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sonia verma

The sun sets at the southern end of the parched San Joaquin Valley: America's salad bowl no longer.David McNew

For a perfect view of California's economic ruin, Todd Allen's front porch is a pretty good place to stand.

At first, you would never guess it. Mr. Allen, 46, is a blond, bright-eyed farmer, just like his father and grandfather before him.

When a stranger drives to his homestead, nestled neatly in Fresno County, Mr. Allen doesn't dictate directions by distance. He punctuates them with references to things like American flags, the sweet smell of oleander and the point at which a gravel road disintegrates into dirt.

Ask Mr. Allen what he noticed when he drove along the back roads this sunny Friday morning, and his answer comes in a collage of images attesting to America's new hard times.

The lineup at the makeshift food bank by the old rodeo grounds is almost a kilometre long.

Tent cities for the homeless have sprung up on H Street in Fresno.

The last bank, Westamerica, in the nearby town of Mendota has a new sign in the window saying it will close for good.

In California, authorities have begun to issue IOUs instead of cash.

Unemployment stands at 11.6 per cent and 180 cities are set to sue the state over a budget that proposes to close a $26.3-billion shortfall by taking $4.7-billion from their coffers.

In all of this, Fresno County, where Mr. Allen was born and raised, has the unenviable distinction of being the hardest-hit county in the state.

Its jobless rate reaches 40 per cent in some towns. America's housing crisis was its most pronounced here, with prices almost triple a home's value. Nearly half of all sales these days involve foreclosure.

On paper, the numbers are staggering. For the rest of California, Fresno County stands as a cautionary tale of consequences to come.


However, as the state struggles to pull itself out of an epic economic mess, proposing a budget settlement this week that taps into local government funds and cuts health care, welfare and education, Fresno is emerging as a new battleground for the compromises created in the crucible of dire straits.

Which brings us back to Mr. Allen's front porch. Because, for all the signposts of despair that he passed on his morning drive, what kills him, what absolutely kills him, is the moment that he pulls his beige Ford pickup truck into his own fields: 240 hectares of the most productive farmland on Earth, bought by his father to bequeath to his sons.

The fields of wheat, cotton and cantaloupe that sustained his family for three generations are gone. The land is a mess of fallow fields, cracked earth and swirling dust.

However, his particular scene of devastation, Mr. Allen argues, has nothing to do with the credit crisis, the housing crash or the downturn that has California in a vice grip.

It has to do with a seven-centimetre-long, semi-translucent, steel blue fish known as the Delta smelt.

This is not a story about fish. Rather, it is a story about how efforts to save the fish through a court-ordered water shortage have pushed a region already brought to the brink by recession over the edge.

It is also a story about how farmers are fighting back, using almost unimaginable stories of economic hardship to argue for a reversal of environmental rules that could see their farms thrive once again, but also endanger wildlife that may never come back.

As Washington promises stimulus money and their local governments beg for emergency aid to pay for more food banks and shelters, these farmers say an easier answer literally lies beneath their feet.

Their farms, with water, could provide California some of the spark it so badly needs to fuel a more widespread economic recovery.

Central Valley, a semi-arid, 650-kilometre stretch of land is the heart of California's $37-billion agricultural industry. Half of the country's vegetables are grown here. It also ranks as the world's largest agricultural area.

Farmers here have always relied on imported water to make their fields bloom. At the turn of the century, they hauled it by horse and buggy. In the 1950s, Mr. Allen's grandfather, who had immigrated to America from Sweden at the height of the Depression, helped to build a complex network of canals to carry runoff from the Sierra Mountains snowpack south to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

As California's population swelled - to more than 38 million today from 23.6 million in 1980 - the water system became strained. Climate change also took its toll, shrinking the Sierras' snow, and for the past three years, rainfall has been below average.

Environmental groups have long argued that the massive water diversions come with a cost. The tiny Delta smelt was chewed up so badly in the powerful pumps that it was designated an endangered species. Salmon, green sturgeon and a handful of other species showed dramatic declines.

Last December, fresh restrictions meant to protect the fish were imposed, effectively shutting down the spigots and starving the Central Valley farmers of water.

Those in Fresno County saw their monthly allotments evaporate, virtually overnight. Here's how Mr. Allen recalls it: "When it came time to get my initial water allocation in January, we were told it would be zero. In February, my heart was pounding. Zero again. March, same thing. April, zero." By that point, most of his crop of winter wheat had already withered and died.


"The farmers may be facing hardship, but so are the fishermen and the fish," says Carolee Krieger, president of the California Water Impact Network, a lobby group based in Santa Barbara on the Pacific coast that fought for the restrictions.

If water pumping resumes in the Delta, more wildlife will be endangered, she argues. "The smelt is a bellwether and it's a very important marker for the health of the whole estuary."

As for impact on humans, "it's really sad that there is unemployment, but we're all in an economic downturn," she says, noting that stocks are so low, salmon fishing hasn't been allowed in California for nearly three years.

While it's true that the downturn is causing widespread pain, the water restrictions came on the heels of a brutal three-year drought, hitting the farmers especially hard and sending parts of Fresno County - a poor place even in the best of times - hurtling toward collapse.

"There's a big dichotomy between the Fresno experience of California and the Baywatch experience of California," says economist Richard Howitt of the University of California at Davis. "This state is really one big country with a wide range of situations and these guys are really, really hurting."

California faces a long list of economic woes, but he contends that water scarcity is an "unprecedented crisis" - the single biggest problem facing California's massive agricultural industry.

Today, Interstate 5, the highway that slices through the San Joaquin Valley, is flanked by parched fields. Signs, in English and Spanish, proclaim: "Congress-created dustbowl" and "No water, No future" and "Like foreign oil? You'll love foreign food."

The bitter irony that farm families in the region known as America's salad bowl are flocking to food giveaways at churches and community centres is lost on no one.

Without water, farmers have left an estimated 200,000 hectares of once-productive farmland fallow. Thousands of farm workers, mainly Spanish-speaking migrants, have been laid off.

Mr. Howitt estimates lost farm revenue in the San Joaquin Valley could top $2-billion this year and will suck as many as 80,000 jobs out of its already-battered economy.

"This is one of the classic, really difficult trade-offs we are faced with in hard times: environmental values versus human suffering," he says.

"The rest of California should care about this because what's happening in Fresno is a forerunner of the essential environmental and economic debate that we're going to have because our environmental rules were set up before people were confronted with the real effects of an economic downturn."

The bottom line, Mr. Howitt says, is that "we are going to have to make fundamental choices. ... It's fish versus jobs and communities."


Back at the farm, Mr. Allen sits in his office - there is no work to be done in the fields.

On his desk is a picture of his two young daughters. In the drawer are the blood-pressure pills he began to take in April, when he wrote off most of his crops.

A doctored picture on the wall shows a smiling President Barack Obama. He is standing next to a sun-scorched farmer, who is giving him the finger.

With virtually no water this year, Mr. Allen has managed to irrigate and harvest just 16 hectares of winter white wheat, now a key crop here because it can thrive with minimal water.

Since bringing in the wheat last month, Mr. Allen spends most days at his desk, fending off phone calls from telemarketers and the bank.

His farm, a million-dollar operation in good times, is 70-per-cent financed. He also owes money on three tractors, a $140,000 drip system, which is useless to him now, and his house.

"I've never been in a predicament like this … so, if I can survive this year, I can survive anything," he says, blinking back tears.

When he began to farm full-time 20 years ago, he had a consistent water supply. He also had 10 employees and started with 600 hectares of cantaloupe, cotton and wheat.

This year, he has laid everyone off and is doing what little labour is left himself.

"You know, I am really scared for my family. I have two daughters and I thought I had a future going out here, and now I can't even sell this land because, without water, it is worthless," he says.

"It seems like in this economy the government would look for quick fixes instead of throwing money at everything. All they have to do is turn the pumps on. The water is there."

Last month, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger asked Mr. Obama to declare Fresno County a disaster area to boost federal aid.

But when California lawmakers agreed on their budget this week, Fresno's fate seemed sealed.

With the state siphoning off its revenue, the county is laying off 700 workers and seeing its $20-million debt grow to $30-million. Programs ranging from in-home support for the elderly to food stamps will be slashed.

"Without water, we have no way of fighting back," says Phil Larsen, who sits on Fresno County's board of supervisors.

"In the Central Valley regional area, we've got 40,000 unemployed people. General Motors had 30,000 and got a government bailout. We're getting nothing."

But most farmers here say they don't want a handout. At a town hall meeting in Fresno a few weeks ago, tempers flared as farmers flustered Interior Department officials by shouting: "We don't want welfare, we want water."


The City of Fresno has a half-million people, but the suffering in the small towns surrounding it seems somehow amplified. Most of these places simply wouldn't exist without the agricultural industry, and these days it looks like they may literally fall off the map.

Mendota, population 10,000, was once famous as the "cantaloupe capital of the world." Today, it is the jobless capital of America, with an unemployment rate of 41 per cent.

Mayor Robert Silva came to Mendota from Mexico more than 30 years ago as a farm worker, like most people who live in his town. "What's happening here is a disaster," he says. "When Hurricane Katrina happened, the government gave away housing, food, medicine, but this is just as bad."

Today, Mendota is a place where mothers wash disposable diapers so they can use them again, and rhyme off 10 ways to cook rice and beans from the food bank so that their kids don't complain about being fed the same meal every night.

It's a place where workers with no work cluster on corners, or pile high in pickups, combing back roads for ways to make a few dollars.

Linda Boustos is 37 years old and has just had a baby. Her husband used to work in the fields. Now, he scrounges around for a chance to make a few dollars by driving a truck.

"We can barely pay our bills," she says, in Spanish. "I feel desperate. My kids are always asking for money for food."

If things don't turn around, she will pack up her family and leave, but she has no idea where to go.

Towns like Mendota are already emptying out. What began a trickle now feels more like a torrent, and as people leave, Fresno County's tax revenue evaporates.

Some towns have begun to explore the possibility of simply shutting down, transferring their authority to the county because they can no longer afford to provide basic services.

In the meantime, they are doing all sorts of things to balance their books - from not filling potholes to firing the sheriff and replacing him with volunteer police.

In Firebaugh, the closest town to Mr. Allen's farm, the sales tax usually funnelled to the town from its two biggest businesses - the Ford and Chevrolet dealerships - has fallen off a cliff. The Chevy dealer has been ordered to close by November, and the town's reserves are tapped out, municipal manager Jose Antonio Ramirez says.

"This is all 95-per-cent due to the water crisis," he says. "The farmers who normally buy the trucks are broke."

A coalition of farmers has filed a lawsuit claiming that state officials overstepped their authority by ordering the water cuts.

There is also talk of short-term solutions, such as diverting water from other areas to the San Joaquin Valley or rebuilding the pumps so they don't kill the fish.

Environmental groups still maintain that's not enough, and that any form of diversion is ultimately damaging and unsustainable.

Some economists say Fresno County may not survive this economic reckoning in its current form and may fall off the fiscal rails. And farmers wonder, if politicians can suddenly decide that social services are too expensive, why can't they relax environmental rules that no longer seem to make sense.

"This is a place that started out poor and has had this huge loss of wealth because they were ground zero for the housing crisis and now ground zero for the water crisis," says Steven Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, a private research organization in Palo Alto.

Without water, he concedes, "it's hard to see where a recovery will come from."


The farmers, meanwhile, say they may not be able to hang in long enough to find out.

Todd Allen is waiting to hear from the bank whether he will get financing for next year. The bank, he says, is waiting to hear what his water supply will be. If the money does not come through, he will be forced into bankruptcy. And like the labourers he once employed, and who now wander the roads looking for work, he has no idea what he will do.

"You just look around and you think, 'Why is this happening in America?' "

Sonia Verma is a reporter with The Globe and Mail.