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Dwindling Water & Employment Rates

Cameron Douglas Craig
March 13, 2014

Drought east of the Rockies is much different from drought west of the Rockies. While the lack of precipitation in the Midwest affects crops and water supply in rural regions, drought affects farmers and agriculture in a serious way. This situation has lead to an increase in unemployment among farmers in the Central Valley.

Drought conditions here in the Midwest and in California are devastating. They influence crop yields and shrink the water supply. However, there is one difference between the two regions, the need to protect the aquatic species of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The legal directive, known as a regulatory drought, has halted the allocation of much needed water for farmers in the Central Valley as recent as Wednesday, March 13, 2014, three days after Nate and I visited the region.

The water supply for the number one agricultural region of the United States begins at Lake Shasta, in northern California. Water released from the dam, flows down the Sacramento River to the delta just east of San Francisco Bay. From there, the water, that is allocated to the Central Valley, is pumped from the delta and sent to the San Luis Reservoir for storage, which feeds the San Luis Canal. Along the southward flowing canal, water districts in the Central Valley, such as Westlands in Fresno County, California, pump water from the canal to distribute the essence of life to farmers in order to sustain crop production not only for the region but also for other regions around the United States.

In 2006, water allocation for the Central Valley farmers was 100 percent. The allocation dropped to 50 percent in 2007. The biological opinion concerning Delta Smelt urged courts to drop the allocation to 40 percent in 2008. Opinions regarding salmon population further restricted water being pumped to the Central Valley in 2009 further forcing water allocation for the Central Valley to 10 percent. Significant rainfall in 2009 and 2010 benefitted farmers with an increase in allocation to 45 percent. Allocation of water for farmers has dropped to 0 percent since 2013. Essentially, no additional water is being provided from Lake Shasta for agricultural purposes. What water is available in the San Luis Reservoir for agriculture in the Central Valley is slowly dwindling.

The problem is similar to a positive feedback system or chaos out of control. With a lack of water comes a reduced crop yield. When yields are low, farmers cannot pay the bills or support other farm hands. Eventually, the farmers have to sell their land and find other ways of employment. When water allocation was 100 percent in 2006, the unemployment rate in Mendota was between 19 and 27 percent. As the allotment of water dwindled since then, the percentage has risen significantly to 45 percent in 2010 (unemployment data are not available for 2011 to present; watch for updates in the coming weeks).

Cameron Craig and Nate Page stand at the San Luis Canal. They traveled to Central Valley, California to research the impact drought has on agriculture and the residents of Fresno.There is a clear correlation between water allocation and unemployment in the Westlands Water District. As water restrictions are imposed, unemployment rates increase simply because without water, farming dwindles. The question of morality is the center of the issue. Who or what is important. Do we give in to the biological opinion in order to protect a dwindling species or protect the production of food that feeds so many? While there are many questions to be answered, one question that I have concerns whether the dwindling population of smelt and salmon is entirely the result of a lack of water. It seems to me that no one can pinpoint the lack of water to an unhealthy population. Other variables to consider such as surface pollution, recreation, and/or climate change can possibly reduce smelt and salmon populations. Simply reducing the allocation of water for the food production will not solve the problem. In fact, it will continue to exacerbate the problem for the economy.

It is true that protecting delta smelt and salmon provides food for part of the population; the majority of the population here in the United States requires land-based foods such as tomatoes, almonds, wheat, pistachios, and grapes for wine. At what point do we decide that protecting a species is not worth the higher costs of the products we buy to feed the mouths of our children?

I am all for protecting the environment for future generations. However, feeding a population and supporting farmers' livelihood is slightly above the protection of a dwindling species when the true cause is unknown due to so many variables. While drought can be severe here in the Midwest, it is quite evident that a regulatory drought can cause economic harm for farmers, their families, and the smaller businesses that serve them.


The data for this essay came from Westlands Water District, 3130 N. Fresno Street, P.O. Box 6056, Fresno, California 93703. We interviewed Gayle Holman, Westlands Water District Public Spokewoman, about this issue. We will return to the Westlands district in May to follow-up on the legal developments as well as interview farmers of the region about the issue.

EIU/TCPFilms Production Team:

Cameron Douglas Craig, Co-Director/Co-Producer/Executive Producer/Lead Project Researcher
Nathan Page, Co-Director/Co-Producer/Student Project Leader
Darius Holland, Co-Producer/CATS Graduate
Aric Ascot Pelafas, Videographer/Project Coordinator
Jay Bushen, Geographer/Environmental & Sustainability Co-Investigator
William Roth, Economic Co-Investigator

Eastern Illinois University and the Center for Academic Technology Support with the Department of Geology/Geography present a Tempestas et Caelum production, "Expedition Endurance," a film by Nathan N. Page and Cameron Douglas Craig with Darius Holland, Aric Ascot Pelafas, and Jay Bushen.

Further Information

Cameron Craig,