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Drought Leaves Central Valley Families Out of Work

Vida En El Valle, News Report, Rebecca Plevin Posted: Mar 12, 2009

SAN JOAQUN -- Juan Torres leans against the side of the Circle K gas station on Colorado Avenue and chats with other men who are out of work.
FamilyGuillermo Corona, with his wife Juana
and granddaughter Alyssa, is feeling
the effects of the drought.

It's Wednesday afternoon and dark clouds are filling the sky. The clouds threaten rain, but probably not enough rain to put Torres and his friends back to work.

For years, Torres has irrigated fields of alfalfa, almonds and tomatoes. But he's worried that given the state's three-year drought, there may be very few crops planted this year, and scarce water available to sustain those crops.

"I wish there could be water in abundance," he said. "That way, the people could work."

"I don't want unemployment," he said. "All I want is work."

Torres' plea is becoming common in San Joaqun, where about 35 percent of the city's 4,500 residents are unemployed, according to the state Employment Development Department.

And it's a plea that is being voiced across the western side of Fresno County, where the majority of farmworker communities are bracing themselves for another year of drought and hardship.

In late February, farmers learned they would not be receiving any of the water they are allocated, unless conditions improve.

This means that farmers may divert water to long-term crops they've already invested in, like almonds, pistachios, and grapes, while allowing hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland to go unplanted.

In turn, between 60,000 and 80,000 people in the Central Valley could lose their agriculture-related jobs this summer, according to a report produced by the Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics at the University of California, Davis.

The situation is very troubling to San Joaqun mayor Amarpreet Dhaliwal.

Seasonal unemployment is nothing new in agriculture-based communities like San Joaqun, but Dhaliwal said he is concerned that many people are out of work at this point in the early spring.

The unemployment rate is "very high for this time," he said in a phone interview. "This is the time when they earn their living."

Last Wednesday in San Joaqun, Raquel Bez was doing multiple loads of laundry at Lavandera Los Amigos, using money that her friends have lent her.

Bez's husband, Mateo, a farmworker, has been out of work since December. He is undocumented and ineligible to receive unemployment payments, so the family has had to borrow money to pay for food and laundry, and to pay the car and rent bills.

"The bills don't wait," Raquel Bez said over the din of the washing machines, as she snacked on duritos. "It's very hard."

Raquel Bez said she and her husband have had to "adapt to what there is," but added that her husband has become depressed because he can not find any work.

Rosa Ramrez, who owns Karylulu's Gift Shop on San Joaqun's Main Street, knows stories like Torres' and Bez's all too well. Her shop was empty last Wednesday afternoon, and the only noise came from a television that was tuned to a telenovela.

Farmworkers often come to her store in the late afternoons, after work, to cash checks and send money home to Mxico.

But recently, she said, "there are more unemployment checks than I used to see." She added that on some days, four out of the six or seven checks she cashes are unemployment payments.

And because city residents have less money in their pockets, fewer people are eating out at places like Mara Vsquez's Mexican restaurant on Main Street.

In past years, she said, people used to have to wait for a table during the lunch rush.

"Now we are alone," Vsquez said, as she surveyed her restaurant, where just two couples sat in booths finishing a late lunch.

"It's a very, very sad situation," she said. "It's a very ugly recession."

Torres said there has been less work in the past few years, but can tell this year is going to be worse.

He's heard television reports about the drought, and he's noticed that farmers have planted fewer crops than in past years. He's walked through the city streets and has noticed that more people are not working.

"It's very stressful," he said.

For now, he relieves his stress by meeting his friends outside of the Circle K to chat or drink a soda. But if he can't find a job this spring, Torres, a father of five, said he might have to move.

"I don't know what I will do," he said.

In Torres' opinion, simply bringing water to the farms on the west side of Fresno County could solve many of the communities' unemployment and economic issues.

Water "could help resolve the crisis," he said. "It could resolve a great part of the problems here in the Valley."

Throughout the afternoon, the sky has turned darker, and rain drops begin to fall. But would it be enough?

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