Valley Voices

Johnny Amaral: Let’s work together to protect California agriculture

Irrigated fields in Westlands Water District border Interstate 5 and the Diablo Range west of Tranquility on June 12, 2015. Westlands is the nation’s largest agricultural water district.
Irrigated fields in Westlands Water District border Interstate 5 and the Diablo Range west of Tranquility on June 12, 2015. Westlands is the nation’s largest agricultural water district. The New York Times

As a lifelong resident of the Central Valley, I was first dismayed, and then outraged, upon reading the recent commentary in The Bee from two self-proclaimed activists for clean, safe and affordable water.

Make no mistake. Their mission is not to protect farmworkers or to promote a water solution. It is to demonize the family farms on the West Side in an effort to eliminate farming in the San Joaquin Valley. California policymakers need to reject their divisive agenda and work together to improve the lives of the people that live and work in this region.

At Westlands Water District, our farmers are eager to embrace solutions that will enable us to grow more of the nation’s and the world’s food and help farmworkers prosper. For years, we have advocated for policies to bring balance to the way water is delivered, so that people, farms and the environment get water. Most recently, Westlands supported legislation in Congress that would have brought much-needed reliability to the operation of the Delta pumps, while not violating the Endangered Species Act. We will proudly continue to do so.

The activists’ concern for the “perverse inequities” relating to access to water is itself perverse. Rather than helping farmworkers, these groups advocate for water policies that take farm jobs away. They ignore the impact their policies have on local businesses and fail to recognize that unemployment in agriculture creates many problems for local government, including the ability to provide needed services to the lowest-income families.

These groups do not want to admit that their political agenda is in part responsible for the high levels of unemployment and poverty. By demonizing farmers, it is easy to advocate for reducing water to farms; it is much harder to look into the eyes of the families whose livelihoods depend on farming and tell them they no longer have jobs.

These “hit-and-run” political tactics are in stark contrast to efforts by Westlands farmers, community groups, and local, state and federal officials who are working on solutions. There is agreement that California communities, including those in the San Joaquin Valley, need a more stable source of water. We need improved infrastructure, the ability to capture water during periods of heavy rain and increased storage. Those tangible goals can help us weather drought and provide the means to get reliable water allocations that help all of us: farms, businesses, cities and farmworkers.

Local farmers grow a host of products – yes, including almonds – that keep jobs and the agriculture industry viable during years when water allocations are withheld. It’s disingenuous to claim to support farming that produces “acceptable” crops such as garlic and tomatoes but then advocate for federal and state water policies that prevent farmers from growing those crops.

It’s irresponsible to advocate for less water to farms without addressing how the lost agricultural production will be handled. Presumably, they are willing to send the agricultural jobs and production outside of California, despite the devastating impact that would have on our local economy and our families.

Westlands family farmers have made huge investments to make their production more efficient and environmentally sensitive, much more than any other region in the world. In fact, many of the advances in irrigation technology and efficiency were born here.

We have the finest research institutions in the California State University and University of California systems, providing cutting-edge water conservation technologies and farm production innovations. It’s that cooperation that provides the world with new methods of farming and water management – a success that should be protected, not chased out of state.

It makes no sense to position our serious drought-related situation as “fish vs. farming,” as if the two are mutually exclusive. Those of us who live in the San Joaquin Valley know that water policies over the last 10 years have devastated not only our agriculture-dependent local economy. Ironically, in what feels like the ultimate case of adding insult to injury, they have also resulted in near extinction of several fish populations.

During this decade of “biological experimentation,” Westlands farmers have routinely received a zero allocation. Despite the misleading claims, there is no water that is “flowing toward larger and more intensive agricultural users.”

But blaming farmers, rather than government policies, fits their political agenda. Their cynical strategy to divide keeps elected officials from agreeing on a water-management compromise. Perhaps if the so-called advocates spent more time helping to change the laws and regulations that starve the Valley of water, there would be an affordable, abundant water supply for the people they claim to care about.

Farming is a way of life for many in our community. We need to continue to work with our elected officials and responsible groups seeking solutions. And, we need to step up our efforts to expose misinformation campaigns designed to eliminate farming.

Johnny Amaral is deputy general manager of Westlands Water District, the largest agricultural water district in the United States.