Article by Leah Millis / The Chronicle
THE REAL ROOT CAUSES OF FARMWORKERS’ DESPAIRTOM STOKELY, DIRECTOR CALIFORNIA WATER IMPACT NETWORK, MOUNT SHASTA
Marissa Lang’s Dec. 20 story (“Without water, work or homes”) on the dire state of Mendota’s farmworkers eloquently illuminates their dilemma, but it mischaracterizes the root causes of their plight.
A central theme of Lang’s story is that “less water means fewer crops. And fewer crops mean fewer jobs.” Lang cited reduced government water project deliveries to the Westlands Water District, the largest irrigation district in the nation and an agribusiness bulwark of the western San Joaquin Valley, as a primary factor in farmworker impoverishment. The drought, however, is not the prime mover in Mendota’s high unemployment. Indeed, the Fresno County community’s jobless rate has remained consistently high for decades: Between 2000 and 2010, unemployment dipped below 25 percent only twice. In 2003, when government project water deliveries were more than 75 percent of contracted amounts, Mendota’s unemployment figures still exceeded 30 percent.
The main driver for Mendota’s economic misery isn’t a dearth of water; it’s an operational shift by Westlands’ corporate farms. The district is leading the state’s almond boom, converting thousands of acres of land once used for vegetables to nut orchards. Almonds require both far more water and far less labor than row crops.
It’s true that the shanty towns on the district’s property and the abject poverty manifested in “Westside” communities such as Huron and Firebaugh are a disgrace. But rather than succor these hard-pressed workers, Westlands exploits them for public relations gains. The district is reaping extravagant profits, in large part due to the federal water it receives at subsidized rates. But instead of investing even minimally in its workers, West-lands allows them to live in utter squalor, using their holiday season eviction as a wedge to demand more water.
Send letters via our online form: sfgate.com/submissions