Water & Drought

Water draws Interior chief to Fresno for hearing

MENDOTA -- Under increasing political pressure to address California's water crisis, the Obama administration said Wednesday it will dispatch Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to a hastily organized town hall meeting Sunday in Fresno.

Interior Department officials have not yet identified a location for the meeting, which is scheduled to run from 2:30 to 4 p.m. But it will be Salazar's first official on-the-ground visit to the region.

On Wednesday, meanwhile, state agriculture officials said that a combination of drought and federal environmental regulations have the potential to turn a short-term water crisis into a long-term agricultural and economic disaster.

During a hearing Wednesday of the state Board of Food and Agriculture at Mendota High School, panelists raised many of the same issues as at rallies this spring: Less water for west-side growers means less acreage planted, creating a spike in unemployment and economic hardship for farm laborers and their communities.

"With this regulatory and geologic drought, we've seen really how agriculture touches every life," state Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura said. "Especially in this region, so many lives are being affected beyond the farmers and farmworkers. ... The communities impacted go well beyond the farm sector."

Agriculture on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley relies largely on water transferred through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta from Northern California. But the effects of a three-year drought, coupled with federal environmental decisions to protect the delta smelt and salmon, have severely narrowed the periods in which massive pumps can be used to move water from north to south.

Now, there is a window of less than 90 days in which the pumps can operate; other proposed regulations threaten to reduce that to about a month out of the year, officials said.

"We can have a lot of rain next year and still have these problems," said Dan Nelson, executive director of the San Luis & Delta Mendota Water Authority. "We had chronic shortages even before the smelt and salmon decisions; these regulations just exacerbated them."

Mendota Mayor Robert Silva and Firebaugh City Manager Jose Antonio Ramirez both described high unemployment and lower sales taxes that are forcing them to make painful cuts to their cities' services.

"It's survival mode for west-side cities," Silva said. "If farmers don't have water, there's no future for farm towns on the west side."

Fresno County Supervisor Phil Larson agreed, adding that farm woes are driving unemployment higher and sales tax and property tax revenues lower in the county.

"Farmers are getting frustrated, even to the point of losing their farms," he said. "But forget about the farmers -- look at the people, the school kids, the food lines."

And the worst of the unemployment may be yet to come.

West-side farmers Shawn Coburn and Bob Diedrich said the farm labor picture will become clearer as the harvest season progresses with far fewer crops to harvest.

Coburn said he's being forced to rely on low-quality, salty water pumped from underground just to keep his almond trees alive. "I've got 100 people coming out every couple of days looking for work, and we're just fighting for our lives out here," he said.

Wednesday's hearing won't render immediate relief, but Kawamura said he hopes it will encourage the U.S. Department of the Interior to incorporate flexibility and balance in its regulation of the delta pumps.

"This should not be 'state vs. federal,' " Kawamura said. "This should be the federal government understanding that this is an issue of the food supply, of food security for the nation.

"This state, more than any other in the nation, believes in environmental protection," he said. "But there is a need for flexibility, both for infrastructure and for regulations, and for federal agencies to move away from black-and-white to what works in a crisis."

The water emergency has prompted California to ask the Obama administration for everything from federal funding and streamlined rules to approve new water projects. But Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, warned against high expectations for Salazar's visit Sunday.

"He isn't going to solve every California water problem on this trip," Cardoza cautioned. "It's a fact-finding trip."

Salazar will be accompanied by Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Mike Connor and several Valley lawmakers. Cardoza and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, both met Wednesday with Interior officials and plan to attend the Fresno meeting.

"Ever since we first met with Secretary Salazar in March, we've been telling him he needed to get involved in this," Costa said. "We've been hammering on them every week."

Republicans have also urged Interior officials to pay greater heed to the Valley's water problems. Spencer Pederson, spokesman for Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, said late Wednesday that Salazar "needs to see for himself what's going on out there."

Neither Radanovich nor Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, had been informed of Salazar's visit.

In recent weeks, the Valley legislators lined up behind an amendment by Nunes to block a federal decision steering more water into fish habitat protection.

Though the amendment failed by a 218-208 vote last week, lawmakers suggested it sent a signal that could not be ignored.

"It's OK to value fish, that's OK," Nunes said during House debate, "but understand you're starving families while you value fish."

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