In Fresno, Obama will learn that California water issues are tough to unravel

The Fresno BeeFebruary 10, 2014 

When President Barack Obama visits Fresno on Friday to talk about the historic dry year in California, what should he know?

Farms, fish, cities, mountains, industries, rivers and even air quality have suffered, say many touched by state water problems. Recent storms have taken the edge off, but the intense dry year still is cutting a wide swath of damage in many ways.

"If nothing else, the president needs to have a clear view of this disaster -- it's not just the Central Valley getting hurt," said farmer Mark Borba, who buys federal water from Westlands Water District in west Fresno County.

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Obama is expected to talk about the federal government's role in coping with the drought. Many water experts say they expect Obama to offer some kind of financial aid and cooperation of federal agencies with state and local authorities.

Gov. Jerry Brown last month announced a statewide drought emergency, and state leaders say they will carefully divide California's dwindling supply among all the needs here.

"There is nothing simple about water in California," said John Laird, California Natural Resources secretary. "It is of profound importance to our natural heritage and nearly $2 trillion economy."

Federal agencies are intertwined with California water delivery and protection of wildlife species and habitat. Delivery of water and protection of nature are laced with issues as water is sent from the water-rich north to Southern California population centers and farming in Central California.

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The federal Central Valley Project is California's largest waterworks -- reservoirs, pumping plants and canals stretching hundreds of miles from Redding to Bakersfield. It belongs to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Delta advocates plan to travel to Fresno on Friday, where President Barack Obama is expected to visit ground zero of California's drought. Restore the Delta is providing a bus to transport its supporters from Stockton to Fresno and to share its message there.

While details about Obama's visit have not yet been released, Restore the Delta is asking those who want to participate to show up at 5 a.m. Friday at the parking lot of the A.G. Spanos Cos. building in Stockton. The bus will leave at 5:15 a.m.

The CVP and the State Water Project form a vast plumbing system to move billions of gallons of water from the north to irrigate 3 million acres of farmland, mostly in the San Joaquin Valley. About 27 million residents in Southern California and coastal regions also depend on water pumped through the delta.

Northern California water for the federal and state projects passes through the troubled Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where the state's two longest rivers meet and empty into the Pacific Ocean.

The delta is home to several dying fish species, such as the delta smelt and salmon, which are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. Two other federal agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, are involved in the protections.

Water pumping curtailments to protect fish have long been a bone of contention among Valley farmers. It is one of many issues that have turned the delta into a political battleground.

This year, Kern County farmers already have heard they will get a zero allocation from the State Water Project. Federal farm customers in Merced, Madera, Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern counties expect the same later this month.

Farmers complain that fish protections a little more than a year ago at the delta prevented more water storage that would have helped this year.

But nature is suffering too, says Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance in Stockton.

He said an intense drought should not have been a surprise in California, and leaders should have delivered less water to farm customers during this three-year drought.

"Fish populations crash during droughts," he said. "We need to plan for dry years and bring water demand into line with water supply. We're talking about accepting reality."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6316, or @markgrossi on Twitter.

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