Pressure builds on Washington for water action

Issue Date: September 2, 2009
Kate Campbell

Congressional leaders and Obama administration officials who visited the San Joaquin Valley last week saw first-hand the impact of severe water shortages and heard directly about the need for urgent action from Washington to resolve them.

On the west side of the valley, which has been particularly damaged by water shortages, farms and packinghouses opened their doors to visitors including the No. 2 leader in the House of Representatives, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan.

Washington's focus on the Westside culminated with a water meeting held in Coalinga at which Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., pressed an administration official for stepped-up scientific review of conditions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Court and government mandates that reduce water deliveries from the delta, combined with the effects of three straight dry years, have reduced water deliveries in many areas south of the delta, in particular the Westside.

The Coalinga meeting drew farmers, elected officials, water managers and representatives of valley food processors such as Kraft Foods and Campbell's Soup Co.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., speaks to reporters following a water meeting in Coalinga last week. Listening to Feinstein are U.S. Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes and California Director of Water Resources Lester Snow.

Feinstein began the meeting by emphasizing the need for solutions and strategies to solve the state's severe water problems.

"We are the largest agricultural state in the union and if agriculture can't function here, it means more and more of our food will be brought in from other countries," Feinstein said. "We need to stay out of the courts and sit down around the table ... to find solutions," she said, referring to the nearly three dozen delta-related lawsuits currently pending.

During the discussion, Feinstein pressed Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes for an agreement that a panel of independent scientific experts would be convened within 30 days to review information on the delta, including biological opinions on protected fish that have been key factors affecting water deliveries. The scientists would evaluate factors stressing the delta beyond pumps that serve federal and state water projects.

If such an independent panel of experts could not be convened by the Interior Department within 30 days, the pair agreed Feinstein would turn to the National Academy of Sciences to obtain a fuller scientific review.

"The status quo simply is not sustainable," said California Farm Bureau President Doug Mosebar, who joined the panel of water leaders during the meeting. "It's not just our food production that's at stake; it's the environment, entire communities and the economy of California."

He said there's widespread consensus that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinions on delta smelt and salmon need to be revisited. With more comprehensive scientific evidence, he said, better conclusions about ways to restore the delta are possible.

"We've got to transcend the contentiousness in these issues and start solving problems," Mosebar said. "And, with the help of people like Sen. Feinstein, we will move to constructive action."

In the meantime, federal and state water managers said they have about $27 million to finance potential interim fixes, including the so-called "Two Gates" project that would place removable barriers in front of the delta pumps to shield fish from intake flows.

And California Director of Water Resources Lester Snow said the state has "freed up" money to help pay for an intertie project that would facilitate water transfers between the state and federal water projects.

"Sen. Feinstein put everybody on notice that a solution to the problems in the delta is needed and it's needed right now," said Dan Errotabere, Westside farmer and Fresno County Farm Bureau president. "With her pushing, I feel we can move from a bureaucratic pace to one with more speed to solve this crisis. We're out of water here."

Given the unknowns for the next crop year, Errotabere said, "We've got to figure out how we're going to stay in business. Sen. Feinstein is asking for the best scientific answers and we agree that's what should be used to make decisions, particularly ones that affect the farm economy, the drinking water for 25 million people and the future health of the delta."

Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League, expressed hope that the direction and tone of the Coalinga meeting could mark a turning point in addressing an intractable and crippling problem for California.

"Sen. Feinstein is not interested in the rhetoric," Bedwell said. "She wants action."

He said delta farmers need to be part of the problem-solving process, because "we won't have real solutions until they're at the table."

Fresno County rancher John Harris said the Feinstein meeting helped highlight some misconceptions about the state's current water crisis and built understanding by federal officials.

"Even if all pumping out of the delta was to cease today, the delta smelt population would not go up because there are so many other factors not taken into account," Harris said.

Hayes said the Interior Department will hold a public hearing on California's water crisis in Washington, D.C., Sept. 30.

Prior to the Coalinga meeting, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, who represents much of the area hardest hit by water shortages, took House Majority Leader Hoyer to the farming community of Mendota, where nearly 40 percent of residents are unemployed and there are long lines for public food assistance.

Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, who met with farmers in Fowler, said, "I understand these are serious issues with serious consequences. I will tell the president it's not just about California—it's about the country and the world."

Meanwhile, last week the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta and the Kern County Water Agency jointly filed another lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Commerce and National Marine Fisheries Service, saying the federal agencies had failed to address all factors that impact the delta ecosystem and its fish species.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

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