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March 1, 2009
Crisis in Mendota
In the San Joaquin Valley, drought and environmental concerns led to severe cuts in irrigation water deliveries from Northern California last year. As the state faces its third year of drought, residents in the town of Mendota are worried there will be no farming jobs available this season. Unemployment in this town of 10,000 is nearing 40 percent. Bee photojournalist, Renee C. Byer recently spent time in the rural farming community documenting life there. (19 images)

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Ismael Diaz, 35, waits at the unemployment office in Mendota to try and extend his unemployment benefits which consist of $522 every two weeks. A legal immigrant who was sponsored by his father, he worked far less last year than previous years because of fewer plantings by a ranch in Firebaugh, a neighboring town. He has no idea, he said, when he'll be called back to work. Renee C. Byer /


A man bicycles through downtown Mendota. The town calls itself the Cantaloupe Capital of the World, but with California in a third year of drought, residents wonder if they'll get enough food to survive. Renee C. Byer /

Mendota Mayor, Robert Silva, right, listens to the concerns of laid off workers. "The bottom line is where is the help?" Silva asked. He recently traveled to Sacramento to plead his case to legislators. His town has been severely impacted by the water shortage in the San Joaquin Valley. Renee C. Byer /

"They are caring about the water but not about human life" said Jose Ruiz, 42, of Mendota, who has worked at Pappas Farm Company since 1984. Renee C. Byer /

Fernanda Cervantes, 7, holds hands with her father, Luis Cervantes, 38, after they visited their foreclosed home in Mendota. Cervantes, a father of four, was a vegetable farm foreman who earned good money, but his hours were steadily cut back until he was laid off. Renee C. Byer /

Chris Kenner a service technician for pump rentals does a series of tests to see how much water a pump will produce for a new well that was drilled on Wayne Gowens' Farm west of Mendota. Farmers are spending more than $600,000 to drill wells for water to keep their produce alive. Gowens owns an almond farm and has installed three wells in an effort to save his trees. Renee C. Byer /

A lock on a water valve on the Todd Allen farm near Mendota. Allen is trying to sell his farm equipment and because he can't operate his farm without water. Renee C. Byer /

Rosa Herrera, 34, right, prays for help so she and her husband will be able to pay the rent in their home where they live with their four children. Members of the Mendota community gathered to pray for employment and hope on Feb. 17 in Mendota. Renee C. Byer /

From the left, Maria de los Angeles Mediola, 38, Micoela Mendez, 49, Gustavo Garcia, 47, Rosa Herrera, 34, Ruben Martinez Chavez, 50. Jose Fernandez, 36, and Carmen Delagado, 44, pray for jobs, food, lost homes and hope at a prayer service in Mendota. All are unemployed farm workers. Renee C. Byer /

Gustavo Garcia, 47, a laid-off farm worker prays for help. Garcia sold all his belongings in his home for $100 and said he plans to move to Oxnard to try and find work. Renee C. Byer /

Maria Avila de Romero, 56, said she boiled milk that would have spoiled because she has run out of food and can't afford to waste anything.The legal immigrant's $61 weekly unemployment has run out. Renee C. Byer /

Nancy Daniel, Executive Director of Youth Center, talks about how little she has in her food bank and the need for more food to feed the more than 750 people that show up for food every month. "People are worried because of the lack of water available to water the crops...," Daniel said. Renee C. Byer /

Every month Nancy Daniel of Youth Center opens up the center to feed the hungry. Here volunteers give away 750 boxes of food. They turned away more than 50 people when they ran out of food. The boxes consist of a frozen turkey, cereal, canned food and one bag of rice. Renee C. Byer /

Eva Ortiz holds the hand of her granddaughter Eva Romero, 2, as she signs in to get food at the Youth Center in Mendota. Renee C. Byer /

People line up to receive food at the monthly food give away at the Youth Center in Mendota. Renee C. Byer /

A women carries one bag of groceries from the monthly food give away at the Youth Center. Renee C. Byer /

Kristian Reyes, 3, left, and his brother Kelvin Reyes, 5, hold onto their mother, Ana Reyes, 27, after they are turned away from a food give away. After waiting two hours in line the Reyes reached the front of the line only to learn all the food was gone. Nancy Daniel the Executive Director said three years ago they might have given away 200 boxes of food, but recently, the food giveaway has grown partly due to the impact of water shortage in Mendota. Renee C. Byer /

A line of more than 50 people are turned away when food runs out at the Youth Center in Mendota on Feb. 19. The volunteers at the Youth Center gave out 750 boxes of food in two hours. They were supposed to reopen at 9 am the next day but had no more food left to give away. Renee C. Byer /

Maria Avila, 56, often cries at home trying to think of a way to feed her family. She volunteered at the Youth Center food giveaway, lifting heavy boxes so she could take one home afterwards. Renee C. Byer /

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