The recent tirade by Fresno County Board of Supervisors Chairman Buddy Mendes upset many people, but it came as no surprise to members of the San Joaquin Valley Sustainable Agriculture Collaborative. This behavior is part of a long-term pattern. It happens regularly in public meetings and more often behind closed doors when people advocate to improve conditions in their low-income communities.
The only difference this time is that it was caught on tape and reported by local media, including The Bee. Mendes and his fellow supervisors, who sat silently while he verbally abused our collaborative’s coordinator, Janaki Jagannath, deserve the criticisms they have received, and clearly a public apology is due.
But we should not lose sight of the issues at hand. It would only serve Mendes’ purpose if his personal failings were to become the topic. Jagannath has been working alongside residents in the rural community of El Porvenir for the past two years to address their lack of potable water and their very high water bills, which include this warning: “The water is contaminated and can cause long-term chronic health risks.”
This unincorporated community in western Fresno County is home to dozens of farmworker families and located in the most productive agricultural region in California. It is also home to some of the most poverty-stricken communities in the state.
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During the meeting, Jagannath attempted to address the difference between agricultural irrigation water and municipal and industrial water safe enough for drinking, cooking and bathing, and the county’s need to meet state public health and safety requirements for all residents.
When a similar situation took place in nearby Cantua Creek last year due to the rising cost of federal water, Fresno County officials folded their arms and waited for advocates to identify state grants to pay for emergency water supplies.
Without further intervention on behalf of these two communities, supervisors will soon be dealing with a major public health crisis and a national embarrassment as it denies drinking water to residents.
We expect our elected officials, including dairy farmer Mendes, who owns land in the Westlands Water District, to leave their vested interests at the door and fulfill their role as representatives of the entire community.
On this issue, Mendes’ job is to ensure every resident in Fresno County has access to safe, clean and affordable water. Farmworker communities across the San Joaquin Valley are affected by the historic lack of planning for the provision of basic services for their communities. While California field workers have built the agricultural economy of this state, they rarely receive their fair share of the benefits, including basics such as water, transit and housing.
We will continue in our efforts and not be shouted down. We call on our elected officials to join the effort to find solutions to these serious problems and to do so with civility. There is too much at stake to waste any more time.
Genoveva Islas is executive director of Cultiva La Salud, and Susana De Anda is co-executive director of Community Water Center. The other member groups of the San Joaquin Valley Sustainable Agriculture Collaborative are Californians for Pesticide Reform; Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment; El Quinto Sol De America; Fresno Metro Ministry; and Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.