Central California's suffering gets muted response in Washington

Walt Shubin, a raisin farmer from Kerman, walks along a "bone dry" area of the San Joaquin River in 2006.
Walt Shubin, a raisin farmer from Kerman, walks along a "bone dry" area of the San Joaquin River in 2006. Karen T. Borchers/San Jose Mercury News/MCT

WASHINGTON — The San Joaquin Valley is seriously hurting but that sometimes doesn't register on Capitol Hill, where distracted lawmakers are busy bouncing from one crisis to another.

Outside of the Valley's congressional delegation, the region's drought, fallowed fields and emptied homes attract only sporadic attention. Amid exceptionally grim circumstances, the world's most productive farm country can still consider itself Uncle Sam's neglected stepchild.

"Yes, the Valley has been underfunded," acknowledged Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, adding that "every member of Congress has a difficult time trying to get attention for their district."

It's not for want of trying.

Cardoza says he constantly pesters House leaders and Obama administration officials. His Republican colleague, Rep. Devin Nunes of Visalia, maneuvered the House last month into supporting a study of the employment consequences of water shortages. Republican Rep. George Radanovich of Mariposa and Democratic Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno likewise make waves in their own way.

Soon, moreover, the Valley lawmakers will welcome to Washington activists who organized a four-day march to San Luis Reservoir in April. Participants in the still-unscheduled D.C. trip will spotlight the 10 percent cut in irrigation deliveries south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the 40 percent unemployment rate in towns like Mendota.

"We're trying to bring a human aspect to this thing," said Mario Santoyo, a Reedley resident and president of the California Latino Water Coalition. "We haven't had a voice before; this is part of trying to create a voice."

Within California's echo chamber, this message resonates. The coalition's cross-Valley water march drew thousands of participants and the praise of high-level politicians including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. It sparked dozens of newspaper stories and television accounts.

But distance mutes the Valley's voice. The agenda-setting New York Times published a single, brief story about the water march on page A17. The Washington Post ignored it altogether. Like the proverbial tree falling in a far-away forest, the unheard march left no mark on most members of Congress.

The Valley's lawmakers amplify the local message. Nonetheless, the five congressmen representing the area between Stockton and Bakersfield are a distinct minority among the California's House delegation.

"We're five members out of 53," Nunes said. "Five members in a big state makes it rough."

Other reasons shield Valley pain from national view. The regional farm problems haven't demonstrably affected consumer food prices nationwide; the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service anticipates only "low to moderate food price inflation" this year.

Nor are food shortages pinching consumers; and, in today's global marketplace, domestic and foreign competition can usually step in to fill one region's shortcomings.

The Valley's unemployment rate is high now, but it may not shock the national conscience because it's always been above the national average. Omnipresent bad news also muffles the Valley's groaning. The national unemployment rate of 8.9 percent is double that of January 2001. From the Valley's political perspective, this is distracting.

Stockton, Bakersfield and Sacramento ranked in the nation's Top 10 for foreclosures last year. Cardoza likens this to an economic Hurricane Katrina, a metaphor suggesting the need for a commensurate federal response. Unlike the 2005 storm, though, the home mortgage catastrophe has swept over more than one discrete region.

In hopes of riveting more local attention, Cardoza on Thursday won approval for a House amendment that will track home foreclosures nationwide.

"Foreclosure and default rates are critical statistics for not only monitoring the nation's economy, but also for determining which areas of the country have been hardest hit," Cardoza said, stressing the need to aid "areas that need help the most."

This year's irrigation delivery reductions seriously hurt farmers. But because the Valley farmers rarely receive their full allotment -- last year's allocation was 45 percent -- the reduction this year may not seem so dramatic outside the region.

Skeptics, moreover, don't buy the farmers' insistence that overly strict environmental laws are to blame for the region's woes. In this light, Valley complaints are typecast as merely the latest round in a long-running effort to crimp the Endangered Species Act and steer more subsidized water toward farms and away from environmental protection.

"It's not as easy as (Nunes) suggested," said Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez. "This is a statewide water system that serves many interests."

Add it up, and the Valley has a hard time making its case.

"We're doing everything we can to raise awareness," Nunes said.

This political attention matters. Its sustained presence can bring money and reform. Its absence can shortchange a legitimately needy area.

Exhibit A: Appalachia.

During the Johnson administration's War on Poverty in the mid-1960s, Congress established the Appalachian Regional Commission to focus state and federal resources. By 2002, per-capita federal spending in the 68-county Central Appalachia region was $2,786 higher than per-capita federal funding in the San Joaquin Valley, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The non-partisan analysts noted the Valley is "one of the most economically depressed regions of the United States" and that the Valley counties from Sacramento to Kern "received fewer federal funds than the national per-capita average or for California."

Valley lawmakers vowed to use the 2005 congressional study as a rallying point for united action. It was a familiar initiative. In late 2000, then-Rep. Cal Dooley, D-Visalia, summoned the Clinton administration to establish an interagency task force targeting San Joaquin Valley assistance.

The Clinton-era task force was a precursor to the current state-level California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, which remains a work in progress.

"The wheels of government turn slowly," Cardoza said.

Related stories from McClatchy DC