Rallies urge action to solve state's water shortages

Issue Date: July 8, 2009
Dennis Pollock

Cascading concern over California's water crisis brought assurances from federal officials at a Fresno town hall meeting, sent thousands marching on Fresno streets and saw hundreds demonstrating in San Francisco—all in a four-day period.

By the end of last week, both the state and federal governments had announced steps intended to improve agricultural water supplies in different parts of the Central Valley, as people stepped up their calls for action.

"It's important for Californians from all parts of the state and all walks of life to continue calling attention to the water crisis," California Farm Bureau Federation President Doug Mosebar said. "This is not just about helping family farms and saving agricultural jobs and communities. It's about protecting our food supply."

California Secretary of Food and Agriculture A.G. Kawamura was among speakers at a rally that drew nearly 4,000 people in Fresno last week.

Late last week, Gov. Schwarzenegger announced that the State Water Project would release up to 100,000 acre-feet of water, to be made available to Central Valley farms. The water represents what the governor's statement called a "water loan" from the state project to the federal Central Valley Project, to be repaid after the summer irrigation season. CVP deliveries have been reduced sharply by a combination of dry weather and court-ordered restrictions on moving water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, designed to benefit protected fish.

At a rally that drew nearly 4,000 to Fresno City Hall last week, Western San Joaquin Valley farmer John Harris urged support for a petition from the Pacific Legal Foundation urging President Obama to convene a federal panel on endangered species nicknamed the "God Squad."

Known formally as the Endangered Species Committee, the panel of cabinet officials can grant exemptions from the Endangered Species Act if restrictions imposed under the act cause excessive economic harm.

The notion of convening the God Squad had received a cool reception from U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar when he visited Fresno a few days earlier.

Responding to pressure on the Obama administration to address the state's water crisis, Salazar oversaw the meeting in Fresno on a hot Sunday afternoon, punctuated by blistering rhetoric from members of Congress and pleas for help from community leaders and farmworkers.

Speaking to a crowd of 800 gathered at California State University, Fresno, Salazar pledged his commitment and that of the administration to work with state and local officials to address "continuing conflicts associated with transporting water from Northern California through the bay-delta."

Applause greeted Salazar's mention that pumps to bring water from the delta would be turned on by July 1, but that was not in response to the water crisis. Pumping was already planned to resume during a period outside time limits set by a court opinion.

Among the actions announced by Salazar were:

  • Putting Deputy Secretary David J. Hayes and Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Mike Conner in charge of overseeing and coordinating federal involvement in short-term and long-term water supply and environmental challenges affecting California.
  • Stepped up federal involvement and leadership in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, a joint effort among government agencies and private organizations to restore fish habitat while assuring reliable water deliveries for people.
  • Continued efforts to distribute $220 million in Recovery Act funding for specific water and environmental infrastructure projects in California, including $160 million for the Central Valley Project. At the end of last week, for example, Salazar announced plans to invest Recovery Act funds in a project to build an interim pumping plant at the Red Bluff Diversion Dam, designed to benefit protected salmon while improving water reliability for farmers served by the Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority. An additional $40 million in drought relief funds will be announced within the month, the majority of which will go to the Central Valley.
  • An expedited review of infrastructure projects that could potentially add flexibility to water delivery systems, including a proposed "Two Gates" project that would prevent protected fish from entering waters that move toward the delta pumps.
  • Processing more than 70 water transfers that total about 245,000 acre-feet of water for the San Joaquin Valley.
  • Approval of rescheduling requests by Westside and Friant Division Central Valley Project contractors, to allow them to preserve and use prior year allocations of approximately 250,000 acre-feet in San Luis Reservoir and 57,000 acre-feet in Millerton Lake.

Farm Bureau President Mosebar, who attended the town hall meeting, said it was appropriate for Salazar to hear firsthand about idled land, high unemployment and a threatened food supply.

"At one point, when Secretary Salazar was discussing the drought relief money, people in the audience shouted, 'We don't want welfare. We want water,'" Mosebar said. "It's important for him to hear that message. Reliable water for California will generate jobs, assure affordable food and help the environment."

Dan Errotabere, a Westside farmer and president of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, said, "True leadership needs to be exhibited here. We got their attention."

Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, called on Salazar "to start protecting the people instead of the fish." He urged Salazar to convene the God Squad to address the crisis.

But at a news conference following the meeting, Salazar said, "Convening a God Squad would admit failure."

The downtown Fresno rally, along with another in San Francisco two days earlier, had been scheduled before Salazar's visit to Fresno.

In San Francisco, demonstrators visited the offices of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco. The speaker was not there, but some staff members met with a few of the demonstrators, said Amy Roberts, communications director for the Kings County Farm Bureau.

Roberts said chants from demonstrators could be heard on the 14th floor of the office building. She traveled on a bus that joined four other buses, carrying more than 250 demonstrators.

(Dennis Pollock is a reporter in Fresno. He may be contacted at agcompollock@yahoo.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.