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April 2009, Volume 15, Number 2

California: Drought, Housing, Population

California is in its third year of drought. In normal years, about six million acre-feet of water are released from dams constructed by the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project and pumped through the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta to Central Valley farmers and southern California residents. In dry years, about half as much water is pumped south.

Reduced water deliveries in 2009 are leading to fewer crops and fewer jobs for farm and nonfarm workers, especially on the western side of the San Joaquin Valley. In mid-April, the Latino Water Coalition organized a march of farmers and farm workers from Mendota to the San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos. The march, a tactic pioneered by the UFW to draw attention to its causes, did not include the UFW.

Farmers shifted their reduced water supplies from lower value crops such as cotton and alfalfa to higher value and more labor-intensive fruits, nuts, and vegetables, reducing the impacts on farm workers. Permanent crops such as almonds require about an acre-foot of water to keep trees alive and 3.5 acre-feet to produce a crop.

Housing. Merced, which had the fastest rising home prices in California in 2005, in early 2009 had an unemployment rate of almost 20 percent. Median housing prices, almost $400,000 in late 2005, were just over $100,000 by the end of 2008. About 55 percent of Merced county borrowers owed more on their homes in February 2009 than their homes are currently worth. The dream of an economic transformation led by UC-Merced faded as it became clear that it will take time for the current 2,700-student campus to have major impacts.

Throughout the San Joaquin Valley, the collapse of housing prices and construction is increasing unemployment after the 2002-06 boom brought new jobs, new residents and new services. In Yuba County, about 60 percent of the 10,600 mortgage holders owed more on their homes in February 2009 than their homes were currently worth. Median home prices, $400,000 in 2005, are $160,000 today.

Many California cities with large farm worker populations declared fiscal emergencies as tax receipts lagged expenditures. Watsonville closed all city services except police and fire for two weeks over Christmas and New Year's, and Calexico declared a fiscal emergency in January 2009.

Isleton, a city of 817 in Sacramento County, is almost $1 million in debt as a result of developers proposing projects that inexperienced city staff approved. Once home to Chinese migrants who were discouraged from living in nearby cities, the historic city has had high turnover among city leaders, so that decisions made by one group often saddled their successors with debts and problems. The local economy depends on agriculture and tourism.

Duroville. A federal judge allowed the Desert Mobile Home Park (Duroville) in Thermal to remain open throughout 2008 despite the efforts of the US government to close the 40-acre, 300-trailer park that houses a peak 3,000 to 5,000 farm workers in April and May. Most Duroville residents are Purepecha Indians from Michoac‡n who arrived in the Coachella Valley in the 1990s.

In January 2009, residents removed wooden additions to their mobile homes that provided extra sleeping quarters for migrants who arrived for the peak harvest season between March and May. There were 1,500 dogs roaming Duroville, and the receiver appointed to make Duroville habitable reported that half had been spayed or neutered by January 2009.

Owner Harvey Duro, a member of the Torres-Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian tribe, opened the park on the Torres-Martinez reservation without required Bureau of Indian Affairs approval. The BIA wants to close Duroville, and a federal judge considered its fate in an April 2009 trial. Those who want to keep Duroville open emphasize that the court-appointed receiver, who stopped paying Duro $7,000 a month when he failed to cooperate, has made improvements and that there is no low-cost housing alternative for the tenants.

There are three other mobile home parks on Indian land nearby.

Population. California had about 36.8 million residents in 2008. Between July 1, 2007 and July 1, 2008, California had 565,000 births and 240,000 deaths, for a natural increase of 325,000. The state gained 195,000 international migrants but lost 145,000 domestic residents to other states, for net migration of 50,000.

The 2007-08 change continues the pattern since 2000, about 2.2 births for each death and a net 1.3 immigrants for each domestic resident who leaves the state. High living costs and high unemployment are among the reasons that domestic residents cite for leaving the state.

California's population, now 37 million, is expected to increase to 49 million by 2030. A majority of white residents in a PPIC poll ( said that immigration was the major cause of population growth, and that population growth has mostly negative impacts.

Proposition 2, which banned egg-laying chickens in small wire cages, was approved by a 63 percent to 37 percent vote in November 2008. One response was the relaunching of a proposal to divide the state into Eastern and Western California, with 45 more farming-oriented counties in the east and 13 coastal counties in the west ( Historians say that since California became a state in 1850, there have been more than 200 serious proposals to divide the state. However, most previous proposals involved splitting the state into northern and southern California.

California has more than 792 public agencies overseeing child care services, and several close each year because of financial problems. Children's Services Inc. received $13 million a year from the state to operate seven child care centers for 300 low-income children in the Salinas area. CSI built a $3 million Mountain Valley Family & Child Development Center in East Salinas, and its cost forced CSI to transfer its state contracts to a service agency based in East Los Angeles in January 2009.

Budget. California got a revised budget in February 2009, six months after a gaping deficit opened when tax receipts slowed while expenditures soared. There was a political deadlock over how to close the $42 billion budget gap in the two-year 2008-09 and 2009-10 fiscal years; Democrats did not want to cut spending, and Republicans did not want to raise taxes.

After Standard & Poor's in February 2009 lowered its rating on $46 billion in California general obligation bonds to A, the lowest rating for such bonds, there was agreement to raise taxes by $12.5 billion and to reduce state spending by $15 billion. By March 2009, a new deficit of $8 billion reappeared as state revenues fell.

The key legislator was Senator Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria), who insisted on a spending cap and an open primary, which should give moderates a greater chance of being elected; voters will decide on these reforms on May 19, 2009. Maldonado's father was a bracero who arrived from the Mexican state of Jalisco in 1964, the last year of the program.

Five of the six propositions on the May 19, 2009 ballot that aim to resolve the state's structural deficit did not have majority support a month before the vote. Only 1F, which would bar pay raises in years when the state runs a deficit, had majority support.

Unauthorized. Unauthorized foreigners did not figure directly in budget talks. There were almost three million in the state in 2007, including 19,000 in state prisons, 11 percent of those incarcerated. California estimates its costs of incarcerating criminal aliens at $1 billion a year, and receives $111 million in reimbursement from the federal government.

If unauthorized K-12 pupils are the same eight percent share of pupils that the unauthorized are of the state's residents, there are about 400,000 unauthorized pupils in K-12 schools. Most estimates put the state's cost of providing services to unauthorized foreigners at $5 billion or more, reflecting primarily the cost of providing education to unauthorized K-12 pupils.

California has 156,000 prisoners. A federal court in February 2009 ordered the state to reduce the number to 101,000 within three years so that prisoners receive adequate health care. California enacted a three-strikes law in 1996 that requires life sentences for a third felony, and a quarter of the state's inmates are serving time under the three-strikes law.

Unlike other states, California puts almost all of its released prisoners on parole, and 70,000 are returned to prison each year for parole violations, including unauthorized foreigners who return to the US and are detected. Other states place an average 40 percent of their released prisoners on parole.

Dale Kasler, " Merced struggles despite new UC campus," Sacramento Bee, March 2, 2009. Susan Ferriss, "Delta cutbacks put Valley farm town on edge," Sacramento Bee, March 2, 2009. Jesse McKinley, "Drought Adds to Hardships in California," New York Times, February 22, 2009.

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