(English) Water at the center of debate over farmers’ well-being

Story aired on Radio Bilingüe network on June 11, 2010. Translated from Spanish by Farida Jhabvala Romero.

After three years of drought in California, the battle for water heats up.  In the most recent chapter of lawsuits, a judge decelerated federal restrictions on water for agriculture, imposed to protect salmon and other fish, and ordered more water for farmers in the Central Valley, where a large part of the fruits and vegetables in this country are grown. Agro-industry lobbyists have argued that the first people to benefit from more water will be unemployed farmworkers. Our reporter Farida Jhabvala Romero went to Mendota, where unemployment has passed 42 percent, and has this report.

JHABVALA: Mario Martínez is a farm worker. This Monday afternoon, he’s standing in front of a laundromat on 7th and Sonora streets, reminiscing old times.

MARTINEZ: Here in Mendota which is tiny, if they didn’t pick up 1,500 or 2,000 people, there weren’t enough workers. Now only 25 or 30 can find work, everyone else is looking for work.

JHABVALA: Unemployment is nothing new in this city of 10,000 residents. Seven years ago, before the most recent drought, unemployment reached 32 percent. But many here think that water cuts for agriculture have devastated the local economy. Martha Ochoa is waiting for the beginning of the tomato and apricot harvesting season.

OCHOA: That because of the water, they say. That they didn’t want to give us enough water here in Mendota and that’s what we need so there’s work.
JHABVALA: In 2009, half a million acres were left idle in California. Farmers complain that the government is giving their water to conservation efforts for salmon and other species. In Stamoules Produce Company, one of the two largest farms in Mendota, a group of workers is harvesting broccoli under the sun. Alex Orozco is one of the supervisors of the farm, which grows 17,000 acres of corn, cantaloupe, broccoli and chili.

(AMBIENT SOUND: tractor, voices)

OROZCO: This past year, I think it was the worst, we only got 10 percent supply. A lot of farmers went out of business. What are you going to grow with 10 percent?
JHABVALA: Even with the drought, official figures from the California Department of Water Resources reveal that last year, farmers in Mendota’s district used nearly the same amount of water than usual. Stamoules Produce, for instance, extracts more water from wells today and buys water from other districts at a higher price.

RIOFRIO: The big farmer is getting a nice profit: millions of dollars each year. But they say ‘no, we are almost broke.’

JHABVALA: Joseph Riofrio has been a Mendota City councilman for 14 years. He owns a small grocery store frequented by many workers in town.

(AMBI:  sound of store, coins, Riofrio: I don’t sell beer, just Kool-aid)

JHABVALA: Joseph is worried about the lack of water in Mendota. But he says it takes more than water to improve the situation. While helping a customer, Joseph remembers how farmers took hundreds of workers to protest.
RIOFRIO: They came out with posters saying water is work, turn on the pumps and so on. But when the water is secure, will the raise salaries by 50 cents an hour? No they won’t.
CALDERNO: It’s not fair that they are using workers as bait to get millions in water subsidies.

NARR: Merlyn Calderón is Vice President for the United Farm Workers. She says that since 2005, at least 11 farm workers have died from heat stroke in the Central Valley.
CALDERON: We do not believe that large agricultural corporations should receive water subsidies until farm workers have the right to protect themselves.
JHABVALA: In California’s upcoming November elections, voters will decide whether to approve a water bond that would cost 11 billion dollars, and among other things, would send more water to Central Valley farms. For the Weekly Edition of Noticiero Latino, this is Farida Jhabvala Romero.

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