Battle over water heats up in drought-stricken California


USA Today
By Tracie Cone, Associated Press Writer
June 29, 2009

FRESNO, Calif. — U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar came to ground zero in the state’s fight over dwindling water resources Sunday as agriculture and environmental interests have become increasingly polarized.

In Congress this week, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, blamed farmers’ woes on "government action to protect a three-inch minnow." And Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, countered coastal fishermen are suffering their third collapse of the salmon industry in four years because "science has been put aside for politics."

"It’s do or die," said farmer Shawn Coburn, who said he lost a new $750,000 well this week because emergency groundwater pumping is depleting aquifers.

Salazar held a town hall meeting at California State University, Fresno, to assess the impacts of a three-year drought and federal water delivery cutbacks from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect threatened fish.

His visit comes 10 days after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asked the Obama Administration to declare Fresno County a disaster area, and five days after state agriculture officials held hearings in Mendota, where idled farm workers contribute to a 40% unemployment rate.

Salazar is the last word in a federal department that oversees the Bureau of Reclamation, which controls California’s system of aqueducts and canals delivering water to 28 million users, including the San Joaquin Valley’s most prolific farms.

In Fresno County, the No. 1 agriculture county in the U.S., farmers have idled 262,000 acres because they do not have enough water. Statewide the figure is 450,000 acres unplanted.

Leading up to the meeting, both sides jockeyed to make their points understood.

Farmers argue that cutting water deliveries to farms in the San Joaquin Valley oversimplifies the problems threatening salmon and smelt in the west’s largest freshwater estuary.

Farmers and some members of the valley’s Congressional delegation have asked the federal government to grant exceptions to the Endangered Species Act to allow more water for crops.

They say they are bearing full responsibility for environmental problems also caused by wastewater discharges from cities and by invasive species that eat native fish. "If we’re 30% of the problem, cut us by 30%," Coburn says.

Environmental groups stress the importance of native smelt and salmon to the ecosystem and coastal economies.

"I don’t know why I would run to the federal government and say ‘bail me out’ when I made a bad decision" to plant in an arid area, said Mark Rockwell of the Endangered Species Coalition.

Researchers at the University of California, Davis estimate that as of May, water shortages in the San Joaquin Valley have cost an estimated 35,000 jobs and $830 million in farm revenue.

The water shortages have revealed shortcomings in the state’s 1930s-vintage water system for a population of 18 million people. Now there are 38 million people in the state, and at least 35% of the available water has been set aside permanently for smelt, the salmon run and wetland habitat.

Potential long-term fixes, such as desalination plants, recycling programs and a peripheral canal to ship water from the Sacramento River around the Delta, will be years away.

Farmers say they cannot wait. "It’s not a farmer versus fisherman issue," Coburn says. "It should be a coalition to find out what the real problem is."

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