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How California's 500-Year Drought Is Destroying the Lives of Farmworkers

Farming season starts again soon, and prospects are bleak.

MENDOTA, Calif.—When the rain finally came, it stayed three days, turning the rutted roads in this old farm town into a mess of pools and puddles. But calamity is still on its way.

The farms in and around Mendota are dying of thirst. The signs are everywhere. Orchards with trees lying on their sides, as if shot. Former farm fields given over to tumbleweeds. Land and cattle for sale, cheap.

One long weekend of showers amounts to a drop in the proverbial bucket. Everyone here knows that after the driest year on record in California, the Central Valley, one of the richest food-producing regions on earth, is up against what geologists are calling the 500-year drought. Fresno County, the heart of the Central Valley’s San Joaquin Valley farm belt—and the number one farming county in the nation—may lose up to a quarter of its orchards and fields this year for lack of water. President Obama is scheduled to visit Fresno County on Friday to “discuss” the drought.

No doubt everyone in California, and the other West Coast states suffering this drought, will feel the lack of water sooner rather than later. But towns like Mendota (pop.: approx. 10,000), will bear the brunt of it. One of the poorest towns in the poorest region in California, Mendota, Cantaloupe Center of the World, has a poverty rate of over 40 percent. It is also one of a handful of towns in Fresno County almost completely dependent on farming for its lifeblood.

Off-season, by mid-February, idled workers are clearly anxious. Farmworkers and everyone else who waits out the winter for work (truckers, diesel providers, packing suppliers and the like) are nearing the end of the savings they squirrel away during the season. The season starts again in March, April at the latest, but no one knows who will get work when the season begins, or how much.

People are scared, panicked even.

“We hear farmers are not going to plant,” said Segundo Sandoval, who has worked the fields of Mendota for 40 of his 53 years. Staring at a fallow field overlooking the main drag, he recalls when every patch of dirt was planted. Growers began slashing their crops when the recession hit Mendota full blast, in 2009, and a drought choked off water supplies. But if times were bad then, they could be much worse this year.

Mendota already has the worst unemployment rate in California, somewhere between 35 and 41 percent. That doesn’t include the undocumented workers, whose numbers are significant. Chris Schneider, executive director of the Fresno-based Central California Legal Services, Inc., with many farmworker clients, estimates their numbers at anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of the workforce.

On Mendota’s main drag, a sleepy cluster of mom-and-pop shops and dollar stores, men in cowboy hats and boots gather on benches, whiling away the day smoking and talking. Outside the liquor store, more men, holding bottles in paper bags, stand against the wall or loiter in an alley.

Off-season has always brought the idle to drink. But city officials fear that with the drought, half the town’s workers will be out of work even during the high season. Again, that number does not include the undocumented.

The desperation is palpable. With the snowpack in the Sierras, where California gets much of its water, at historic lows, farmers are pumping groundwater to irrigate crops. But that is creating other major issues. The water is salty, for one. Worse yet, all the pumping is sinking the land in the Central Valley, with Mendota at the heart of it.

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