Outlook meeting reviews prospects for water, labor

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Editor's note: The following article was written by Dennis Pollock, a reporter based out of Fresno, Calif. This article was featured in the latest issue of the California Farm Bureau Federation's Ag Alert newspaper.

The farming "gotta-haves"—water and labor—took center stage at the 32nd Annual Agribusiness Management Conference in Fresno, Calif., with reports of timely developments in each area.

Two days after some speakers at the conference visited mostly conservative politicians in Washington, D.C., to press for immigration reform, they were able to report some progress in the wooing of Republicans in Congress to back changes; see story.

And those who spoke on the water front painted a mostly dark picture of the dangers of overdrafting groundwater in the face of low precipitation and cutbacks in federal surface water deliveries.

The view from water panelists was influenced in large measure by low snow and rain levels in recent months, coupled with constraints on federal water deliveries because of Endangered Species Act restrictions intended to protect fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Tom Birmingham, general manager of the Westlands Water District, said the "What's on Tap" title for the panel discussion was apt. His response: It's likely that, for the federal Central Valley Project, "when you open the tap next year, nothing is going to come out unless we see a dramatic change in the hydrology that we have been experiencing over the course of the last eight months."

Even if there is average precipitation, he said, water allocations for CVP agricultural customers south of the delta are likely to first be set at zero, and then possibly upgraded to 5 percent or 10 percent.

"We're facing a repeat of what we saw in 2009, when nearly half of the bare ground (in Westlands) was fallowed, there was incredible unemployment and people stood in line to receive food that included carrots grown in China," Birmingham said. "That's a tragedy, unconscionable."

Both Birmingham and Brent Walthall, with the Kern County Water Agency, said availability of groundwater has been a key to growers in weathering challenges in recent years. But each said that has had its costs.

In Westlands, Birmingham said, groundwater use has led to further land subsidence. The Kern County agency has 14 groundwater banking programs that enable farmers to survive two or three years of drought, but Walthall said he would like to see changes in deliveries of water that could better assure a more stable water supply, given that five of the top crops in the county are permanent plantings.

Ron Jacobsma, general manger of the Friant Water Authority, noted what he called "a disturbing trend: Groundwater is not recharging as it used to; the bank is finite."

Birmingham said he expects some type of groundwater regulation to emerge. If regulation is to come, he said he would prefer that it be done on the regional level. Birmingham said growers are split between those who oppose any regulations and those who say it would be better to be proactive and prevent imposition of regulations from agencies that could include the state.

Birmingham said water transfers have helped keep farming alive in Westlands and elsewhere, and said transfers of water from the valley's east side would require infrastructure changes.

A panel on immigration followed the one on water.

"We're here to talk about the other 'gotta-have': labor," said Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair of the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform and vice president for government relations and research with the American Nursery and Landscape Association.

He and others said a broken immigration system has led to labor shortages that have resulted in uncertainty, a lack of food security and economic setbacks that include the loss this year of pears in Northern California and apples in Michigan.

Regelbrugge acknowledged it will be a challenge to get the 218 votes needed to pass immigration reform legislation in the House. And the challenge compounds itself with an election year coming in 2014, followed by the prospect of moving lame-duck legislators afterward, if needed.

Advocate Monte Lake with the firm CJ Lake said the issue of immigration reform "is more important to the Central Valley than to anywhere." The region has a significant share of the 2 million farmworkers in the nation, most of them immigrants.

Lake said stepped-up action by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the form of raids on packinghouses and other agricultural operations has had a chilling effect.

Among those who traveled to Washington earlier in the week as part of a Bibles, Badges and Businesses lobbying effort was Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims.

"As a public safety official, I find it heartbreaking (that) a sector of our community is afraid of us," Mims said, referring to "an inherent fear" among undocumented workers who fail to report crimes against them.

Jock O'Connell, with Beacon Economics, closed the conference with a talk on challenges the San Joaquin Valley will face from a burgeoning population, climate change and political gridlock.

He said foreign trade and investment will play a bigger role in California's economy.


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