14 Jun 2011

Water will not help Mendota's unemployed

Deirdre Des Jardins of California Water Research Associates argues that fallowed land around Mendota (the town famous for its 40% unemployment) is the result of salinity build-up, not a lack of water for irrigation.

Westlands has argued that places like Mendota are suffering without water and cited "high" unemployment and fallowing as a reason to export more water from the Delta to Westlands. That argument is hollow, since more water would not help Mendota. It would help farmers in other places, but they are not suffering as much from unemployment and fallowing. (They probably want to switch to water-intensive tomato production.)


  1. The cutback of water deliveries certainly has done Mendota no good, but the structural economic problems there are way deeper. Agriculture does not require the labor it used to. Labor itself is becoming more and more expensive, as regulatory requirements and various add-ons (for instance, I can't offer a bare bones health policy that might cover common things like an appendix, only a much better-and far more expensive--one that covers lung transplants and other rare and exceptionally expensive things). Other than that example , I am broadly sympathetic to improved safety, wage and hour laws and other "add-ons", but they tip the scale more toward the machines. Long term, we are far better off having 20 workers making $20 per hour than 40 making $10 per hour, but what to do with the extra workers?
    Mendota used to have a melon shed and a sugar beet plant, both shut down. I don't know if they were unionized, but if they were they followed the other unionized plants making frozen food and packing melons into well deserved oblivion.
    A better local economy would mean a better Mendota, but not enough to turn it into even a middle-class town. In a final burst of irony, the Feds want to build a prison there for the terrible illegal aliens who do all the stuff the rest of us won't. Few of the guards will come from Mendota. Maybe they'll just put a big fence around the whole place, save some money.

  2. Employment records indicate that Mendota experiences an unemployment rate of 20% on an annual basis. EDD record further indicate that when surrounding farms received only 10% of their contracted water supply in 2009, the unemployment rate for Mendota shot past 40%. To claim that water supplies will not help Mendota's unemployed is gross ignorance of the facts.

    Mike Wade
    California Farm Water Coalition

  3. Hi Mike.

    Where do you get those numbers?

    How about these facts? (Sent to me, presumably from EDD)

    The unemployment rate in Mendota in April 2011 is over 40%, in spite of an increase of 800,000 acre feet of imported surface water supplies.

    Mendota April 2011 42.7% April 2009 38.2%

    Firebaugh: April 2011: 28.8% April 2009: 25.1%

    Huron: April 2011: 35.7% April 2009: 31.5%

    Tranquility: April 2011 19.5% April 2009: 16.8%

  4. Mike, a lot of the Mendotians (?) worked in construction, which also took a giant dump in 2009. Yes, the lack of water hurts, but putting it back won't be a panacea.
    There are thousands of rural towns all across America facing the same bleak future. I'm afraid they are simply obsolete.

  5. ps/data in my last comment from Labor Force and Unemployment Rate for Cities and Census Designated Places


    Mike -- where are your data from?

  6. David...my numbers come from the California Employment Development Department.

    You cite April statistics and infer the numbers are still high, “in spite of an increase of 800,000 acre feet...” Remember, that 800,000 af increase has yet to be fully delivered. It’s also important to realize that the April numbers only represent the early months of the year when work on the farms is at a low level. Much depends on the weather, such as the wet year we’ve had in 2011 delayed much of the field work. Once the weather turns warmer and the year progresses, those unemployment numbers will likely go down. They will trend significantly downward during the harvest months. In other words, using April numbers does not present an accurate picture regarding unemployment in these communities.

    Here is a look at EDD unemployment numbers in comparison with south of the Delta water deliveries from the CVP---

    Year Mendota Firebaugh Huron Tranquillity South of Delta Water Delivery

    2006 24.10% 14.7% 19.1% 9.3% 100%
    2007 25.4% 15.5% 20.2% 10.0% 50%
    2008 29.9% 18.7% 24.0% 12.2% 40%
    2009 39.2% 25.9% 32.4% 17.4% 10%
    2010 42.4% 28.5% 35.4% 19.4% 45%

    Please notice that since 2006, which was a 100% supply of CVP water, the unemployment numbers have trended upward while water deliveries went down. Unemployment numbers in 2010 are still feeling the long-term shakeup from the previous year.

    By the way, have you ever been to these towns? I have. The residents of these communities rely on local farms to provide much of their employment. Some researchers have attempted to label the workforce in these towns as construction based. This is so far from reality.

    Hope this helps you to understand more fully the unemployment picture of our rural communities.

    Mike Wade
    California Farm Water Coalition

  7. @Mike -- I agree with your point about annual unemployment, but this debate can go on for a long time if we are going to include topics such as migrant labor, etc.

    The correlation between water delivery and unemployment is -0.67 for Mendota (-1.00 means water down 10% correlated with jobs down 10%), which supports your claim. That said, there are still many ways to justify these numbers (tell stories), which are too few to draw strong statistical conclusions.

    FYI, I went back to 2001 with CVP and EDD data for Mendota and the -0.67 correlation holds up.

    What's interesting is that Mendota never drops below 24 percent (the average over 10 years is 30 percent), so we are really talking about a range of 0 to 18% unemployment.

    Yes, I visited Firebaugh (and perhaps Mendota -- don't remember), and I recognize the signs of a company town.

    So, I'll concede that more water might help Mendota reduce its unemployment down towards 24 percent, but then I switch to the more important point -- at what cost? I can give you 0% unemployment if I hire people to dig and refill holes.

    The question is where water should go when it's scarce, not whether Mendota has 24 or 42% unemployment.

    Just as a side note: Doesn't it make more sense to break large farms into small farms, so that contract laborers are transformed into *employed* owner-operators? If your goal is to reduce unemployment, for example.

  8. unemp del
    29 65
    31 49
    32 75
    29 70
    27 85
    24 100
    25 50
    30 40
    39 10
    42 45

  9. Deirdre Des Jardins17 Jun 2011, 06:10:00

    Correlation doesn't always imply causality.

    There was a very significant housing bubble in mid-decade, which coincided with increased water deliveries. The real test is really the 2010 & 2011 water years.

    So far unemployment, compared month to month, has been far above previous wet years.

    Yes, Mendota is a "company town" with 60% farm employment, but reports also indicate they have been most adversely impacted by declining production of vegetables due to soil salinity, retirement of 100,000 acres starting in 2002, and shifts to permanent crops.


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