Firebaugh rally rails against cutbacks in agricultural water (video)

Crowd of about 1,000 cheers one bit of good news: State alters drought emergency orders

The Fresno BeeMarch 18, 2014 

— About 1,000 people jammed into the rodeo grounds Tuesday near the San Joaquin River, roaring approval for politicians and farm leaders who criticized Sacramento's handling of California's water crisis.

A few hours later in Sacramento, state water leaders made a change in the drought emergency orders issued earlier this year to assure farmers they would be able to get whatever water becomes available.

The rally had been called because San Joaquin Valley water leaders feared that agriculture would be cut out of water deliveries completely as state leaders focused on necessary health and safety issues.

The change in the emergency order was announced at the start of the Firebaugh rally, triggering wild cheering. But the announcement did not stop a series of speakers from attacking the state's approach to one of the driest years on record.

"There are people in Sacramento who are trying to dry up agriculture," said Republican Sen. Anthony Cannella of Ceres.

Leaders from many communities talked of a dark time for the San Joaquin Valley. For the first time on record, both state and federal water projects have forecast no deliveries of river water for several million acres of agriculture this summer.

"This will be a disaster," said Mendota Mayor Robert Silva. "Our latest unemployment number is 36%. It will go over 50% this year."

There were officials from many Valley communities, including Firebaugh, Mendota, Orange Cove, Parlier, Kerman, Fowler, Los Banos and Merced. People in the crowd carried signs with pro-agriculture messages, such as: "Food and people before fish."

Los Banos Mayor Mike Villalta said he was upset at the process of changing the state's emergency order. Farm officials pushed the issue all the way to Gov. Jerry Brown's office and organized the large rally in Firebaugh.

"Why do we have to put so much pressure on the government to get the water we need for agriculture and our communities?" Villalta asked.

The struggle for the change began a few weeks ago when farm water leaders sought more pumping after an above-average rainfall month in February.

The original emergency drought order was pointed at maintaining health and safety in January when California faced the worst drought on record. At that time, state and federal authorities could not commit to delivering water for any other purpose, including farm irrigation.

On Tuesday, authorities acknowledged that crisis appears to have passed, so they could amend the order to allow possible deliveries for agriculture and other purposes, such as wildlife refuges.

That comes as a relief to west-Valley land owners who have historic river water rights dating back to the 1800s. Decades ago, they exchanged their San Joaquin River rights for high-priority deliveries from Northern California.

They had been forecast to get at least 40% of their allotments, but the emergency order seemed to prevent the deliveries. Farm water leaders say the Firebaugh rally helped persuade state leaders to act on Tuesday.

Chris White, general manager of the Los Banos-based Central California Irrigation District that serves west-side growers, said he got a call Monday from Tom Howard, executive director of the State Water Resources Control Board. Howard told White about the change in the order.

"I think we owe a lot of thanks to the governor," White said.

Cannon Michael, president of Bowles Farming Co. in Merced County, told the Firebaugh crowd that the Valley must stand together to be heard in Sacramento. He said the push includes the entire community, not just farmers.

"They've got their foot on the neck of the Valley," he said. "We can't let up in the fight."

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

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