They’re a ubiquitous sight on the I-5: giant signs posted along the highway blaring dire messages about the water supply, farming, and what's endangering both (politicians, mainly).
While the signs have been up for nearly a decade, they’ve taken on a particular resonance in the last few years. Years of record low rainfall and the subsequent drought have left once-fertile fields dry and barren. For sheltered city dwellers, the signs are a stark reminder of California's never-ending water fight.
The signs are the work of Families Protecting the Valley (FPV), a loosely organized group of farmers and concerned locals in the San Joaquin Valley, whose mission is to add another voice to the state’s ongoing conversation about water. Armed with a small budget and the support of the local community, the group is trying to take back the water narrative from politicians, businesses and environmentalists.
“The environmentalists, you’ve got to give them credit,” said Denis Prosperi, founder of Families Protecting the Valley. “They’ve done a hell of a PR job convincing people that there’s enough water for fish and farmers, enough water for everybody, we've just got to manage it differently. Well, there’s not. There never was.”
The Madera farmer (almonds and wine grapes) started the organization in 2000, when Enron was trying to build a $45 million water bank in Madera County. Residents and local businesses donated time and money to oppose the project, and managed to successfully kill it. The group was dormant for a few years, re-constituting to fight the San Joaquin River Restoration Program, which it believed would have debilitating effects on the surface water supply for farmers. The river restoration program, designed “to restore and maintain fish populations in ‘good condition’ in the main stem of the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam to the confluence of the Merced River," was the result of a settlement agreement in a lawsuit filed by environmental groups. Prosperi formalized the group during this period, putting together a board of directors, and setting up a website and email newsletter.
Since then, the group has been agitating for the rights of farmers to have continued access to water, and has offered many suggestions for how the state’s budget and water supply should be allocated. Despite the agriculture lobby’s powerful presence in Sacramento, the group doesn't feel heard. It wants the valley's sizable role in both the state’s economy and on the nation’s dinner table to be reflected in the water farmers there receive.
“We’re very close to the tipping point, in that if we don’t have a change in policy very quickly about solving the problem long term, then the economic dislocation is going to start,” said Prosperi. “It’s going to be very hard. Detroit -- that’s what it’s going to look like.”
The situation has become increasingly dire. Paltry rainfall has left valley farmers with less water than ever. Last year, they were hit with a staggering blow: all farmers who got their water from the federal Central Valley Project, which provides water to over three million acres of farmland, including six of the country’s seven most productive farming counties, would receive no water at all. This move forced the farmers to use water already in reserve or, if possible, to buy water from another source. Things didn’t get better this year. The farmers again didn’t receive any allocations from the Central Valley Project, and the group has little faith in any of Governor Brown’s plans to address the issue.
In addition to these hardships, the farmers have had to deal with the general public's increasing antipathy towards farmers’ water use. As the state sees more reservoirs and rivers run dry, agriculture, which most sources agree uses 80% of the state’s water, has become a popular target. Families Protecting The Valley contends that agriculture only uses about 40% of the state’s water. (Learn more about this complicated and often contentious subject.)
And so, over the years, the farmers have been forced to become public relations experts.
“I give the environmental community credit. They came out saying ag uses 80% of the water, one gallon per [almond] and they blanketed the media to the point where the lie becomes the truth,” Prosperi said. “Our side hasn’t done that. Farmers aren’t made that way. They think, ‘Well, they’re wrong, we’re right, people gotta see that.’ Well, people don’t see it, and we’re losing the PR battle. In fact, I’ll say we already lost the PR battle.”
Families Protecting the Valley tried a few different methods. The group sent people to meetings in Sacramento, created a TV ad, and has sent people to San Francisco to pass out flyers. None of these measures were enough to get the message sufficiently into the mainstream, and proved too expensive for the group, which survives solely on donations. It needed a cheap and effective way to get its message into the world.
That's where the signs came in. Around 2008, with the help of a friend, Hanford real estate broker and former farmer Russ Waymire put up the group's first sign: “Congress Created Dust Bowl.” Other signs soon followed, but it took awhile to get the message right. Waymire and his pals tried different size signs, experimenting with the fewest number of words needed to get the point across. FPV members drove down the highway at 80 miles an hour to see if the signs were legible. Local farmers quickly became interested in the project, offering up their land to host signs, while others started to put up signs of their own along Highway 99 and Interstate 5.
People were eager to help, Waymire said. “Some people were saying ‘We’re not working weekends, we’re not getting enough hours, want us to stand out here? Get us some signs, we’ll stand out here by I-5 and we'll tell these people.’
“Most people, they’re busy with their lives, believing what people are telling them and what they hear, which is that farmers are the problem.”
On the phone, both Prosperi and Waymire speak quickly and passionately, carefully laying out their evidence and information for their cause like lawyers at trial. It’s a hard fight, one they feel they are losing.
“People ask us, are you guys going to win or lose? And I [say] no, we’ve already lost. I’m not stupid,” Prosperi said. “But the point is: I want to get enough people to hear the other side, where somewhere out in the future, somebody will say, ‘You know, those guys were right.’”
Though Prosperi and Waymire worry they are fighting a losing battle, they can’t stop. Farms are dying, families are losing their livelihoods and there’s no end in sight. Yet still they press on, trying to share their perspective on how California's water resources should be used, bit by bit, sign by sign, in the hope that one day soon, people will wake up and realize how wrong they’ve been.
“We were fighting before the drought. Now the drought has brought to a head what we’ve been telling people for years is going to happen,” Prosperi said. “Hopefully somewhere along the line, there’ll be a realization that the state is going in the wrong direction. But if they don’t do something quick, it’s going to be too late.”
Editor's Note: This post has been updated since publication, adding clarifying information about some of the water projects discussed.