Some see economic upside in loss of farm water

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

CALEXICO, Calif. - Jose Valles may not know it just yet, but he's on the cusp of what could be a radically different Imperial Valley economy.

Valles, a field worker for 14 of his 32 years, is learning English and training to become a computer technician. It's the type of skilled job that local employment officials say must become more common if the economy is to prosper after the Imperial Irrigation District transfers 300,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water from crops to urban areas. To achieve the water transfer, it's likely that farmers will have to fallow some land, which will mean fewer jobs in the fields.

"The field work is hard, very hard work, and there is no future in the field. It's always minimum wage, especially here in the valley," says Valles, who lives in Brawley with his wife and four children. "I am trying to learn something about computers because in the field, 90 percent of the work is temporary. I need permanent employment to support my family."

That can be an elusive goal in Imperial County, where the unemployment rate is higher than any other California county. Many workers would like to stay here because they are close to family in Mexico, but their solution to unemployment is a timeworn one: They follow the crops.

"I've heard about the water transfers and I know there's going to be less work," says David Granillo, 35, who lives across the border in Mexicali and crosses every day - long before dawn - to look for work. On this day, he visited the One Stop Employment Center, a joint state and local agency, at 5 a.m., to use the center's computer system to look for work. Previously, the center helped him find work at a pork-processing plant in Iowa. "If there's no work in the fields, I'll just have to look for something else," he says. "There is work in other places."

Studies estimate that the water transfer and fallowing could directly eliminate 1,400 farm jobs in the valley, with additional indirect job losses likely.

But some see a silver lining.

Turning lemons into lemonade


Surprisingly, the AFL-CIO's San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council has concluded that the transfers will be good for the valley's workers. Nearly all the jobs available today are seasonal fieldwork, and losing some will be painful, the group admits. But money raised by the water transfers - $50 million a year, eventually - could diversify the economy and produce more skilled, permanent jobs.

"It might look pretty bad, but the effects are going to be better," says Jana Atkins, a spokeswoman for the Labor Council.

The council recently commissioned a study that concludes the water transfers may be the best economic opportunity the valley has ever seen.

The first round of new jobs is likely to come from water conservation projects on farms, such as installing and maintaining pumps and drip irrigation systems and lining canals with concrete. Later, economic development agencies hope that the region's cheap land, water and electricity will bring industrial and commercial development. One project now under consideration is a major cargo airport.

But the study cautions that in the early years of the program, payments by the San Diego County Water Authority for the transferred water will be woefully inadequate to support economic development and job training. The transfer agreement calls for a payment of only $5 million in the first year; the study recommends increasing this to $30 million.

And skeptics say there aren't any guarantees that adequate money will trickle down to out-of-work farm laborers.

"The majority of the money will go to farmers and the (Imperial Irrigation District), and the money that will go to the community is not (enough to) really create new jobs," says Gustavo Aguirre, the regional manager of the United Farm Workers union.

Johnny Rodriguez is more optimistic. He's a job development recruiter for the Center for Employment Training in El Centro, a federally funded program where 200 students, including JosŽ Valles, train as computer technicians, welders, accountants and building maintenance specialists. Rodriguez says that if the valley wants to prosper after the water transfers, more money must be spent to make farmworkers aware that job training is available.

"This water transfer, people have known about it for some time, but it hasn't gotten down to the workers," says Rodriguez, who is also president of the Farmworkers' Services Coalition. "For a lot of people, the next step is going somewhere else, not getting training. That's all they know."

 

Matt Weiser writes from Yucca Valley, Calif.