California farm town on edge over water delivery cutbacks

MENDOTA — In the San Joaquin Valley, the most productive farmland on earth, panic is more abundant than the crops that usually blanket the ground.

Drought and environmental concerns have led to severe cuts in irrigation water deliveries from Northern California over the past year, and unemployment in this town of 10,000 is approaching 40 percent.

Mendota may be proud to call itself the Cantaloupe Capital of the World, but with California in danger of a third year of drought and more water cuts planned, people wonder if they'll get enough rice and beans to scrape by. It took volunteers at the Westside Youth Center's monthly food giveaway less than three hours, not the normal two days, to distribute a record 750 boxes of a few days' worth of groceries.

Much of the debate over how much water to pump out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for thirsty farms to the south has focused on the fish endangered by deteriorating conditions in the estuary.

But thousands of people here and in other little San Joaquin Valley towns are worried about the human toll: They fear that without water, they won't be called back to work as the growing season heats up.

"They're worrying about the fish but not about the humans' life," said Jose Ruiz, 42, a foreman still clinging to the job he's had since 1979 with a vegetable firm in Mendota.

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