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Thousands of Californians demand water deliveries resume at Fresno rally

by Rand Green | July 01, 2009
FRESNO, CA -- Thousands of farmers, farmworkers and ordinary Californians along with a number of politicians gathered at a rally in front of city hall here Wednesday, July 1, to protest not the actions of city officials (who were actually supportive of the rally) but of state and federal officials who have restricted water deliveries to farms in the San Joaquin Valley in favor of a small fish called the Delta Smelt.

Deliveries of agricultural water from the Federal Water Project were terminated after a federal judge, citing the Endangered Species act, prohibited pumping water from the Sacramento River Delta into the aqueduct that delivers water to the farms because the pumps endangered the smelts.

Organized by the Latino Water Coalition after the federal water cuts earlier this year fallowed hundreds of thousands of acres on the valley's West Side and put tens of thousands of farmworkers out of work, the rally is a follow- up to a similar event held on the West Side in April, and organizers promised that there will be more to come and that the movement will not let up until government officials relent and turn the water back on.

California is in its third year of drought, but the problem is not a lack of water, according to Paul Rodriguez, an actor, comedian and citrus farmer who heads the coalition. Rather, "there is only a lack of will power."

Opponents of water for agriculture "apparently & want no growth at all," he said. "They have put fish and fowls ahead of human beings." Those opponents "have been very skillful about using legislation to stop any kind of development."

California has 38 million residents, "and we are using an antiquated system of water delivery that was only built for 18 million," he said. "I am no mathematician, but those two numbers don't jibe."

And yet, he asserted that any proposal to improve water deliveries is met by resistance.

"Whenever you try to build a dam or store water," another "endangered mosquito" is discovered to prevent the proposal from going forward. But "I believe that day is going to come to an end, because we are united in this," he said, noting that the coalition consists of people of all ethnic groups and all walks of life.

"Let this be a warning to all elected officials," Mr. Rodriguez said. "We will remember you. If you vote for us, you will get our vote and our gratitude." But those who are waiting "to see which way the wind blows" will be "blown away."

Among the speakers at the rally was A.G. Kawamura, secretary of the California Department of Food & Agriculture. He stressed that California's water system "is as important as any other component of this state's future," adding that it is also a national security issue because of California's important contribution to the nation's food supply.

Not only is California the leading U.S. agricultural state, but just the eight counties of the San Joaquin Valley, "if they were a state by themselves," would still lead the nation in agricultural production, he said. "When we don't have a predictable supply of water, the production of that food supply for our nation becomes threatened."

"We are taking a lot of approaches" to solving the problem, Rep. George Radanovich (R-CA) said at the rally. He and Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) are sponsoring legislation to address the issue and are close to having the necessary votes. What is needed to make it happen is "pressure on the right people," Rep. Radanovich said.

"It is important that we get this message out of the San Joaquin Valley," Rep. Nunes, who also spoke at the rally, added. "The Congress of the United States must act. Nancy Pelosi must act. She can no longer ignore this valley."

Meanwhile, there is one group, the Endangered Species Committee (often referred to as the God Squad), which is comprised of the secretary of agriculture, the secretary of the interior and several other federal officials, that has the authority to exempt a federal project or a state or a federal licensee or permit holder from the provisions of the Endangered Species Act.

Mr. Radanovich said that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has, "in general, been incredible" on the water issue, but although he has the authority to invoke the God Squad, has not yet done so. Pressure needs to be put on him and others who have that power, he said.