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California Farmers March for Water

Vida En El Valle, News Report, Rebecca Plevin Posted: Apr 21, 2009

Editor's Note: Bob Diedrich, a farmer; Vernica Quinteros, a farmworker; and Felipe Gonzlez, a business owner, have all been impacted by the lack of water in the Westlands Water District, which covers most of west Fresno County. All three participated in the California March for Water. Watch the videos.

FRESNO, Calif. -- Bob Diedrich uses one word to describe the current situation facing farmers on the west side of Fresno County: "Brutal."

He's not being dramatic.

Diedrich usually farms about 1,100 acres of cotton, dry beans, processing tomatoes, wheat, and almonds on his land in Canta Creek.

But this year, Diedrich and other west side farmers were not allocated any water, due to the three-year-long drought and other regulatory decisions.

So this season, he is growing 125 acres of almond trees and 300 acres of canning tomatoes. "You can do the math," he said.

He is using well water to grow the tomatoes, and had to purchase water for his almond trees, which he invested in five years ago. Water used to cost about $90 or $100 per acre foot; this year, it's costing him $450 an acre foot.

"That kind of takes the wind out of your sail," he said.

Diedrich, a farmer for 40 years, said Valley farmers have never had it this bad.

He said 1977 was a dry year, "but now, you have all the regulatory aspects of it, plus we are in a drought. Zero water ... We've never had zero water."

It's such a nerve-wracking situation, he said, that he often wakes up at 2 a.m. and can't fall back asleep because too many thoughts swirl around in his head.

"How in the hell am I going to get through this?" he thinks. "And you're hoping you can get through it."

Diedrich sees the California March for Water as the Valley's last chance to raise political and social awareness of the effects of the water shortage. It's also the last opportunity to salvage this growing year.

"Hey, this is it, man," he has told his employees, as he's encouraged them to participate in the event. "My farm is your job. The more bodies, the better."

For Diedrich, whose family has farmed in the United States for 127 years and in Germany as early as 1648, the lack of water is a personal loss.

"You see that vein," he said, turning his palm up and pointing to a vein on his forearm. "That's not blood, that's dirt. Once you have dirt in your veins, you can't be nothing but a farmer."
Farming, he said, is "something you grew up with and you love."

Vernica Quinteros left her home in Istmo De Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, Mxico, in 1995 with the intention of giving her children a better life than they would have had in Mexico.

"I came with the intention of working and making a good future for the children," said Quinteros, who now lives in Mendota. "But we didn't come to be a public burden."

For almost 15 years, Quinteros and her husband earned decent wages working as foremen on San Joaqun Valley farms. They had steady, year-round work in the fields, packing lettuce, and picking grapes and melons.

But those jobs dried up along with the water shortage. Now, the only check supporting Quinteros, her husband, and their four children is an unemployment check. Quinteros has had to wait in food distribution lines for food.

She said it is sad and frustrating to see how the water crisis is impacting her children and the other kids of Mendota, where the official unemployment is 40 percent.

"I can put up with hunger, but my children can't," she said, as she watched her children play on the swingset at Rojas-Pierce park in Mendota. "They want bread, they want to eat everything, and you don't have food -- there is not enough money."

On that sunny afternoon, she wore a black blouse and skirt, gold sandals, and sported a silver necklace and earrings. She said her inability to provide for her family has made her cry -- though her bright appearance betrayed the impotence she felt.

Even with the lack of jobs in Mendota, Quinteros said she and her family would not leave their city.

"Wherever you go, it's the same crisis," she said.

"If I remain without a job, without money, at least a friend, an acquaintance, somebody will help me," said Quinteros, who is known as "La Morena" due to her darker skin. "In another place, you don't know anybody. It's like living in a desert."

So instead of leaving, Quinteros said she will fight for water. She has spoken on behalf of other farmworkers at a press conference for water and will participate in this week's march.

"We don't want the government to pay our electricity or water bills," she said. "We want them to give us water, so we can work to earn what we need," she said.

"That is the most important message of this march."

Felipe Gonzlez has operated a truck and auto service shop at the corner of Belmont Avenue and Oller Street in Mendota for 38 years. During that time, he has observed the city's success and struggles.

"This was a valley of work," he said. "We had lots of work, and many people came from different parts."

But now, he said, given the country's economic recession and the drought that has eliminated thousands of agriculture-related jobs, Mendota is "completely paralyzed. There are no people, no nothing, no movement."

The lack of farm work has taken its toll on Gonzlez's shop, which includes a mechanic shop, tire service, a junkyard, and towing service. "If there is no work in the fields, here, too, there is no work," he said.

He said he has had to cut employees' hours and lay off workers. Still, he said, "we are surviving, nothing else. We are not making any money."

As he spoke, Gonzlez prepared a shrimp cctel for a late lunch. In better times, he may not have had time to prepare a meal like that during business hours.

Gonzlez has as much an interest in seeing the west side receive water as any farmer or farmworker so he, too, participated in the march. He said he drove one of his trucks alongside the marchers, to protect them with lights and to provide people with help or water when necessary.

He said he participated because, "we are interested in moving ahead. We also need the help of the government."

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