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In The Central Valley, Farmworkers Worry That No Water Means No Work

Rebecca Plevin
Valley Public Radio
When there's no work in the Central Valley's fields, farmworkers gather at the Westside Pool Hall in Mendota.

When farmworker Jose Gonzalez Cardenas can’t find work, he heads to the Westside Pool Hall in Mendota. Planting has hardly begun in the Central Valley, but everyone here is talking about the state’s drought, and what it could mean for the growing season.

“If there’s no water, we’re not going to have work,” Gonzalez says in Spanish.

Gonzalez is among thousands of Valley farmworkers who could be out of work this summer if the extreme drought persists. In Mendota, a western Fresno County community that revolves around agriculture, the lack of farm water will touch nearly everyone.

Inside the pool hall, Raul Barajas sinks his final ball. He’s a truck driver and is concerned that without water, there won’t be melons, nectarines, grapes or oranges for him to haul north, to Oregon and Washington.

He recalls that during the last drought, in 2009, many trucks remained parked, and there was lots of competition for the limited long hauls. That year, Mendota’s unemployment topped 40 percent, and struggling farmworkers stood in long food lines.

The Valley as a whole lost about 6,000 farm jobs during that last drought, according to a recent report from University of the Pacific.  And with water even scarcer this year, the impacts on jobs and the Mendota community could be worse.

City councilmember Joseph Riofrio is this pool hall’s owner. He hasn’t yet seen the drought’s impact on jobs but, “I’m seeing the effect from people’s attitudes, the way people are projecting what the future might hold in the summer months,” he says. “The uncertainty and the worries that go along with whether or not they’re going to work.”

Maria Rivera feels that anxiety. In Mendota - known as the Cantaloupe Capital of the World - Rivera already knows that she won’t have work in the melon fields this summer. 

"If there's no work, what are we going to do?" - Maria Rivera

“The company I work for has already told its employees that they’re only going to plant one field,” Rivera says in Spanish. That compares with 60 fields in a typical year.

If the water situation doesn’t improve, she says her family might need to seek work somewhere else.

“If there’s no work, we might decide to go somewhere else,” she says. “If there’s no work, what are we going to do?” 

Credit Rebecca Plevin / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Aurelio Duran is currently unemployed, and concerned he won't find work in the alfalfa fields this summer.

Down the street, at La Fiesta Meat Market, Aurelio Duran eats a steaming bowl of caldo. He’s unemployed now, and is concerned that he’ll find little work cutting and packing alfalfa, a water-intensive crop.

He knows the drought, and the lack of farm jobs, will be rough on the entire Mendota community. Without work, he says in Spanish, people struggle to pay their rents and, “they don’t have money to buy food, it affects everything, the businesses and everything.”

The city government and local agencies are already bracing for the drought’s impact on Mendota, home to about 11,000 people.

“We need to coordinate how people will get food, get help paying their light bill,” says Joseph Riofrio. “There are so many problems that come with being in this part of California, and being dependent on agriculture.” 

"How can such dire effects be happening in this community, in the richest ag county in the world?" - Joseph Riofrio

He says the current drought will only worsen the poverty that plagues the community, even when water is plentiful. He wonders aloud why, in such an agriculturally rich region, there’s not more of a safety net in place for the people who grow and pick our produce. 

“It is a billion dollar engine out here, how can that be happening here?” Riofrio says. “How can such dire effects be happening in this community, in the richest ag county in the world?”

Last month, the state Department of Water Resources dropped the State Water Project allocation to zero.  Westlands Water District, which delivers Central Valley Project water to fields near Mendota, says it’s also likely to receive a zero percent allocation.

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