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California farmers and farmworkers march for water

by Rand Green | April 26, 2009
If U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar expected to hear cheers from farmers and farmworkers when he came to California April 15 to announce $260 million in federal funding for California water projects, he was disappointed.

Even as the announcement was being made, an estimated 10,000 farmers and farmworkers were engaged in a four-day march to the nearly empty San Luis Reservoir to protest water cuts that have forced more than 300,000 acres of cropland out of production and eliminated thousands of jobs.

Farmers have already seen billions of dollars in state water bonds spent without the money doing anything to address their problems. The promised federal funding was seen by many of them as a "drop in the bucket" that was not likely to be spent where they felt it needed to be spent in any case.

As they marched, the workers were chanting, "Turn on the pumps. Turn on the pumps." The reference was to pumps that for decades have drawn surplus water from Northern California watersheds out of the Sacramento Delta and pumped it into aqueducts to provide water to the farms and communities of the San Joaquin Valley. Environmental policy now restricts the operation of those pumps for the protection of finger-sized fish called Delta smelts.

Mr. Salazar expressed sympathy for the protestors. "The human suffering here in California is all too real," he said. "Farmers are not able to plant. Workers in many communities and counties where we now have 30 or 40 percent unemployment rates are without jobs because of the fact that there are not going to be crops to harvest. Schools are going empty as parents lose their jobs and families move away."

California is now going into its fourth year of drought, and that drought "is a stark reminder that California's water system, much of it built half a century ago for a population that was half as large as it is today, has reached its limits," Mr. Salazar said.

But U.S. Rep. Jim Costa (D-CA), in a written statement, called the proposals "very disappointing," noting that "the major portion of the projects identified is focused on fisheries and environmental projects and neglects the human needs."

Sarah Woolf, spokesperson for Westlands Water District, which received a zero allocation from the federal Central Valley Project this year, said of the federal funding proposal, "There is absolutely nothing in there that would benefit us."

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced April 21 that the federal water allocations would be increased to 10 percent of normal deliveries, which farmers acknowledged was "better than nothing."

Steve Jackson, a fruit and almond grower in the Kettleman City, CA, area on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, doing business as Hillside Orchards, told The Produce News that he and his father had been farming 1,800 acres of permanent crops. "We're not farming all of it now," he said. Because of water cuts, it has been necessary for them to pull out some orchards and fallow the land.

Mr. Jackson said that he has been involved "for years" in the efforts to try to find a resolution to the state's water problems. "We are just at the mercy of poor planning and lack of leadership," he said. "I'm a little bit discouraged with the whole process." With all of the effort that has been made by people in agriculture to resolve the problems, "farmers have lost ground."

The state has "thrown a lot of money -- we're talking billions -- at this problem," but the state "hasn't done anything" towards "the actual long-term fix," he said.

None of the current proposals that he has "seen so far to date is going to do anything to really help the water supply. It is all a bunch of fluff to make people think the politicians are doing something. They are doing absolutely nothing," he said.

Mr. Jackson noted that the farmers south of the Sacramento Delta who need the water are quite willing to pay for the project, even though it would mean greatly increased water costs, if they can be assured of a reliable supply of water. So the problem is not a lack of funding but political opposition to the water moving south of the delta.

"People talk about stealing water from Northern California," but "that is crazy," Mr. Jackson said. Every year, "80-95 percent of the water" in Northern California "goes right past [them] that [they] never use." All the Central California farmers ask is to take some of "the excess that is going into the ocean anyway" and "send it down south," he said.