When John Laird, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, comes to Fresno these days, people want to talk with him about water — specifically, the lack of it.
He met last week with the Latino Water Coalition to chat about the far-reaching Bay Delta Conservation Plan, the final draft of which is supposed to hit the streets Dec. 13.
The plan would restore the troubled Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta over many decades, state leaders say. It would include controversial construction of two tunnels so water export pumping for farms and cities would move out of the delta.
But the coalition also wanted to talk about the drought going on right now.
If there is a dry winter, people in small west San Joaquin Valley towns would suffer widely as they did in a dry 2009, coalition members said. Members include leaders from many communities, such as Orange Cove and Mendota.
In Mendota and other west-side cities with high unemployment, food lines are not unusual. But the lines were much longer during the dry time in 2009. The Latino Water Coalition said nobody in state government prepared for that.
Gary Serrato, general manager of the Fresno Irrigation District, said: "We should be preparing now to help Mendota and Firebaugh next year in case we have a dry winter."
Laird said he would take the message back to Sacramento. He said both long- and short-term issues need to be addressed.
Meanwhile, it is a worrisome time for farmers, water districts, cities and industries in Central California. Not a drop of November rain had hit the rain gauge in Fresno early this week, and the rest of the region is just about as dry.
Talking about his own farm, west-side grower Joel Del Bosque warned: "We will wind up idling close to 50% of our land next year if it continues to be dry."
$29 million air penalty stays in the Valley
So what has the federal government been doing with the $29 million dirty-air penalty that Valley motorists have been paying for two years?
That extra $12 on your annual Department of Motor Vehicle registration fees contributes to the penalty. The federal mandate for the penalty would be lifted if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agrees that the San Joaquin Valley has attained the one-hour ozone standard. It could happen next year.
But what about all the penalty money paid since 2011? I asked EPA.
"Characterizing the DMV fees as a federal penalty is inaccurate, and it's the air district that has received the $29 million, not the federal government," a spokeswoman told me this week.
Actually, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has been quite open about the money being used in such Valley clean-air programs as diesel engine replacement.
But almost every time I write about it, someone writes or calls and asks why Valley residents have to send millions of dollars to the federal treasury. That's not happening.
When the "penalty" was enforced, the air district was allowed to collect the money. A few years ago, the state law gave the district the option to collect DMV fees for air cleanup — whether or not the district is under a federal mandate.
Local air leaders say if the Valley attains the one-hour ozone standard, the mandate would be eliminated.
The next question: How would the public feel about continuing the $12 DMV fee to help achieve the much tougher eight-hour ozone standard as well as the tiny particulate standard?
Expect that question later on.