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Water resistance

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

Water resistance

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

Matt Purciel

VIDAK: “… the liberal elites believe we shouldn’t even be here.”

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.

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.”

Yet in Sacramento, that common sense is hard to find. Environmentalists complain of the damage dams and irrigation systems have done to the ecosystem of the San Joaquin River, and in 2006 won a lawsuit to restore water to a 60-mile dry stretch of river to boost a Chinook salmon population that hasn’t been around since the dam was created in the 1940s. In 2008, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report found the delta smelt was threatened by pumping into the water systems, and has since allowed more than 81 million gallons of water to flow out to the ocean. California growers sued, and while a lower court called the biological opinion “arbitrary and capricious,” the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with environmentalists in a decision announced in March.

“The power base in Sacramento, the liberal elites, believe we shouldn’t even be here,” Vidak said. “They are so far removed from where their food comes from. … It comes from a store, water comes from the tap.”

Unemployment in the four counties Vidak represents ranges from 13 to 17 percent. Not just farm workers, but truck drivers, agriculture equipment businesses, packaging companies, and grocery stockers are losing jobs. And the problem spreads further than the farming communities in the valley: The state of California could lose as much as $5 billion of the $44.7 billion agriculture industry this year, according to the California Farm Water Coalition. While the effects of the drought on food prices are yet unknown, a recent Arizona State University study predicted food prices could increase as much as 34 percent for a head of lettuce and 18 percent for tomatoes.

Vidak is working to put a water bond on the November ballot to create more water storage, ensure farming communities get clean drinking water, and protect the delta water supply. But even if it passes, it could take five to seven years before farmers see the effects. And Greg Wegis, a fifth generation farmer in Bakersfield, needs that water now.

To keep his almond, pistachio, and pomegranate crops growing on his 2,400-acre family farm, Wegis will spend $1.3 million this year to drill three new wells on his land. Farmers are so desperate to find groundwater that drilling rigs often have a six month to one year wait list. Other farmers spend a fortune buying water from districts with senior water rights or growers with extra water—Icardo said that while rates used to be around $200 or $300 per acre-foot (the amount of water needed to flood an acre with a foot of water), it now costs $1,200 per acre-foot: “Water has become gold.”

The water from wells has its own issues. Groundwater is higher in sodium and boron, requiring treatment, and is at times unusable. As farmers lean more heavily on underground aquifers, the water is being depleted faster than it’s being replenished. Vidak, Wegis, and Icardo all mentioned the looming battle over state-regulated groundwater. Currently the groundwater is managed locally, but in April, a Southern California state senator introduced a water conservation bill that would allow the state water board to step in when local agencies don’t stop over-pumping.

Wegis is frustrated by how environmentalists portray farmers as water hogs or chemical abusers. In actuality, California’s long-time water problems have forced farmers to invent new ways to conserve as much water as possible. For instance, rather than flooding a field with water, farmers use drip irrigation by running the water through a pipe poked with holes so that water, along with needed pesticides, is directed only at the plant’s roots.

As the drought worsens, Wegis is expanding the family business beyond farming to include agriculture service companies. He hopes to pass on the farm to the next generation, including his 5- and 8-year-old daughters. But at this point, he’s not sure what will be left: “We’re afraid land values may be affected by not having water to farm with. … I’m extremely concerned about the future when water is an issue.”

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine and a part-time editor for WORLD Digital. She is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Angela resides in Taipei, Taiwan. Follow her on Twitter @angela818.