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No Water, No Jobs

Vida en el Valle, News Report, Sandra Velzquez, Daniel Csarez, Olivia Ruiz, Martn E. Martnez, and Jennie Rodrguez Posted: Jul 03, 2008

MENDOTA -- Crossing the border and arriving in the United States doesn't always mean the beginning of prosperity.

For many farm workers in California, arriving legally or illegally this summer hasn't made much of a difference.

Since 1988, Juan Solorio travels each summer from La Piedad, in the Mexican state of Michoacn, to Mendota, Calif. to work in the fields doing irrigation or in the cotton harvest.

But this year has been different. Since he arrived on June 5, he hasn't been able to work one day. Luckily, his wife and four kids in Mexico are living with a family that hasn't charged them any rent, knowing that he is unemployed.

"If there was water right now, we would be working," said Solorio outside a store with two other unemployed farm workers who were hot from the sun.

Ricardo Torres, 42, and Eliseo Melgosa, 61, echo Solorio's words.

Torres applied for unemployment benefits in January but that assistance is about to run out.

Melgosa is surprised by what they are going through in Mendota and other farming cities in the fertile county of Fresno such as Firebaugh, Huron, Tranquility and San Joaqun.

These five small communities in the California's Central Valley with a high Latino concentration are seeing the growing necessity for a reform in the water system.

"This never happened during the last 25 years. There are a lot of people and not enough work," said Melgosa.

This year, the city of Mendota, with a population of 9,788, suffered a 40 percent water supply cut.

Images of the dry yellow fields here say more than a thousand words.

"They started with 45 percent in January and February, but last month it was reduced by five percent," said Councilman Leo Capuchino.

Mendota is known as the "cantaloupe center of the world," but for many of its inhabitants, the city has become known for its lack of employment and natural resources.

City officials have figured that Fresno County will suffer a loss of $73 million in harvests this year.

But the general manager of Westlands Water District declared that "the magnitude of this disaster could not be measured on the value of the harvest and the size of acres alone. There are huge human costs too. There are jobs that have been lost and others that will be lost."

Capuchino explained that if a farmer doesn't have enough water, he will stop watering his tomato, cotton, alfalfa, lettuce, cantaloupe, or broccoli crops to keep the almond, pistachio, apricot trees or grape vines alive.

Birmingham added in a formal statement that the call for an emergency by the governor Arnold Schwarzenegger due to the drought will not provide relief to consumers.

Nonetheless, he hopes the declaration will help move water to the crops that need it much sooner.

"The situation is critical," said Capuchino, who worked for Westlands Water District for more than 40 years. He knows better than anyone that the panorama of the region looks gloomy. "Without water there is no work."

And without any work, people will not go out to buy all of the basic foods and business owners will suffer.

"The impact (of unemployment) has been so great that I no longer have a grocery store," said Joseph Riofro, who is also a city council member. Due to its lack of profit, Riofro instead opened an impromptu video and video game store in his building that has been owned by his family for 75 years. He still sells sodas and some other products.

San Juana Prieto, who has lived in Mendota for 23 years, doesn't remember a time as difficult as this year's drought.

"We have lived through floods and freezes, but now that there is no water it coincides with the high gas prices and it's making it worse."

About two weeks ago Prieto found an agricultural job, but the foremen told her that it will be for a short period of time.

"We have thought of moving to Madera," said Prieto, whose husband works as a truck driver and is having trouble paying the high diesel prices.

Last week Assemblyman Juan Armbula introduced a proposal to extend the unemployment benefits to those who have lost their job due to the drought.

Bruce Blodgett, executive director of the San Joaqun Farm Bureau Federation, said that the county has not been significantly affected.

"We haven't seen good numbers," said Blodgett. "It has been ironic that it hasn't been difficult to find sources of employment either."

In the past -- before the economy began to decline -- farmers would have a hard time finding enough people to work in their fields. But when the farmers don't have a job, they don't need help.

In Firebaugh, Mara del Refugio Ruz is feeling the effects of the drought because her daughter hasn't been able to find a job either and she can't help her.

At the age of 70, Ruz would rather be able to go to the fields herself, but stopped working in the fields a few years ago after breaking her ankles.

In order to survive, she cleans houses or baby-sits for women who work in the fields. She sometimes earns $30 a day.

"Many people are leaving to Dos Palos. There are many fields here that are not going to be sowed," said Ruiz, who became a widow more than seven years ago and lives with her 20-year-old paraplegic son.

Recently, Ruiz was left with no electricity for 15 days and it wasn't until San Jos Catholic Church gave her a check for $250 to pay off the four months she owed that she was able to get the service turned on again.

Ruiz regrets that one of her grandsons, who is 20, can't get a job due to his undocumented status. "He's practically from here. My daughter brought him when he was two and he's a good kid. He already finished (high) school and he can't find a job."

Ruiz was pleasantly surprised when a couple of months ago, the driver of the bus she takes to go and clean houses told her she no longer had to pay him. Due to her age, she qualifies for free transportation.

"People suffer a lot more here than in Mexico. I would go back if my son wasn't sick," she said.

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