05 January 2016

Water for poor farmworkers or millionaire farmers?

Patricia Schifferle, retired Cal Legislative policy analyst and Director of Pacific Advocates, a resource consulting group, sends this guest post from California.[1]

The recent SF Chronicle article on the farm worker shanty town on WWD property raises some serious questions that were not addressed in the article. The reporter followed the public relations spin of Westlands Water District (WWD), i.e., give us more water, and it implies it will trickle down to benefit farmworkers. Readers are left in the dark about the inherent reasoning presented in the article: WWD's fallacious claim that weaker government protections and more water will benefit farmworkers.

Westlands has been making this pitch for about 50 years. Unfortunately the Chronicle reporter fell for the story without looking behind the numbers. Westlands is arguing that sending the largest federal irrigation district in the nation even more water and wealth this will help the farmworkers. The subsidies and water have enriched about 350 industrial irrigators in Westlands, but the employment figures for Mendota—during droughts and flush water times—has persistently stayed high. Sending more water to WWD has not brought prosperity to farmworkers and the poor in Mendota.

The timing surrounding Westlands’ eviction of the farm workers from the camp on their property is curious. And the eviction raises some serious questions.

For some background, in 2010, Michael Hiltzik from The LA Times reported, “Deceptive arguments are being made in California's water wars.” His reporting still hits the mark today:
Mendota's truly tragic level of unemployment has been attracting news reporters (including Hannity's) like alfalfa attracts bees, but they almost never point out that this condition is chronic, not novel. Mendota's annual unemployment rate has dipped below 25% only twice in the last 10 years, according to state statistics; in 2003, when the federal deliveries were better than 75% of contract supply, Mendota unemployment still approached 32%.
Here are some observations about The SF Chronicle and Westlands’ latest attempt to exploit farm workers to gain more water and to enrich themselves stepping on the backs of poor farm workers:

1. The SF Chronicle story is short on context and once again spins WWD's PR -- that “the environmental protections and the government failure to do Westlands’ bidding are causing chronic unemployment and shanty towns in the City of Mendota."

For example: The SF Chronicle reports, “Less water means fewer crops. And fewer crops means fewer jobs.” Yes, the drought is an undeniable factor with unemployment especially in various areas though out the state, but WWD carefully omits the fact that they have shifted to almonds and permanent crops where there is more mechanization and thus fewer jobs. The switch in crops has reduced jobs, increased profits and increased water demand. The PR effort of funding farmer workers to rally for more water for Westlands’ benefit, does not benefit the farm workers. The trickle down pitch has not worked for over 30 years. And the poverty in the City of Mendota with or without water has remained largely constant. Unemployment figures for the City of Mendota do not support the notion that more water for Westlands results in greater prosperity for farm workers in Mendota or the poor and homeless in that city. Does WWD share their profits with the farm workers?
“Westlands officials said it was the government’s fault: If Washington had “held up their end of the deal” and allocated water to the region, Amaral said, the jobs wouldn’t have dried up; these people could still be working. If only there were water, he said, they wouldn’t have to live like this.”
“These types of things will happen if you starve an area of water,” Amaral said. “That’s what’s happened out here.” Even when there is no water is the Federal Government under Westlands interim contract obligated to provide it? This public statement turns the Westlands’ interim federal water contract on its head. WWD is making a public claim that USBR signed a contract that requires delivery of water when water does not exist!

2. The article has a collection of the Westlands half truths. A symphony of deceptions. Westlands has long sought to socialize the costs so they can take the cream off the top—and line their pockets with profits.
  • Yes, WWD has fallowed 212,000 acres, but the taxpayers have paid for some 100,000 acres to be fallowed because these lands were contaminating groundwater and the polluted runoff was contaminating nearby farms and wells.
  • WWD crop reports document about 100,000 acres are fallowed each year except in 2011, an extremely wet year, when a Westlands farmer dry farmed about 44,000 acres with wheat. 
  • If you look at the crop reports for Kings, Tulare, Kern, Fresno and Merced reported in November 2015—the reports indicate record incomes despite the drought.
  • If you look at WWD 2014-15 financial reports [pdf], they also report record incomes. 
Westlands has used the “shanty” town on their property as a flag waving PR campaign with Members of Congress to get more water and relax protections, despite record incomes (see these 2014 emails [pdf] between Tom Birmingham of WWD and Senator Feinstein's office[2,3]). The trickle down prosperity always promised by Westlands has not trickled down and using mechanization to harvest almonds and other permanent crops has exacerbated unemployment figures. The Fresno Bee reports the shanty town has been there for 7 years.

Some questions need answers: Why all the action now right before Thanksgiving and Christmas? After reportedly some 7 years of this shanty town's existence! Is Westlands using this public eviction to garner more water gifts for themselves? Did someone get the county to act? I wonder how many evictions the county conducted right before Thanksgiving? How many other evictions were publicized in the press and TV? The timing looks suspicious. Is Fresno County really the scrooge of 2015? Did the county come up with this or was this eviction politically motivated? Does the County have a policy about evictions around Thanksgiving and Christmas? Does the county send out notices to the press and conduct a press conference with the owner each time they embark on an eviction? Of the millions in drought relief made available to date in and for Westlands, how much was shared with the farm workers?

  1. Interested readers may want to look back on this post about Westland's "original (subsidized) sin", this one on corportate control, this one on how Westlands paid for "Latino protestors" asking for water, WWD's small economic contribution, and this 5 hour interview I did with Tom Birmingham, General Manager of Westlands, which is, btw, a State of California public corporation without any ongoing legislative oversight.
  2. Also see this 2010 post
  3. The NY Times has an execllent article on how Westlands "farms Congress."

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