Tuesday, January 19, 2016
California farmers brace for water shortage despite El Niño
By Scott Smith
FRESNO — Farmers in California’s fertile San Joaquin Valley are bracing to receive no irrigation water from a federal system of reservoirs and canals for a third consecutive year and looking to El Nino to produce the very wet winter they need.
The year kicked off with heavy rains and an above-average snowpack in the Sierra Nevada. The El Nino — a global weather system associated with wet winters in California — may play out nationwide through late spring or beyond, officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say.
Another welcomed series of storms is expected to dump more rain and snow on California through Thursday, according to National Weather Service forecasters.
While many are celebrating a break to the long dry spell, however, the four driest years on record for California have left their mark, and experts say it will take time for the parched state to recover.
“We need a wet winter this winter and next and the following winter probably to get us anywhere close to equilibrium,” said Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation.
State water managers say California’s snowpack needs to be at 150 percent of normal on April 1 to signal an end to drought. Friday it was at 110 percent, according to the Department of Water Resources’ statewide electronic reading.
Lake Shasta, the state’s largest reservoir, remains at half of its historical average for this time of year. Other major reservoirs in Oroville and Folsom that collect and store rain and snowmelt had reached or came close to historical low levels before the winter storms hit.
The lack of surface water supplies for irrigation during the drought has forced many farmers to use groundwater to keep their crops alive, drawing down wells and leading many to run dry.
Westlands Water District, which relies on water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, has warned hundreds of farms it serves in the San Joaquin Valley that they may not be receiving any irrigation water yet again this year, said district spokeswoman Gayle Holman.
Westlands is the nation’s largest supplier of irrigation water, and for the last two years, the bureau’s initial allocation was for zero percent of the district’s contracted amount. It remained at zero throughout both years.
Holman said that this stormy winter has raised hope that in the spring they’ll receive some federal water, even if officials at first announce that there’s none available. Holman said that by that time it may be too late.
“The need for that water is now,” she said, adding that any federal water sent to them early in the year would be stored in reservoirs for use when the weather warms and the growing seasons begins. “That’s why the timing is so critical.”
Federal officials say it is too early now to know how much water will be available. California’s wet season is just underway. The bureau is monitoring the snowpack, rainfall, reservoir levels and other factors before saying how much water it will release to farmers and other users
That announcement typically comes in late February, said bureau spokesman Louis Moore.
The Water Resources Department, which also manages part of California’s vast water system, said in early December that it anticipated releasing 10 percent of expected supplies this year — half of the last year’s allocation.
The state’s figure could also change, depending on the amount of precipitation that falls in the next several months, officials said.
San Joaquin Valley farmer Shawn Coburn, who grows 1,500 acres of almonds, pistachios and tomatoes along the San Joaquin River near Firebaugh, said the rain has become an exciting event.
On a recent stormy night, Coburn was up at 3 a.m. watching satellite images of clouds moving over California. He exchanged text messages with another farmer on the other side of the valley, alerting each other when raindrops started falling.
But Coburn relies in part on federal water supplies, and he said officials have repeatedly warned farmers like him that they should expect no irrigation water. He may leave his tomato fields unplanted this year, saving his limited water to keep his trees alive.
“We may never recover,” said Coburn, who also blames environmental regulations designed to protect endangered fish for depriving farmers of water. “This may be the long death spiral.”
Lester Snow, executive director of the California Water Foundation, said the drought has exposed a weakness in the state’s water management system built 60 or more years ago.
The amount of land farmers now cultivate and the number of people living in the state have both dramatically increased since state and federal officials built California’s massive water system.
Yet Snow said the state hasn’t adequately invested in modernizing it, such as finding ways to capture storm water runoff, recycle water, store and recharge depleted groundwater.
“We’re not going back to the good old days,” said Snow, a former secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency. “We’ve reached a new normal in volatility, and we need to adapt to that.”
San Francisco Chronicle
Amid El Niño, a push to save California’s drought-drained aquifers
By Kurtis Alexander
SANGER, Fresno County — The clouds over the Sierra foothills were a welcome sight for Phil Desatoff.
As general manager of the Consolidated Irrigation District, which serves parts of Fresno, Tulare and Kings counties in the Central Valley, his job is to supply river water from the mountains to about 5,000 farmers, something he hasn’t done much of lately owing to the historic drought.
But as El Niño asserts itself, Desatoff has what at first glance seems like a head-scratching plan for the wet weather. Instead of steering Sierra flows through ditches and canals to crops like oranges, grapes and almonds, Desatoff plans to move water onto bare earth — in this case, a neatly graded 60-acre bowl of sand 15 miles east of Fresno.
Bucking the belief that dams are the only way to capture water, the irrigation district lets the precious liquid soak in at percolation sites so it stores in the ground. The agency introduced these “recharge ponds” to the region in the 1920s, and today is leading a popular charge.
Hoping for wet winter
This winter, dozens of water agencies across the state are counting on a drenching El Niño to produce surplus water to stash in the earth and make up for what’s been pumped out at unprecedented rates due to the recent absence of surface supplies.
“We’re going to put as much water into the underground as we can,” said Desatoff above the roar of a bulldozer spreading sand at his percolation basin, set amid miles of sprawling farmland. “We got some rain clouds out here that we haven’t seen in three years, so we went out and got our loader to clean up these ponds.”
Desatoff is hoping to see a replay of what happened during the winter before the drought took hold. In the 2010-11 rainy season, so much water poured from the Sierra and down the Kings River that nourishes his district, he was able to fill the agency’s 50 recharge ponds for five months —until spring when the farmers needed the water for their crops.
Water table rises
At some spots, a foot and a half of water seeped into the ground each day, Desatoff said. In the end, more than 200,000 acre-feet of water permeated the aquifer — much more than the farmers pump out annually — and the water table across the district rose 7 feet on average, Desatoff estimated.
At one percolation site, waves lapped so high onto an adjacent road that the California Highway Patrol called to tell him to stop filling the pond. Elsewhere, a woman complained that the water in the recharge basin was chasing snakes into her yard. At yet another site, a neighbor built a boat dock and moored a jet ski.
“I’d love to have those problems now,” Desatoff said, gazing at a still-dry bowl.
The likelihood that the drought won’t end this year —and that climate change might usher in a drier future —has put a lot of attention on water storage, particularly in farm country.
While at least four new dams and reservoirs have been proposed in California, the staggering $10 billion cumulative cost, and the relatively small 9 percent bump that would be expected in statewide storage, means agricultural communities must weigh other options.
By some estimates, storing water underground is six times cheaper than creating an equivalent amount of space behind a dam. And the increase in storage in California aquifers that have been swiftly drained with pumping could be at least five times what’s promised with the dam proposals.
“We’re seeing a surge in people interested in doing these projects,” said Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. “Folks want as much water in the ground as possible.”
State groundwater regulation, which requires water agencies for the first time to keep their aquifer levels in balance, is also driving interest in recharge programs. So is state bond money for water improvements: The latest $7.5 billion in funding, thanks to voter-approved Proposition 1, is yet to be doled out, but groundwater storage efforts are alongside dams in competing for cash.
“Recharge programs have generally been very successful,” said Abdul Khan, supervising engineer for the California Department of Water Resources, who monitors the health of the state’s aquifers. The problem, he said, is there just isn’t enough recharge to make up for groundwater depletion.
In some parts of the Central Valley, water tables have fallen 50 feet or more in the past five years, prompting wells to stop producing and even land to sink, dragging down roads and bridges. The collapsed aquifers in many cases can’t be resurrected to store water — or at least store as much as they did in the past.
“If we continue the way we are doing things right now without changing course, this depletion will be a catastrophe in the sense that we will have areas completely out of water and experience serious subsidence and serious water quality degradation,” Khan said.
Work to expand ponds
Although the aquifer beneath the Consolidated Irrigation District is in better shape than many, Desatoff is looking to expand his recharge efforts beyond the current 1,350 acres of percolation ponds.
The goal, though, is complicated by rising real estate values in the Fresno area, he said, which make it hard to buy land for new basins. There’s also the $50,000 price tag of building a recharge pool, a big expense for a relatively small district.
But Desatoff is luckier than most in having sandy soil in the area, which draws water swiftly into the aquifer. Other water agencies have had to resort to pricey injection wells to drive water beneath stubborn deposits of clay.
Desatoff is also asking farmers to use private land as temporary percolation sites when they’re not growing crops. It’s a commonsense idea, given that water naturally soaks through the fields into the aquifer — albeit not as well as at a designated recharge basin with its soft ground and sandy berms.
But it’s a prospect that concerns some growers who wonder if the practice is healthy for their harvest.
“A lot of them would like to do recharge, but their argument against it is a good one: Am I leaching nutrients out of my soil that I’m paying to put back in?” Desatoff explained.
At UC Davis, a handful of researchers have begun studying ways to push water into the aquifer by flooding farms without hurting crops.
A preliminary test last spring at an alfalfa ranch in Siskiyou County found that while recharge might cause more weeds to grow, it didn’t harm the alfalfa. This year, the group is expanding its study to three almond orchards, one near Desatoff’s operation.
“I don’t see how we recover from this drought relying on just natural recharge,” said Helen Dahlke, the UC Davis hydrologist leading the farmland tests. “We definitely have to add artificial recharge if we want to achieve a sustainable situation.”
All hinges on rainfall
Of course, the wild card in all of this is wet weather, because to replenish the aquifers water managers need a supply above what is normally used. To this end, some agencies have begun routing storm water from nearby towns for recharge, while others are drawing on treated wastewater. At least one recently sought state approval to tap a creek.
For Desatoff, successful recharge hinges on Sierra storms this winter, enough to fill Pine Flat Dam upstream on the Kings River for irrigation water come spring and then have surplus for the percolation ponds.
“If you’re a religious man, you might want to join me in church,” he said. “We need the rain. We need whatever help we can get.”
Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.com Twittter: @kurtisalexander
U-T San Diego
Study: Borrego water woes dire
Pumping is depleting underground source far faster then replenishment
BORREGO SPRINGS — A study recently completed by the U.S. Geological Survey confirms what people in the tiny desert town of Borrego Springs have suspected for some time: Their only source of water, deep below the earth, is being depleted at a rate roughly four times faster than it is being replenished.
The six-year study, done in conjunction with the Borrego Water District, puts hard numbers to a situation that can only be described as dire. Complicating matters further, the Borrego Water District recently was forced to enter into an agreement with the state saying it will find a way to stop over-drawing the aquifer within 20 years.
“We have no choice,” said Borrego Water District General Manger Jerry Rowling. “If we don’t, the state is going to come in and do it for us. That’s what scares everybody.”
The study involved hundreds of groundwater level tests throughout the basin and the examination of historical records dating back 60 years, to a time when virtually nobody lived in the desert. Borrego Springs — about 85 miles northeast of San Diego and completely surrounded by Anza-Borrego Desert State Park — is now home to about 3,500 residents, including snowbirds and retirees drawn to the mild winters, if not the scorching summers.
Golf courses play into the leisure lifestyle and tourist appeal that many believe is key to the town’s future, but keeping the fairways green is a formidable challenge in an area where there’s not enough water to go around.
On average, roughly 5,600 acre-feet of water sinks into the aquifer each year from rainfall and other sources, replenishing the relatively small series of underground basins that stretch from north of Borrego Springs southeasterly beneath the unpopulated state park and into eastern Imperial County.
That doesn’t come close to the roughly 20,000 acre-feet of water that has been pumped out of the ground each year for at least two decades. An acre-foot is defined as the volume of one acre of surface area to a depth of one foot. One acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons.
“Water levels are dropping about 2 feet per year over the past 20 years,” Geological Survey supervisory hydrologist and program chief Claudia Faunt said. “Groundwater is the only source of water in Borrego. The annual pumping far exceeds the natural resource on average.”
The result is that existing wells are drying up, and in some cases are being deepened to access the water. In certain parts of the basin, the water level has declined more than 100 feet, Faunt said.
The deeper the pumps go, the worse the water becomes, and the more electricity it takes to get it out of the ground, Faunt said. Older water contains sediments. It’s saltier and contains compounds such as arsenic.
The study also confirmed where most of the water is going: about 70 percent is being used for agriculture, 20 percent for recreational reasons (primarily golf courses) and 10 percent for residential use.
The obvious quick solution is to get rid of agriculture in the valley, but to do so could cause severe damage to the town’s economy. Borrego Springs has always hoped to become a tourism mecca much like Palm Springs but has never come close to such economic success.
The study includes various computer simulations that can be applied to multiple groundwater-management scenarios up to 50 years in the future.
“We’re over-drafting the basin by more than four times,” Rowling said. “The process to resolve this had to come with hard data. We now have a geological model of our basin that can be used for planning as we move forward.”
The study and models will also help Borrego Valley water managers meet requirements put in place by the new California Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014, the act directs water agencies and districts in the state that rely on groundwater as their only source to assess their basin’s hydrological conditions, and to plan, monitor and use groundwater sustainably. They have 20 years to make it happen.
Agriculture is by necessity going to be at the front and center of any future plans.
The study found there are about 2,000 acres of citrus trees in the northern Borrego Valley that consume about 8,600 acre-feet, or 43 percent, of all the groundwater pumped out of the aquifer system. Palm tree farms and ornamental shrubbery nurseries make up much of the rest of the agricultural product in the valley.
Jim Seley, whose family has been growing citrus in the valley since the 1950s, said the survey results are alarming. He said his 370-acre grapefruit, lemon and tangerine ranch has been trying to conserve water ever since the 1960s when they installed the first-ever drip irrigation system at a desert farm.
Over the years, all sorts of other measures have been taken to prevent over watering, he said, and the farm is now experimenting with planting fewer trees but ones that will hopefully yield more fruit.
“We constantly are changing to become more efficient,” he said.
Looking ahead 20 years, Seley said he imagines a 70 percent reduction of agriculture in the valley with many of the farmers giving up, partly because the cost of the electricity to pump water will become prohibitive.
“I think you’ll still have smaller farms, but not as many,” he said, noting that will impact the economy of the town. Agriculture in the valley employs hundreds of people at harvest time and probably about 100 year-round — people who often shop in the small community and who send their kids to the local schools.
“It impacts everything,” he said.
For the past four years, a group called the Borrego Water Coalition, which brings together water users from all over the valley, has been meeting monthly to discuss and plan for the future.
“We’re all in this together,” Seley said, and the water district’s Rowling agrees.
“We need to create a sustainability plan,” Rowling said. “We need to figure out what has to happen. We’re just at the very beginning of that. We want to make sure everybody in the community has a say in this, because we’re the ones who have to deal with this. This is our valley. This is our groundwater basin.”
Farmers oppose SMUD proposal to add new power lines in Colusa and Sutter counties
By Edward Ortiz
Rice farmer Mike Cole has learned to live with the utility transmission towers and crackling lines on the 313-acre farm he co-owns in Sutter County.
But he’s opposed to any new towers and the possibility that his land can be taken by eminent domain, as may happen under a plan proposed by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and the Department of Energy’s Western Area Power Administration.
That plan, called the CoSu Line, seeks to build a new transmission line through Colusa and Sutter counties so that SMUD can tap into 700 megawatts of cleaner energy from the Pacific Northwest in an effort to reduce the 41 percent of power it generates from local gas-fired power plants.
The most contentious of the route proposals is a 44-mile line that would start from a substation in Maxwell and travel east through part of the 4,507-acre Colusa National Wildlife Refuge before heading along the eastern edge of the Sutter National Wildlife Refuge and ending at a new substation.
New power lines and towers would be built next to existing ones – which means Cole would have to deal with more transmission towers and lines on his land. “I do not want the wires,” Cole said. “I don’t like them from a farming standpoint and I don’t like them from a wildlife standpoint.”
He said power lines present a burden because they increase crop dusting and land management costs. Wherever a tower exists on his land, he estimates it costs him $200 an acre extra to farm yearly. More importantly, he said, it makes crop dusting his fields more dangerous.
“There is an expense with these wires,” Cole said. “We try to grow our crop underneath, but where the tower standards are, you lose that land.”
The existing towers range from 120 to 144 feet high and force crop dusting planes to fly high to avoid them. Dusters must make special passes to adequately seed the land near the wires, Cole said.
In some cases, planes cannot properly apply seed or pesticides without the potential of drift to nearby farms or the Sutter National Wildlife Refuge adjacent to his property, said Cole.
“There are wildlife issues that come with this because we have a duck club business that overlays rice farming,” he said. “The more ground you take out for the wires, the less you have for the flyway and the hunting business.”
It is unclear how the 44-mile proposal would affect a section of the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge that would house new power lines next to existing ones or the Sutter National Wildlife Refuge.
The U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife did not comment on the plan or possible impacts on either refuge.
To date, SMUD and Western Area Power Administration have held four public meetings in Colusa and Sutter counties to reach out to residents as well as the Forest Service and other groups that may be affected. So far, 150 residents have participated, said Lowell Rogers, SMUD project manager.
Rogers said the utility wants to build the power line to help the Sacramento region meet required reductions of greenhouse gas emissions and improve power grid reliability. Those reductions stem from a state-mandated Renewable Portfolio Standard that stipulates half of SMUD’s energy portfolio eventually come from renewable sources. That requirement must be met by 2030, Rogers said.
Past proposals for power lines through Central Valley farmland communities have not been popular. In 2010, the California Public Utilities Commission approved one of six proposed routes for a new 220-kilovolt transmission line called the San Joaquin Cross Valley Loop Transmission Project, proposed by Southern California Edison in 2008.
In that project, the utility said it needed to expand infrastructure to meet growing electricity demands in Tulare County while replacing aging power lines. In some cases, land for the 20-mile line was taken by eminent domain. “There were winners and there were losers in that project,” said Tricia Stever Blattler, executive director of the Tulare County Farm Bureau.
Some Tulare County landowners were not significantly impacted by the project and others were properly compensated, Blattler said.
Some saw negative impacts when new power lines forced the rerouting of wells or closure of others – which turned into a very costly proposition, said Blattler.
In the Tulare project, farmers organized a local community group called PACE to serve as an intermediary between landowners and the utility. “This is not something that can be taken lightly. Farmers need to educate themselves about what rights they have under the law and to make sure they’re being fairly compensated.”
No such group has yet to be organized in Sutter or Colusa counties despite the fact that some land is expected to be taken by eminent domain.
“Western Area Power Administration, as a federal agency, does have eminent domain authority, but we exercise this right rarely and it is viewed as a last resort,” said Andrew Montaño, resource specialist with WAPA
“If the project proceeds and Western conducts the easement negotiations, we will negotiate collaboratively with landowners to reach mutually acceptable settlements,” Montaño said.
Some farmers bristle at the prospect of any land being taking by eminent domain, at any price.
“I don’t want money for the use of my land, and I don’t want to lease it,” said Yuba County rice farmer Mike Shannon.
Hammond owns the 735-acre Shannon Farms and has a power line that crosses his farmland diagonally – which he sees as a large burden, and limiting to his land investment.
“No one knows what a farmer is going to do with the land 30 years from now,” said Shannon. “How is this going to affect what my son wants to do with the property 30 years from now?”
He contends a new set of power lines will render a nearby crop duster air strip useless. Like Cole, Shannon sells duck blinds on his property and expects that new wires will affect how many he can sell to duck hunting clubs.
Some in Sutter County see a clear benefit of the power line project to SMUD customers but feel the county will reap no such benefit.
“Farmers appreciate the need for improving our supply for energy but we also worry that some of these transmission projects, both future and past, treat farmland as a thruway,” said Claudia Street, executive director of the Yuba-Sutter Farm Bureau.
“In this case it really feels like a thruway since none of that power will be available for Colusa or Sutter counties,” she said.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the agency represented by the acronym WAPA. The correct name is Western Area Power Administration.
Edward Ortiz: 916-321-1071, @edwardortiz
Chilling out is a good thing for SJ County crops
By Reed Fujii
San Joaquin County farmers not only welcome this winter’s El Niño and its attendant rains, but also its chilly nights and cold, foggy days.
Not that growers enjoy shivering — although some might. Rather, low temperatures benefit the nut and fruit trees that produce some of the area’s most valuable crops.
Temperate-climate plants, including county cash-crop almonds, apples, cherries and grapes, have adapted to go dormant in the winter for protection against freezing, said Joe Grant, a tree crop adviser with University of California Cooperative Extension in Stockton.
Not only does dormancy reduce frost damage, but it allows plants to store energy and prepare themselves for active spring and summer growth period.
As a result, they need the rest provided by the low temperatures — with some crops needing longer dormancy than others — for strong, vigorous growth and good fruit and nut production, Grant said.
“They have a certain amount of chilling to satisfy the rest requirement,” he said.
“If you wake up a tree before it’s received the chill it needs, then it does all kind of crazy things.”
Such behavior may include erratic and long bloom periods and a resulting low crop yields.
But that likely won’t be the case this year.
A look at records from a state weather station in Manteca show about 750 hours of temperatures below 45 degrees so far this winter, compared to less than 450 hours at the same time a year ago.
“This year, we’ve had a lot of good, cold temperatures and we’ve had a lot of good, foggy days,” Grant said. “This isn’t the best chilling year we’ve had, but it’s in the top two or three in the last 10 years.”
Jon Brandstad, a Stockton-area farmer who produces walnuts and cherries, said he welcomed the return to more normal chill hours.
“I’m happy. I’ve been happy with the all the cold weather we’ve had,” he said.
Brandstad especially would like to see periods of fog, such as the dense “tule fog” that can slow traffic to a crawl and trap the Central Valley in a damp chill for weeks at a time.
“We need some rain, but we need some fog,” he said. “Fog is our best friend.”
Cherries are among the crops that need the most chilling hours for good production and most are produced in the Northern Tier states, such as Washington, Oregon, Michigan and New York, Brandstad noted.
“The Valley is the only place here in the nation that I know of that can grow cherries and (where) it doesn’t snow,” he said.
Phil Brumley, who grows almonds and walnuts in the Escalon area, also welcomed the cold.
“The chilling hours are great because it helps put these trees asleep and provides a good dormant period those these trees,” he said. “It also helps controls pest populations and that’s a real advantage.”
Dormancy is important for almonds because it helps set trees to bloom at the same time. Almond growers generally plant a mix of varieties in each orchard, because cross pollination between the different strains produces bigger crops. But the varieties also tend to have earlier or later bloom and maturation times.
Brumley also had one more request of Mother Nature.
“We still need more rain,” he said. “We need more and we need more snow.
“Average (rainfall) years are not going to help make up for the past four years. We need above average years to make any headway at all in replenishing our underground aquifer and our reservoirs.”
— Contact reporter Reed Fujii at (209) 546-8253 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ReedBiznews.
New York Times
Protect Female Farmworkers
By José R. Padilla and David Bacon
Oakland, Calif. — ACROSS the country, some 400,000 women, mostly immigrants, work in agriculture, toiling in fields, nurseries and packing plants. Such work is backbreaking and low-paying. But for many of these women, it is also a nightmare of sexual violence.
In a 2010 study from the University of California, Santa Cruz, more than 60 percent of the 150 female farmworkers interviewed said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment. In a 2012 report, Human Rights Watch surveyed 52 female farmworkers; nearly all of them had experienced sexual violence, or knew others who had. One woman told investigators that her workplace was called the “field de calzón,” or “field of panties.” As an Iowa immigrant farmworker told her lawyer, “We thought it was normal in the United States that in order to keep your job, you had to have sex.”
The reasons behind this epidemic aren’t hard to fathom. Fields are vast and sparsely monitored; workers are often alone. It’s particularly bad for immigrant workers: The Department of Labor estimates that about half of farmworkers don’t have legal immigration papers, which makes them especially vulnerable.
So do low wages and competition for jobs: Male farmworkers make an estimated $16,250 a year and female ones $11,250 a year. With depressed wages and so many workers competing for the same job, women are hesitant to complain.
The problem is hardly a secret. Two decades ago the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, along with California Rural Legal Assistance, a legal service program that promotes the interests of migrant laborers and the rural poor, created a joint project to concentrate on sexual harassment in the fields.
In 2005, the commission won a $994,000 victory for Olivia Tamayo, a worker at one of California’s largest cattle-feeding operations, who was repeatedly raped by her supervisor. “He took advantage because he knew I wasn’t going to say anything,” she told Ms. Magazine. “It was a trauma that followed me everywhere.”
In September, in one of the largest settlements of its kind, the commission won over $17 million for five farmworkers in Florida who had accused their supervisors of rape and harassment. Some 18 similar cases nationally after 2009 have given women farmworkers $4 million.
Yet these cases involve only a tiny percentage of women who work in agriculture. Research shows that harassment and abuse are much more widespread — and case-by-case litigation isn’t enough to change that.
When women do file complaints, investigations can takes months, even years, which can discourage other women from speaking up. And even when a case is won, criminal prosecution of the harasser or rapist rarely follows.
There are several steps we can take to slow this scourge. Education and outreach are critical — not just for women working in the industry, but also for consumers who can put pressure on the industry to crack down. At the same time, employers themselves often don’t know what’s going on in their own fields.
Still, many employers do know — and use threats and intimidation to keep their workers quiet. We need stronger laws against retaliation, and protections for undocumented workers who come forward.
The administrative barriers to complaints must also be addressed. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has few offices in rural areas; they’re usually open only when women are working; and the staff often don’t speak Spanish, much less indigenous languages. What’s more, many government agencies require complaints to be filed online. Many farmworkers do not have access to computers. The commission could make filing complaints easier by setting up a 24/7 hotline in multiple languages, with an actual person answering the phone, instead of automated messages.
Criminal prosecution of sexual assault cases needs to increase as well. District attorneys and state prosecutors must step in, making indictments and fining bosses who tolerate harassment. Women will feel safer filing complaints if they know their attackers can’t just walk away. There has been some success along these lines, including a recent conviction in San Benito.
But perhaps the biggest impediment to fighting harassment in the fields is America’s immigration policy itself. Federal regulations forbid legal aid organizations like California Rural Legal Assistance from directly representing undocumented people, and the illegal nature of their work situations makes it difficult for them to come forward. Finding a path toward documentation and legal employment for these women would also empower them to report those who rape and harass them.
Last year, California Rural Legal Assistance settled a $1.3 million case for a farmworker who was assaulted in a raspberry field, and then sent back to work in her bloody and ripped clothes. “It’s the saddest thing that has happened to me in my life — for me it’s like a wound that’s there,” our client said during the sentencing phase of the case. “I just don’t know how I’ll be able to get out of this trauma.”
José R. Padilla is the executive director of California Rural Legal Assistance. David Bacon is the author of “The Right to Stay Home.”