Farmers to city dwellers: We're all in the drought together

As the months have worn on, drier and drier but for the very occasional gift from above, it has been hard to avoid a looming civil war in California over a common enemy, the drought.

Loosely, the battle is between ideologically and culturally opposite coastal and inland residents. Specifically, it is between city dwellers and those in the state's farm belt, separated by mountain ranges but, more than that, a yawning canyon of misunderstanding.

Last week, like an almost invisible white flag waving for peace on the battleground, came a radio ad over the airwaves in Southern California, the state's largest urban market. It was meant to calm things down before everyone does what they always do: go to their corners convinced that they are right.

Like all ads, it was a mix of truth and what the ad-maker hopes to be true.

The hope-to-be-true part? That Gov. Jerry Brown in his new drought rules was asking city residents "to think about how they can reduce the water they use." Nope, it's actually a bit more punitive than that, with cutbacks ranging well into the double digits for local agencies, with fines attached.

But the more altruistic — and accurate — part of the ad, aired by the California Farm Water Coalition, was its effort to educate those who shower and water their lawns with abandon about the toll the drought already has taken on the vast and now stunningly dry Central Valley.

"In farm country, where hundreds of thousands of acres have already been shut down because of the drought, thousands have lost their jobs," the narrator said. "For those who can't afford to feed their families anymore, the local food banks are struggling to keep up with demand."

The ad noted that dealing with the drought is nothing new for farmers, beset for years by scarcity and skyrocketing water prices. (A separate coalition report, titled "Food Grows Where Water Flows," pointed out that almost 42% of irrigated farmland saw their water supply cut deeply this year.)

One line was both abundantly true and — given California's fractured politics — almost laughably optimistic: "We're all in this drought together."

Since Brown announced his water plan on April Fool's Day, some have argued that it didn't propose much hardship for agriculture — which uses most of the state's water — apart from requiring more data to be compiled. Questions have roared: Should farmers grow only water-stingy crops? Are almonds too wasteful to grow? Who gets to decide?

Brown indicated sympathy with the farmers' longstanding suffering at the hands of Mother Nature, and suffering there is.

The great Central Valley sells far more than $40 billion in crops yearly, making California the biggest ag state in the nation. It provides more than a third of the country's vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts. It is the only producer, to speak of, of 15 types of fruits and vegetables — the biggest in income being that pesky almond. Therein lies irony: one of the reasons the almond is so popular is that it is so profitable, providing more money to pay for increasing water bills.

If not awash in water, however, the Valley is awash in unemployment and poverty. On the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics' unemployment map, the counties in the biggest trouble are shaded a deep blue, the color of water. All of the state's big agricultural counties are deep blue.

Among urban counties, the jobless rate in February was 7.7% in Los Angeles; in San Francisco it was 3.8%, in Alameda 5%, in San Diego 5.3%.

Fresno, the state's biggest farm county, had a jobless rate of 11.6%, and every ag county was in double digits: Imperial 20%; Kern 11%; Tulare 13.4%; Merced 13.5%. In February, there were 30,000 fewer ag jobs than a year earlier.

Residents describe a rippling riot of failure: as farmlands go fallow due to lack of water, full-time jobs turn into part-time, part-time to nothing at all. Food banks get doubly hit, with more people needing them and fewer able to donate.

And the real "we're all in this together": Food prices go up for everyone everywhere. It's not hard to see Brown worried that increased financial calamity in the Valley would quickly spread were he to bring down the hammer.

Farmers have been the staple of politics since there was television; a tractor or harvester driving the rows is a common symbol of patriotism in every campaign cycle's ads.

But people can be fickle under stress: The same people who applauded firefighters as 9/11 heroes can later bridle at their expansive pension benefits. The ad aired by the farm water group, which represents water districts and farmers, was meant to prevent a similar change of heart.

Mike Wade, the group's executive director, emphasized that farmers have introduced efficiencies into the system — often expensive ones, like GPS-aided tractors that steer clear of subsurface irrigation lines, allowing water to be put directly to the plants rather than sprayed into the air, where some of it evaporates. They don't waste water they have to pay for, he said.

"People often forget that farmers aren't throwing water around — not to disparage swimming pools or lawns," he said. "Farmers are using the water they have to grow food."

Rather than divided in civil war, the city dwellers need to realize they need the farmers as the farmers need them, he said: "Neither can do without the other."

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker

For more on California politics, go to latimes.com/decker.

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