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April 2014, Volume 20, Number 2

California: Drought 2014

Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in January 2014, citing lack of rain and snow that lowered water levels in dams for the third consecutive year. Many farmers said that they would not plant annual crops in order to save scarce water for orchards and vineyards. Since 1987, there have been 13 drought emergency proclamations, most for part of the state.

The federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project announced zero allocations for the water agencies in the San Joaquin Valley that buy water from them. Water users north of the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta will get 40 percent of their allocation from the CVP and 50 percent from the SWP. As of February 2014, the CVP's Shasta Lake was at 36 percent of its 4.5 million acre-foot capacity, while the SWP's Lake Oroville was at 36 percent of its 3.5 million acre-foot capacity.

Heavy rains in March-April 2014 raised water levels in Shasta, Oroville and other dams, but did not end the drought.

Many California farmers and residents rely on water and snow that falls during the winter months in the Sierra Nevada mountains and melts to fill 50 reservoirs in northern California. The stored water is released in spring and summer to grow crops in the San Joaquin Valley and to provide water for urban areas of southern California. Water is moved south via the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta and the 1,200 miles of canals of the CVP and SWP.

Governor Brown signed bills, SB 103 and SB 104, in February 2014 to provide up to $687 million in food aid and housing assistance for those adversely affected by the drought.

The bedrock principle of water law in the arid west is first in time, first in right, meaning that the first person to put river water to a beneficial use has senior rights to that water, regardless of the value of the products produced with the water. Pre-1914 "riparian" water rights are senior to post-1914 "junior" water rights.

Selling rather than putting water to "beneficial use" can be difficult. Many water users belong to water districts, and users who object can block district water sales.

Some areas have plenty of water. The Imperial Valley gets 3.1 million acre feet of water a year from the Colorado river for less than 200,000 residents, while the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California that serves 19 million people gets 1.1 million acre feet of Colorado river water a year.

In 2003, Imperial agreed to fallow 40,000 acres and sell the water that would have been used to irrigate crops to the San Diego County Water Authority after the federal government threatened to take Imperial's water without compensation. Even though Imperial had first in time, first in right water rights to Colorado river water, the federal government threatened to question whether growing "thirsty crops" in the Imperial Valley was a "reasonable and beneficial use" of scarce water.

The Glenn-Colusa, Oakdale, South San Joaquin and Turlock districts also get plenty of water because of their senior rights to the Sacramento and San Joaquin river water, although they will get only 40 percent of their usual allocation in 2014. The Glenn-Colusa water district 80 miles north of Sacramento was formed in 1920, and it takes up to a quarter of the Sacramento river flow during irrigation season to grow mostly medium-grain japonica rice, the type used to make sushi rolls. The Sacramento Valley is second to Arkansas in US rice production, and 60 percent of California rice is exported.

So-called senior water diverters such as Glenn-Colusa have not been challenged seriously, even though some argue that using scarce water to grow rice may not be a "reasonable and beneficial" of water. The US Bureau of Reclamation says that under a 1964 agreement, senior upstream water districts can take 2.2 million acre-feet of water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. This allocation is being cut by 60 percent in 2014.

The Kern Water Bank grew out of the 1994 Monterey Agreement between the Department of Water Resources and water agencies supplied by the project to bank water in wet years and use in dry years. The state turned the bank over to private water districts dominated by Paramount Farms, prompting suits from environmentalists and others. In March 2014, a state judge agreed that the DWR failed to properly analyze the environmental impacts of the Kern Water Bank, but did not shut down the water bank pending appeals.

The drought aggravated poor air quality in the San Joaquin Valley, giving Fresno its worst winter air ever as storms failed to clear out pollution and left residents breathing fine PM-2.5 particles. Despite significant improvements in air quality over the past decade, the California Air Resources Board estimated that only three-fourths of the four million San Joaquin Valley residents live in areas whose air meets federal health standards for ozone.

Employment. Projections of how many farm jobs may be lost due to reduced water supplies are made by estimating how much farm revenue is likely to fall and how many farm jobs are associated with each $1 million in reduced farm revenue. When the amount of water falls, farmers normally switch scarce and expensive water from lower-to-higher value crops, as from hay and pasture to perennial trees, vines and vegetables. These higher value crops tend to be more labor intensive.

Farmers said that farm revenues could fall by up to $3.5 billion in 2014 due to the drought. Other estimates foresee a smaller reduction in farm revenues, but all expect some reduction in farm revenue and employment.

During the 2009 drought, an estimated 250,000 acres of crop land on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley were fallowed as less water was pumped through the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta to protect fish. Much of the fallowed land was in the 600,000-acre Westlands Water District, which fallowed 40,000 acres in 2013 (

The largest acreage crops in Westlands in 2013 were processing tomatoes and almonds, about 80,000 acres each, followed by wheat, 60,000 acres; cotton, 40,000 acres; pistachios, 30,000 acres; wine grapes, 16,000 acres; and cantaloupes, garlic, and lettuce, about 15,000 acres each. In 2003, by contrast, the largest acreage crop in Westlands was cotton, about 155,000 acres, followed by processing tomatoes, 88,000 acres, and wheat, 58,000 acres.

Many Westlands farmers around Coalinga have planted almonds. Harris Ranch said it would fallow up to 5,000 of its 14,000 acres to save scarce water for its trees and vines.

UCD economist Richard Howitt estimated that each $1 million reduction in farm revenue would eliminate 50 farm jobs in 2009, that is, each $20,000 in reduced farm revenue eliminated one farm job. University of the Pacific Economist Jeffry Michael used a much higher sales-to-worker estimate, figuring that each $1 million reduction in farm revenue would eliminate 18 farm jobs or $55,000 per job. Michael estimated that $350 million in lower farm revenue in 2009 resulted in 6,000 fewer farm jobs.

Michael's estimates proved to be more accurate, which suggests that each $1 million reduction in farm revenue may reduce farm employment by about 20 in 2014. Many of the stories of high unemployment due to delta pumping restrictions in 2009 focused on western Fresno county cities such as Mendota and Firebaugh, where unemployment rates during the peak summer months typically exceed 30 percent even in wet years. The unemployment rate in Mendota, the self-proclaimed Cantaloupe Center of the World, ranged from a low of 31 percent in September 2013 to a high of 41 percent in January 2013.

Outlook. The prospects of more unstable weather and less water mean more changes, including reduced diversions of water from northern California via the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta and abandoning farming on some of the islands in the river delta. Fresh river water must flow through the delta in order to prevent salt water intrusion.

San Joaquin Valley farmers want more water sent south during the winter months and stored in the San Luis Reservoir, which can hold two million acre-feet of water, and other south-of-delta reservoirs. However, environmental groups and delta farmers insist that fresh water must flow through the delta year-round to preserve fish and keep out salt water. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in March 2014 reaffirmed the authority of the US Fish and Wildlife Service to recommend restrictions on pumping water through the delta to protect fish.

About two-thirds of the 15 million acre-feet of water used in the San Joaquin Valley comes from local sources, four million acre-feet arrive via the delta from northern California, and another one million acre-feet are currently obtained by overdrafting groundwater.

Water experts predict that reduced imports of northern California water via the delta and less groundwater will lead to the fallowing of 20 to 40 percent of the San Joaquin Valley's five million acres of crop land by 2050. They predict reduced acreages of water-intensive and lower-value crops such as cotton, hay and pasture as farmers use more costly water on higher value orchard and vineyard crops.

Jobs. The San Joaquin Valley counties anchored by Fresno were hit hard by the 2008-09 recession, and are recovering more slowly than the rest of the state. For example, median home prices in Fresno county peaked in 2006, and remain well below 2006 levels in 2014.

A quarter of residents in Fresno and Tulare countries live in households with below-poverty level incomes, compared to 15 percent of US and California residents. It is sometimes said that the two major concerns of San Joaquin Valley residents are the quality of the air and the quantity of the water.

Housing. California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) released a study in March 2014 that found many farm workers live in overcrowded and substandard housing. The study concluded that local authorities sometimes do not enforce housing regulations for fear of displacing workers and their families.

Most farm workers live in cities, but some live in Disadvantaged, Unincorporated Communities (DUCs) that often lack water and sewer connections.

Some of the roots of poor farm worker housing today lie in efforts to improve on-farm housing in the 1970s and 1980s. Unions and activists decried on-farm housing, saying that it gave farm employers "control" over their employees, since workers who went on strike could lose their jobs and their housing. Instead of improving housing, many farmers eliminated on-farm housing as standards rose and enforcement increased, pushing farm workers into nearby cities and forcing them to incur travel costs to get to work.

Napa County has three farm worker centers, Calistoga, River Ranch and Mondavi, each with 60 beds for solo men that offer room and board for $13 a day. Napa vineyard owners who do not provide housing to farm workers pay a $10 per-planted acre tax or almost $450,000 a year to cover the $13 a day deficit for each worker at the centers. The centers have a budget of $1.2 million for 2014-15.

Santino Garcia of the California Human Development Corporation, which manages the centers for the Housing Authority, notes that FLCs sometimes direct groups of men to seek housing in the Napa centers. CHDC, which does not allow FLCs to reserve beds and accepts workers on a first-come, first-served basis, said that the three centers were mostly full in 2013. CHDC believes that many of the workers at Calistoga and Mondavi are from San Joaquin Valley counties as far away as Fresno, while many River Ranch workers are from nearby Napa and Sonoma.

USDA is subsidizing an $18 million housing development in Calistoga that will include 47 farm worker units. Farm workers will pay up to 30 percent of their incomes in rent.

King City. In February 2014, acting police chief Bruce Miller and his brother, who operates a towing company, were charged with a conspiracy to confiscate and sell vehicles belonging to low-income immigrants. Police would stop cars for minor infractions, and have them towed by Miller if the driver did not have a license or insurance. Five of the 17 members of the King City police have been charged.

Almost 90 percent of the 13,000 residents of King City in southern Monterey county are Hispanic. In 2010, Monterey county implemented a Secure Communities agreement with DHS, under which the fingerprints of those booked into county jails are shared with DHS. Over 80 percent of those identified as unauthorized and subject to deportation under the Secure Communities agreement involved persons with no US convictions or convictions for minor crimes.

Secure Communities reportedly generated fear among unauthorized residents, including a reluctance to criticize the police taking the cars of unauthorized foreigners.

Population. In March 2014, the number of Latinos in California officially surpassed the number of non-Hispanic whites. California had 38.5 million residents in 2014, including 15 million Hispanics and just under 15 million non-Hispanic whites. About 13 percent of California residents, five million, are Asian, and 3.5 million are Black and other races.

There is a gap between shares of residents and shares of voters. In 2012 elections, non-Hispanic whites were 44 percent of adults but 62 percent of likely voters, while Hispanics were 33 percent of adults but only 17 percent of likely voters. Many Hispanics are too young to vote, and many are not US citizens.

There is also a gap between shares of residents and shares of students at the 10-campus University of California. Voter-approved Proposition 209 in 1996 ended affirmative action in state contracting and state university admissions. Since 1996, the share of white UC students has fallen from 40 percent to 28 percent in 2012 while the share of Asian Americans has risen from 28 to 31 percent. The share of Hispanics rose from 15 to 28 percent, and the share of Blacks was stable at four percent.

However, at the flagship UC-Berkeley campus, the share of whites fell from 32 to 28 percent, the share of Asians rose from 32 to 42 percent, and the share of Latinos and Blacks were stable at 18 and four percent, respectively. Legislative efforts (SCA 5) to allow affirmative action to select students for UC and CSU were stopped in March 2014 after Asian Americans objected.

California, with an estimated 2.5 million unauthorized foreigners, will begin issuing special driver's licenses to them by January 2015. Some 1.4 million unauthorized foreigners are expected to apply by providing official identification to prove their identity. Migrant advocates want the Department of Motor Vehicles to accept identification cards from day laborers' associations, immigration rights groups and other local groups, but critics say that these cards are easily obtained and could invite fraud.

Employment agencies near the intersection of Garvey and Garfield avenues in Monterey Park near Los Angeles send Chinese migrants around the US to fill restaurant and other service jobs. Many of the Chinese deployed by these centers applied for asylum in the US. Those who have received asylum and legal residence and work status typically have more job options than those who do not have the legal right to work in the US.

Workers pay the agencies $40 to $80 referral fees, and pay their own transportation costs to workplaces around the US, which sometimes offers room and board and wages of $3,000 a month. Hours are often long, 10 to 12 a day and sometimes six or seven days a week, and many of the restaurants and other service firms that hire Chinese migrants do not pay a premium wage for overtime work. While waiting for jobs, many migrants stay at "family hotels" or boardinghouses in Monterey Park that charge $10 a night for beds in rooms shared with other migrants.

Budget. Governor Jerry Brown, seeking re-election in 2014, proposed a $107 billion general fund budget for 2014-15. With federal and special fund spending, total state spending would be $155 billion.

Most of California's general fund spending, $62 billion, goes to K-12 public schools, followed by $17 billion for Medi-Cal, the state's health program for the poor.

Brown would increase spending on social service programs. CalWorks, the state's cash welfare program, would increase grants by five percent for an average 529,000 families, while In-Home Supportive Services, under which workers provide services to an average 453,000 elderly and disabled people in their homes, is expected to cost the state $2 billion a year in 2014-15.

Brown, who said that California's economy has a history of booms followed by busts, urged state lawmakers to resist the urge to spend today's surplus.

Janet Napolitano, secretary of homeland security, was named president of the University of California in summer 2013, drawing objections from many students because of the 400,000 deportations a year while she was at DHS. UC has a $25 billion a year budget and an estimated 1,000 unauthorized students on its 10 campuses.

Napolitano allocated $5 million to assist unauthorized students, with campuses deciding whether to use the money for scholarships or counseling. Latinos and Blacks are over half of graduating high school seniors in California, but less than a third of UC's freshman class.

Villarejo, Don. 2014. California's Hired Farm Workers Move to the Cities: The Outsourcing of Responsibility for Farm Labor Housing. CRLA.

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