Central Valley farmland remains fallow due to irrigation cuts

Independent film maker Juan Carlos Oseguera, right, and San Joaquin Valley farmer George Delgado stand where Delgado grew melons and other row crops.

Film shows human cost of irrigation cuts to agriculture

Reports still claim 800,000 acres of California farmland lay fallow for lack of irrigation water. Food lines continue in Central California as jobless farm workers need to eat. Law enforcement officials say increased crime results from joblessness.    

Juan Carlos Oseguera readily admits that water weaves a complicated web in California.

Not only is water confusing in terms of politics, but even the practicality of moving it around the state seems mired in a world absent of common sense.

Oseguera is a film maker. His interest in water issues came in 2009 when farmworkers and farmers marched through a dust storm along the west side of the San Joaquin Valley (SJV).

The 50-mile march from Mendota to San Luis Reservoir was in response to the frustration and outrage over federal decisions to cut water supplies to farmers.

“I thought this was just a small issue,” Oseguera said. “I eventually realized this was bigger than I could have imagined.”

Oseguera is referring to California’s fight for farm water, hence the title of his independent movie: “The Fight for Water: A Farmworker Struggle.”

The 78-minute long movie features interviews with farmworkers and farmers. It documents the impact a key environmental decision had on farming communities.

That environmental decision, reportedly intended to protect an endangered species of fish, “had unintended consequences upon the community who needed it to farm, have jobs, and be able to provide for their families,” says Oseguera in a written synopsis of the film.

It also features footage from the 2009 Mendota-to-San Luis Reservoir march where actor and comedian Paul Rodriguez, himself the product of migrant farmworkers who worked in Central Valley fields, explains why this issue is a personal for him and thousands of Latinos who work the fields.

Some of the footage comes from the rally held at San Luis Reservoir west of Los Banos, where politicians drove and flew in and received an earful from angry, frustrated farmworkers who wanted nothing more than to return to work and earn a paycheck.

The movie also tells the stories of George Delgado and Joe Del Bosque, two Central California farmers who are the product of farmworker parents. It chronicles how they became land owners and started farming companies before regulatory decisions took water away and their ability to farm.

Critical acclaim

The independent film garnered “best documentary” awards from the Monarch Film Festival and the Viña De Oro International Film Festival. It also received high honors in five other film festivals.

The idea for the movie first started as a simple thought to document the struggle of Latino laborers and their families forced into food lines after government officials cut water off to area farms.

The irony in this, Oseguera says, is the same packaged food products given to families in farming communities, including Mendota and Firebaugh, could have been grown on the land they once worked. Instead, some of the food was actually imported into the U.S.

The movie quickly became a much larger project, according to Oseguera, and has since turned into a full-length feature that chronicles the plight of farmworker families and farmers in the wake of biological opinions which forced severe water cutbacks to SJV farms.

Those biological opinions, says SJV farmer Joe Del Bosque in the film, were a result of lawsuits filed by environmental groups against the federal government.

Fresno County farmer George Delgado is one of the growers interviewed for the movie. Delgado tells Western Farm Press the movie is not as much a political statement as the identification of a problem. Still, the problem illustrated by the movie (the lack of irrigation water for farmers) is the consequence of political decisions made by lawmakers and regulators since passage of a federal law called the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA) in 1992.

“I saw this coming 22 years ago,” Delgado said. “We all went to Sacramento at the time but were barking up the wrong tree because it was a federal issue and not a state issue.”

Prior to the CVPIA, farmers south of the SJV Delta enjoyed access to surface water via a host of canals and ditches due to the availability made possible by San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos and the California Aqueduct. The water irrigated tens of thousands of acres of rich farmland along the western side of the San Joaquin Valley.

The water helped farmers like Del Bosque and Delgado get their start in farming. Both are the product of migrant farmworker families. They point to their hard work and the generosity of others that helped them later produce a host of crops including cantaloupes, almonds, asparagus, cherries, tomatoes, wheat, and other crops.

The human element

Delgado is impressed with Oseguera’s ability to take what to some is a complicated issue and boil it down to its most basic human element.

The movie features farmworkers, interviewed in Spanish with English subtitles, talking about how the lack of water has affected them. Interview videos show farmworkers lined up for boxes of imported food and case workers interviewing them to determine if they are eligible for public assistance.

“It has affected us a lot,” says one farmworker in Spanish in the movie. “For example, there were always melons (and) tomatoes. Now there is nothing of that because there is no water.”

“We are without jobs because they didn’t give us water,” says another farmworker in the movie.

This human element was on display at several water rallies earlier this year in Tulare and Firebaugh. At each of the rallies, at least 1,000 farmworkers holding picket signs in Spanish and English called on lawmakers to help them return to work and to support themselves by simply providing irrigation water.

“To put people out of business who have been productive all their lives is sad,” Delgado said.

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For Oseguera, the impacts to the Latino community beyond the farmworker were surprising.

“I didn’t realize when I put out the word for farmers to interview that I would get as many Latino farmers as I did,” Oseguera said.

For Oseguera, the project was also a learning process and an eye-opener as he learned early in his project that the issue went beyond a physical drought.

“It’s all complicated for me,” Oseguera says. “I didn’t know anything about the water situation when I started in 2009. I thought there was no water because there was no rain.”

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