Capitalizing on human suffering

This past Monday, Congressman Tom McClintock brought the Natural Resources Committee’s Water and Power Subcommittee, which he chairs, to Fresno for a hearing titled “Creating Jobs by Overcoming Man-Made Drought: Time for Congress to Listen and Act.”

The purpose of the Fresno hearing was to discuss relaxing or removing export pumping restrictions put in place to protect critically endangered species.  However, the real issue is that some interests do not respect the legal structure that dictates water supply distribution. Water rights have evolved over more than 150 years in California, and what we are seeing is an attempt to “reshuffle” priority of water right holders.

Some argue that our water rights system is broken.  But when we are in a drought – a water shortage by definition – and the folks with the most junior of rights go without water, the system is working as designed.

Certainly, jobs are affected.  One interesting questions is, “whose jobs”?

Ashley Ritchie of KMPH Fox 26 reported on the hearing with comments from three people whose jobs rely on agriculture: Eric Hansen, a westside farmer; the Delta’s Brett Baker; and Pedro Miranda of Mendota, who was interviewed through a translator.  Said Miranda, “I have not seen my children in three years.  I came to the United States from Central America with the illusion of making more money and providing for my family.”

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Ritchie introduced Miranda to show “the human face of the Valley’s water crisis.”  We are curious that she didn’t seek out any eastside farmers to show that face.  But we are even more curious about what Congressman McClintock would think about the plight of Pedro Miranda.

In a speech to Congress last May, McClintock chastised Mexican President Filipe Calderon for criticizing Arizona’s immigration law.  Said McClintock, “Unlike Mexico’s immigration law, which is brutally exclusionary, the purpose of America’s law is not to keep people out, it is to assure that as people come to the United States, they do so with the intention of becoming Americans and raising their children as Americans.”

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Congressman McClintock, California agribusiness just doesn’t operate that way.  California agribusiness relies to a large extent on cheap seasonal labor, and the people supplying that labor do not necessarily have U.S. citizenship as their primary objective.

In 2009, Dr. Jeffrey Michael of UOP’s Business Forecasting Center showed how unemployment in the San Joaquin Valley that year was influenced more by the construction collapse than by reductions in water supply.  He also used U.S. Census Bureau data to show unemployment rates on the westside of Fresno County in towns including Mendota between 1960, before the water projects went into operation, and 2000.

Dr. Michael wrote, “Irrigation water has clearly increased agricultural production, farm income, farmland values, and the demand for farm labor in the area.  It is very debatable whether increased irrigation water improved the overall prosperity of the communities or [their] residents.  In 1960, these communities had single digit unemployment rates comparable to the rest of the United States and California.  In 2000, they were among the poorest placed in America.  Mendota’s 32% unemployment rate in 2000 was the highest of all 474 towns in California.  Per capita income was below $7,000, 70% below the U.S. average and significantly less than many developing countries.”

Mr. Miranda was indeed the victim of an illusion: the illusion that irrigated agriculture in California could be a reliable source of employment, year after year.  After 40 years of exploiting seasonal labor, through wet years and dry, through shifts in cropping to follow commodity prices, and through sales of paper water for nonfarming uses, his employers surely know better.

At least, they would know better if the State Water Resources Control Board had done its job, over the years, of limiting exports to water that is truly surplus to the needs of the Delta and other areas of origin, including environmental needs.

Recent statistics from the Employment Development Department show virtually no change in employment in Mendota between January 2009 and January 2011, despite the fact that the CVP delivered 1.6 million more acre feet of water in 2010 than in 2009.  That’s because on the westside, it isn’t enough to get more water.  Westside farmers must know at planting time, as early as January, how much water they will get.

Despite their considerable water use efficiencies, having exhausted their groundwater supplies, westside growers have no Plan B if water can’t be guaranteed in January because it might be needed later for Delta farming jobs, North Coast fishing jobs, or the environment that sustains them both plus the rest of the state’s economy.

Which leaves Pedro Miranda with no Plan B for supporting his family back in Central America.

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