Valley Voices

Esperanza Vielma: Gov. Brown, abandon delta tunnels plan

Delta fog clears along the Sacramento River near Sherman Island in winter 2011. Gov. Brown wants to build two tunnels that would direct water south of the delta. The plan is opposed by many residents in the delta region.
Delta fog clears along the Sacramento River near Sherman Island in winter 2011. Gov. Brown wants to build two tunnels that would direct water south of the delta. The plan is opposed by many residents in the delta region. Sacramento Bee File Photo

My family’s history parallels the California water projects, and expansion of big agricultural farms. We are rooted in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and have lived, worked and fished here for three generations.

My personal perspective leads me to strongly oppose the governor’s massive underground water export tunnels. It saddens me to see huge growers and water exporters using farmworkers’ unemployment to push for even more exports that will doom the delta and our salmon fisheries. These growers don’t care about farmworkers. They exploit chronic unemployment they built into their industrial agriculture to justify ruining delta communities.

My grandfather came to California in 1924 from Jalisco, Mexico. He began working in Valencia, then Mountain View. He picked oranges and plums. He moved to Manteca, and started a farm labor camp, providing transportation and housing.

My father and his brothers worked for my grandfather’s farm labor business. The business closed in the late 1960s. My dad and his brothers went to work building the San Luis Reservoir, which holds water for Westlands’ huge industrial growers. My uncles worked in both construction and seasonal farming, including sugar-beet farms, and driving trucks in Los Banos. I was born in Merced, and grew up in Stockton.

My mom emigrated from Mexico in the late 1960s, and worked for a Lompoc tomato contractor, sorting fruit. My dad, mom, aunt and uncles worked as farmworkers, and foremen, for San Joaquin County and delta growers.

I was headed down this same path. During high school, I worked at the Stockton Heinz cannery. But my mom pushed me to get an education. She had earned a nursing degree in Mexico. With her support, I graduated from UC Berkeley with a double major — Spanish and Chicano Studies. I demonstrated and worked as an advocate in the Grape Boycott against pesticides in the fields. I was awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in Public Policy to the University of Texas.

It pains me to see huge growers, like Woolf Farms, paying farmworkers to ride buses to serve as props for their pro-delta tunnels lobbying campaign.

It infuriates me to hear huge pro-tunnels growers decry pollution of rural communities’ drinking water — which their pesticides polluted. They inflate and manipulate farm job losses to push for more water exports, even as they continue to expand planting of permanent crops, like almonds, in the midst of the drought.

We who live and work in the delta need both fish and farms. My entire family fished the delta, and I ate so much catfish as a kid that I hated it. Growers’ show of concern for these farmworkers and communities is belied by their business model, built on chronic seasonal unemployment, low-wage jobs and anti-unionism. The west side San Joaquin Valley growers intentionally set up industrial farms that need labor for peak harvests, but provide few stable, well-paying permanent jobs. Chronic seasonal unemployment is the Valley norm, but now growers pretend it’s due to water cutbacks “to save fish.”

University of the Pacific economist Jeffrey Michael found almost no farm job loss this year compared to last year. Farmworkers are seasonally unemployed during wet, normal and dry years. In 2000, there was abundant water supply, and no delta smelt issues — yet the U.S. Census Bureau found that Mendota’s unemployment rate was 32%, highest of all 474 California towns. If water solves unemployment, how do exporters explain this historical data?

What about the loss of jobs, communities and negative impacts that would be inflicted on delta farmworkers from the tunnels? Delta farmworkers are left out of the agencies’ water allocation decisions.

The tunnels would be the death of the delta, and overpumping is just a slower death. If the governor gets his tunnels, the delta farm community will end up with many homeless families. These decisions will pit farmworker against farmworker, because the tunnels transfer water — and wealth — from one region to another. Delta farm workers will end up losing out.

It’s not farmers against fish. It’s south Valley corporate agribusiness versus the rest of us. These mega-growers have the political clout to move delta water to their farms. Part of their game is to hide behind farmworkers like my family. It’s time to pull back the mask.

Esperanza Vielma is a Stockton resident, and executive director for Café Coop, a nonprofit assisting young entrepreneurs in San Joaquin County.