By Mark Rockwell
ESC California Field Representative
Is it really “fish vs. people” as California Governor Schwarzenegger and U.S. Representative Nunes say? To listen to all the rhetoric these days you’d think that people are suffering only because a federal judge and the federal wildlife agencies decided to protect fish. Representative Nunes and our Governor are calling it a regulatory drought and families are suffering as a result. Articles in the L.A. Times and many other papers in California have picked up the story without really checking on data available from the state Employment Development Department records. Here is a link that shows the data pretty clearly.
However, the raw data doesn’t tell the story unless you dig into it. So, here are some of the facts from the data that brings some clarity to the issue. Make no mistake; unemployment is a problem in Mendota and Fresno County. However, it is a problem in almost all of California’s agricultural counties, and Fresno is by far not the worst. If you take the numbers as given for all counties in California for May 2009, and then look at the 9 previous years as well it is quite revealing.
- For Mendota (the town given as the worst and where the governor has visited twice to rile against the Endangered Species Act and his claim of regulation caused unemployment) it shows 38.8% unemployment for May 2009.
- For Mendota, the 9 year previous average is 28.1%. Mendota has led Fresno County in unemployment for the past 10 years (all I reviewed).
- Fresno County, (One of Rep. Nunes’s counties, which includes Mendota) shows 15.4% unemployment for May 2009, with a 9 year average of 10.5%.
- Of the 18 most agriculture dependent counties in California the average unemployment rate is 15.6% for May 2009. Seven other counties have worse unemployment than Fresno (Imperial, Sutter, Alpine, Colusa, Merced, Yuba and Stanislaus), with the highest in Imperial County in the Southern California desert at 26.8%.
- Six of the seven with greater unemployment than Fresno are not heavily affected by the Central Valley Project (CVP) water cutbacks, and many are able to compensate via groundwater and use cutbacks.
- Lastly, when looking at the 2008 unemployment figures and averages, Fresno county has the eighth highest increase in unemployment (2008 to May 2009), meaning seven other counties have a greater increase in unemployment over the last year than Fresno ( Imperial, Colusa, Merced, Sutter, Yuba, Stanislaus, Tulare). Six of these have limited impact from Central Valley Project reductions or are not affected at all by them.
What this data clearly shows is that unemployment is chronic in Mendota (28.1% average), worsened by the drought, as with all other agriculture dependent counties. The owners of the big farms there are certainly not sharing their profits well with the labor community that serves them. There is much to be done to improve their plight, and it should not include disaster relief from the tax payers (as requested by the Governor and our Senators).
DWR director Lester Snow testified before Congress nearly two months ago essentially saying if there was no court order to protect fish, there would only be a 5% increase in CVP water to the San Joaquin Valley. This shortage is drought caused, not regulation caused.
An interesting side note regarding subsidies to these farms. In 1978 the taxpayer subsidy to the Federal San Luis Unit of the CVP (which supplies water to the west side San Joaquin) was estimated at $770 million or about $1,540.00 per acre (United States Bureau of Reclamation figures). Today that value would be about $5,227.00 per acre using the Cost of Living Calculator for 2007. Another interesting fact is that people in Madera, Merced and Fresno Counties received about $132 million in farm subsidies in 2006. People in Trinity County, where the water for the Western San Joaquin Valley comes from, received $585.00 ( United States Department of Agriculture figures on the Environmental Working Group’s Website Feb 16, 2009).
Who really gets left holding the proverbial bag? Of course it is the federal taxpayer and the public trust. It is time agri-business took more responsibility for the problem and started to work for a solution, not for the drought but to help the farm workers they sometimes employ. This isn’t “fish vs. people”, it is “fish and people.” Both are suffering in this is the third consecutive low water year.