California is in the midst of one of the driest years on record and with over a third of the Central Valley’s jobs tied to agriculture and hundreds of thousands of acres going fallow leaders in the region are expecting ag jobs to be few and far between. FM89 reporter Ezra David Romero reports from one west side Valley town that is already feeling the pinch.
Twice a week Robert Silva, the mayor of the rural west side town of Mendota, known as the cantaloupe capital of the world, meets longtime friends for coffee and pan dulce at a Mexican bakery half a block from city hall.
Silva and I met over a buttery sweet dessert known as a concha to talk about drought.
He says Mendota with a population just over 11,000 is already feeling the impacts of drought in California.
“Normally this time of year the work hasn’t started, but the latest figures we have right now, which are not good,” Silva says. “We’re at 36% unemployment and that’s high. Normally it should be at about 29%.”
Silva says the impacts of drought are real to the town’s citizens. He compares the current zero allocation of water to farmers on the west side to the allocation that took place during a drought in 2009.
“When they did that cutoff people just weren’t ready, they were not alerted, nor were there any surveys or plans telling people that this was going to happen,” Silva says. “So it was a shock to a lot of people.”
And shock is what the Mayor and others in Mendota are fighting to deter in the current drought.
“We’re reaching out everywhere to educate people about water, because it’s complicated and a lot of people don’t realize how the water systems work here in the Valley,” Silva says.
In Mendota, the problem isn’t drinking water, but jobs. The town has a reliable system of well water for residents but the surrounding farmland is dependent on surface water from canals and reservoirs. Over 80 percent of those living in the town rely on agricultural related jobs, whether they’re farmworkers, truck haulers or farmers themselves.
“It’s a terrible situation and you know people don’t want handouts,” Silva says. “They want to work and the sad thing about it is that there isn’t going to be that much work for them this year.”
Silva is working with leaders across the region to prevent a total disaster in his part of Central California.
“We have a lot of agencies in place and over the next couple of months they are gearing up,” Silva says. “They’re going to be better prepared but it’s sad that the bread basket of the world here in the Central Valley has to start thinking about the food lines.”
Dino Perez helps run the West Side Youth Center in downtown Mendota. Everyday about 20 kids come to the center to use the internet, play games and for Zumba.
The center also doubles as a food distribution spot.
“Right now it’s once a month, but we’re in talks about possibly expediting that and making that more frequent,” Perez says.
Last week over 280 families lined outside the center for bags of groceries.
“They get a pack of spaghetti, a can of tomato sauce, peanut butter, carrots. . .” says Rosemarie Gomez with the center. She’s in charge of stretching the little funding the center has to make the greatest impact in the community.
Back at city hall the mayor is prepping for the worst.
“People are realizing that they need to conserve what they can, but there is a lot of fear out there that people have been working for years and years and they’re realizing that hey I might not have a job tomorrow,” Silva says.
He says the seasonal drop in employment that usually comes in the winter may hit the community much earlier this year.