Drought effect on labor looming large

03/27/2014 07:23:00 AM
Tom Karst

Tom KarstOne of the least-discussed aspects of the drought in California is the potential impact on farm labor. Coverage of this aspect of the crisis can be found in several places, including America Aljazeera.com including this late February coverage headlined "Fear in the fields."

The takeaway from the coverage is that up to 10% of 8 million irrigated acres in California will lie dormant this year, with as many as 15,000 jobs displaced by lost production capacity.

Also check out coverage of the drought's impact on unemployment in Mendota, Calif. from Bloomberg here .

Industry veteran Rick Eastes recently shared some of his reflections on the California drought with me in a couple of e-mails. Rick said in late March that he had driven from Visalia west on Hwy 198 to highway I-5, on a trip north to Livermore. Eastes was shocked at the lack of planting on the vast 40,000 to 50,000 acres that usually are the heart of onion, cannery tomatoes, cotton, and spring lettuce.

"There has been a little talk about ‘what could happen’, but it looks like it is happening already. We will first begin to feel the hit when demand for labor drops, then fuel, fertilizer, and other ag inputs are not ordered from suppliers, affecting a whole range of valley commerce," Rick said. "There is an eerie silence on the Westside that may turn into cacophony of complaints over the next few months. We shall see. Meantime, we ‘hope’ for some spring rains and snow in the Sierras over the next couple of months, or else…"

 Rick wrote in early February about the drought in historical context:

“Sustainability” is a common word today to encourage conservation on natural resources. Jared Dimond wrote a well-researched and revealing book, “Collapse” about how societies make choices about their environments, some good, mostly bad and squander their existence and the environment.

 For years I have joked about what archeologists might say when looking at sites in Maricopa county Arizona, San Diego, or the Coachella Valley of California—a thousand years from now, “I wonder where they got the water?” It is less and less a joke, especially in the near term (next 50 years)?

I remember my father, Lynden Eastes telling me stories from his work in the early 1930s (when he worked for the Arizona Water Users as a ‘sanjero’ or water-canal manager in the Salt River Project of Arizona). Engineers surveying where to put canals in the greater Salt River Valley (Phoenix) noted that there were linear indentations snaking across the desert exactly where they were intent on digging future canals to distribute water from Roosevelt Dam throughout Maricopa County. It seems the Hohokam had done the work before them in the 1100-1400 AD period. Perhaps, this is a ‘sign from the past’—let’s hope not, because there are millions of people who now live in the area, not just a few Native American tribes trying to provide water to grow corn and beans.

Here in the San Joaquin Valley, there will be thousands of acres that will not be planted to melons, tomatoes, onions, or even cotton because there will not be enough water to farm these crops. The land will sit fallow. The repercussions will radiate from unemployment to higher food prices and perhaps some scarcity of some foods.

 It is not just time to ‘start thinking about it’, but doing something about it before it is forced on the greater Southwest.

 

Thanks to Rick for his strong insight and perspective on this critical and sobering crisis. 



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