared with a normal total of about 14,000.In June, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed a state of emergency for nine Central Valley counties and asked President Barack Obama to declare Fresno County a federal disaster area. The designation was intended, in part, to help finance food shipments to the county.
But officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency rejected the request, saying state and local entities had adequate resources. Mr. Schwarzenegger last week appealed the denial, which FEMA officials say they are reviewing. In the meantime, Mr. Schwarzenegger's office allotted about $4 million for five weeks' worth of food shipments, which began about a month ago.
At the recent food distribution in Selma, 46-year-old Leticia Reyes waited to load food in her car. Laid off a few weeks ago from her $1,200-a-month job at a fruit-packing plant, the mother of four said the family is left to pay its $600 monthly rent and other bills on her husband's $900-a-month pay as an auto mechanic and her $600 in monthly unemployment benefits.
"We're really struggling, so this food helps a lot," said Mrs. Reyes.