In the San Joaquin Valley, Nothing is More Valuable than Water (Part 2)

California’s wealthiest growers, poorest workers, and the water between them

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The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta used to be the region where the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers would meet, pool for hundreds of square miles, and slowly drain into the San Francisco Bay and out to sea through the Golden Gate. Not anymore. The San Joaquin River is mostly diverted for irrigation before it can reach the Delta and the Sacramento is largely lifted out of the southern tip of the Delta and pumped down the San Joaquin Valley for irrigation.

Today, the Delta is a work of human engineering built over 150 years that consists of thousands of miles of levees, emaciated river flows, immense pumps, bromide and mercury contamination, endangered species, and below sea level “islands” housing communities and farms that would most likely be under water within hours of a major earthquake.

The Delta is the hub of California’s water engineering system and the current focal point of the state’s infamous water wars. Environmentalists and Delta communities want to reduce water exports. Irrigators in the San Joaquin and their strange bedfellows in the powerful Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which draws water pumped through the Delta, want to increase water exports. There is one thing all sides agree on: The Delta is a disaster waiting to explode.

In 2005, populations of several fish species used to gauge the overall health of the Delta ecosystem plummeted toward extinction. “The Delta is ill. Gravely ill,” wrote Contra Costa Times reporter Mike Taugher at the beginning of a five-part investigative series on the ecological crisis in the Delta. “After decades of decline, the Delta’s vital signs have suddenly plunged to new depths.”

Several Delta fish species hang on the verge of collapse, but the tiny, endangered Delta Smelt has become the cause célèbre for environmental lawsuits seeking to stop Delta pumping and the bête noir for agribusiness lobbyists who claim that attempts to save the inch-long minnow come at the expense of jobs.

But the idea of a battle between fish and farmers is a false dichotomy. The fish in question is an indicator species; its extinction represents full-scale ecosystem failure. The farmers in question represent the largest agribusiness firms in the country who face not bankruptcy, but simply a limit on the amount of water they can rely upon from the Delta. The battle in the Delta is not one of fish v. farmers, but collapse v. reliability.

“We have a system where we try to deliver more water than can be reliably delivered. All the signals tell us that we have been exceeding the capacities of the system,” said Tina Swanson, executive director and chief scientist at the Bay Institute. “It is incontrovertible that we have to expect to export less water from the Delta than we have in the past; it is unsustainable. We’re going to have to learn to make do with less.”

Making do with less is blasphemy in San Joaquin Valley agribusiness. Every major water development in the region has been predicated on the idea of staring collapse in the face and demanding more: the Central Valley Project, the State Water Project, the Kern Water Bank, and the current drive to spend another $11 billion in bond funds to build more dams and canals and gun the motor of an engine already on the cusp of failure.

Yet making do with less is an unrelenting reality for the people who work in the fields picking fruits and vegetables and tending to the almond and pistachio trees of these same agribusinesses.

“There is this sense that farmworkers prosper only when the farmers do, but that’s not true at all. The farmworkers don’t prosper even when the farmers do,” said Caroline Farrell, acting executive director of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment in Delano. Farrell said that the fish versus farmers spin “is just one more way of exploiting farmworkers. There’s no talk of paying farmworkers just wages.”

Indeed, the California Farm Bureau supports the water bond measure to build more dams. It also lobbied successfully against Senator Florez’s bill to overhaul farm labor overtime rules.

In 2003, I interviewed Paramount Farming’s resource planning manager, Scott Hamilton. At the time I was researching the Kern Water Bank and its potential use for water marketing. Hamilton said that water sales were not Paramount’s main interest. “We’re in a situation of growing almonds and pistachios without a firm water supply, so we went into the Kern Water Bank to secure a water supply,” he said.

True enough. When I asked Aurelio if, during his 13 years working as an irrigator at Paramount a tree had ever died from lack of water, his answer came without a hint of uncertainty: “No.”

The farmworkers in the region are not so lucky.

“If you are poor and a farmworker, then you don’t have clean water,” said Susana De Anda, co-director of the Community Water Center in Visalia, an organization dedicated to advocating for potable water in the valley. “You pay water rates between $50 and $100 a month for water that you can’t drink, and then you have to spend more on bottled water.”

Farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley have effectively had their water privatized. Their communities have been left out of the major water projects. The groundwater basins have been depleted and contaminated by pesticides and nitrates from the very agribusinesses that employ them. Little to no state funding makes it to their local water systems, leaving them to buy bottled water at the store or from a vending machine. Meanwhile, the Resnicks, in what would seem a scripted irony, own Fiji Water, “the #1 premier bottled water in the US.”

The lack of access to clean and safe drinking water in farmworker communities speaks to decades of exclusion from federal and state water development. The exclusion is not only a question of bitter histories, but also current policy. The $11.2 billion dollar water bond that Governor Schwarzenegger shifted from the 2010 to the 2012 ballot targets less than one percent of its funds for disadvantaged communities in the San Joaquin and other regions, according to an analysis of the bond by the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water.

“The bond does not take the issue of potable water into consideration,” De Anda said. “It is a project for the growers. Potable water should be first, and priority should be given to the people who do not have access.”

While the residents of Lost Hills are forced to buy expensive bottled water or suffer the consequences of drinking contaminated water, the Resnicks, with their control over the Kern Water Bank, have stored enough water to fill San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy reservoir – twice. Court records show that in early 2007, the Resnicks had 755,868 acre feet in the Kern Water Bank, enough to keep their trees blooming during both a statewide drought and a global recession.

Standing by the Glacier vending machine in Lost Hills one day, I met a 19-year-old woman from Michoacán who migrated to Chicago at age nine with her family before relocating to Lost Hills in 2008. She works a night shift, from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m., picking bell peppers for $8 an hour. If she works hard, she said, in a month she can save $300. Asked if she drinks the tap water in her home she said no, that “it tastes nasty and they tell us not to drink it.” So every three days she fills up her jug. On a blazing July day, she pushed her full, 5-gallon jug of drinking water from the vending machine back to her house in a baby carriage. About two hundred yards down the road, the California Aqueduct was full and flowing fast.

 

John Gibler is the author of Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt (City Lights, 2009) and To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War (City Lights, forthcoming in 2011).