California is facing a fifth straight year of drought and struggling badly to meet the water demands of its farms, cities, fish and wildlife. We all know what an important role the state plays in sustaining our national economy. This should be a time for Congress to put the usual special interest arguments aside to pass some needed relief measures.
Unfortunately, congressional Republicans and powerful agribusiness interests are using the drought as an excuse to undermine the state’s and the nation’s bedrock environmental laws. An unprecedented lobbying effort by some of California’s biggest farmers is underway – largely hidden from public scrutiny – to cripple the Endangered Species Act and other environmental protections in the name of “drought response.”
As recent news reports have shown, the Westlands Water District has been the most active player in this lobbying campaign. Westlands is a $100 million-a-year water utility that distributes water to some of the largest farming operations in the world and supplies some of our nation’s richest farmers. It employs no fewer than five lobbying firms in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento. Its members spend massive sums each year on lobbying, public relations and contributions – most go to its Republican allies.
Westlands is trying to further its anti-environment agenda by bankrolling a group called El Agua Es Asunto de Todos, a classic astroturf scheme that claims to represent farmworkers and the Latino community. The group has led a public relations and lobbying effort, funded by more than $1.1 million from Westlands, to weaken California’s environmental laws – and make it easier for big agribusiness interests to do whatever they like.
This is offensive, but not unique. For years large agribusiness interests have bankrolled the so-called Latino Water Coalition, an organization that orchestrates high-profile protests against environmental protections. The group has been rightly denounced by famed civil rights and farmworker advocate Dolores Huerta, among others, as the industry front group it is.
Making farmworkers the face of an anti-environment campaign designed to benefit corporate agribusinesses interests is doubly cynical because many of California’s biggest growers have opposed farmworker interests for decades, blocking efforts to improve unsafe working conditions and upgrade housing and wage standards. In a rare moment of candor, a Westlands farmer even admitted to one newspaper not long ago that “Big Ag polls poorly” in an attempt to justify Westlands’ strategy.
Even if the drought ended tomorrow, California’s farmworkers would still face numerous hardships. Big agribusiness interests never talk about the rampant wage theft suffered by California farmworkers, the farmworker job losses caused by the industry’s switch to low-labor nut crops, or the fact that one farmworker dies on the job every single day in this country and hundreds more are injured. This fatality rate is seven times higher than the rate for all workers in private industry. Weakening the Endangered Species Act is not going to solve these problems.
California’s agribusinesses are making record profits even at the height of the drought. The state’s crop revenues in 2013 and 2014 are the first and second highest revenue years ever recorded, reaching an eye-popping $33.8 billion in 2013 and $33.4 billion in 2014. Yet farmworkers still face a poverty rate nearly double the national rate for wage and salary employees.
There’s little evidence that Westlands or its industry allies will change any time soon, which is why Republicans have an important choice to make. The American people know about the dishonesty and financial self-interest behind the industry’s anti-environment campaign. The question now is whether that campaign’s Republican supporters will disavow these tactics – or double down.
Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona is the ranking Democrat on the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources.