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THIRSTY LAND: Water shortage leads to contentious decisions.
Matt Purciel
THIRSTY LAND: Water shortage leads to contentious decisions.

Water resistance

California | The government has diverted precious water from Central California farms, and farmers are fighting back

Issue: "Believing in Iraq," May 17, 2014

When Adam Icardo, a third-generation Central California farmer, steps outside his farm’s office in Mettler, Calif., he’s hit with an ugly sight: a swatch of baked dirt and weeds where neat rows of leafy canary tomato plants should be growing. “The effect of the drought on this area is devastating; you don’t realize what a problem it is until it hits your front door,” said Icardo as he gazed off over his 1,000-acre farm. “It’s hard to see part of your field with no production. … It’s emotional.”

This year marks the first time Icardo has had to fallow–or leave unplanted–20 percent of his family farm because of a lack of water. For Icardo, it means no tomatoes, as thirsty almond trees get dibs on the scarce water supply. For his farm workers, six-day workweeks are cut to five. Icardo said this time of year pick-up trucks filled with seasonal workers typically bump down gravel roads from farm to farm looking for work. This year, the newly paved road lies empty. 

With its mild climate and close proximity to water-rich Northern California, the Central Valley has become the “breadbasket of the world,” producing between 30 to 50 percent of the nation’s fruits and vegetables, and nearly all of its almonds, pistachios, and walnuts. Yet after three consecutive years of drought topped with stifling water policies, an estimated 800,000 acres—about 7 percent of the state’s farmland—will lie fallow this year, drying up jobs, kicking up food prices, and angering farmers who blame the problem on environmentalists.

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Drivers commuting along California’s Interstate 5 pass strawberry fields as well as parched, tumbleweed-filled expanses, and signs farmers erected to explain the latter. “Congress created dust bowl,” reads one. “Food grows where water flows.” “No Water = No Jobs.” While water has always been an issue for the valley—some regions only receive 5 inches of rainfall each year—the frustration stems from the fact that environmental regulations protecting the 3-inch delta smelt and restoring a lost tribe of salmon are barring farmers from the water they’ve paid for.

Since 2006, farmers have received less and less of their water allocation from state and federal water projects. This year, many Central Valley farmers will get zero percent of their federal allocation and a measly 5 percent from the state water project. Wildlife refugees, on the other hand, will receive 75 percent of their usual supply.

“This is an angering problem: It didn’t rain, but we know there’s water out there,” Icardo said. To save the delta smelt, regulators flush water in the San Joaquin River Delta out to the ocean rather than to the farms. Icardo bristled at the thought: “It’s still true that fish take priority over families and people’s lives.”

Part of the problem is the disconnect between the state’s urban areas and the agriculture-heavy Central California that provides their food. Democrats dominate in Sacramento, backed by environmentalists who see farmers as destroyers of the land’s natural habitat. To combat that perception is Andy Vidak, a cherry farmer who won a state Senate seat last summer. He spent his spring recess working on his Hanford cherry farm, more comfortable working in the dirt with his cowboy hat and blue jeans than schmoozing in the legislature.

A native of the Central Valley, Vidak has had his hand in all aspects of the agriculture industry: He’s participated on meat judging teams, harvested all over the Western United States, worked at a cold storage company, and finally bought his own farm. During the first serious drought in 2009, Vidak remembers watching in shock as his friends waited in a food line only to receive a can of carrots from China.

“That just broke my heart,” Vidak said. “Here we are in the breadbasket of the world, and we got farm workers standing in the food lines because we have no jobs for them because we have no water because of radical environmentalists.”

Frustrated, he decided to run for Congress in 2010 against Democratic incumbent Rep. Jim Costa, and despite a 22 percent Democratic advantage in his district, only narrowly lost in a recount. Assuming that he’d done his civic duty, Vidak returned to his farm work.

But when state Sen. Michael Rubio resigned last summer, people started bugging Vidak to run. Realizing the need for a farmer’s voice in Sacramento, Vidak threw his name in the ring promising to fight for water rights. In an upset, Vidak became the district’s first Republican representative in 22 years. California Republican strategists were shocked that a cherry farmer had won in a majority-Democratic district that was 70 percent Hispanic. In response, Vidak said “common sense has no party line.”

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