Thousands join mile-long parade to protest water cuts
Capital Press 4/14/09
Calif. - Farmers and farm workers stood shoulder-to-shoulder
Tuesday listening as leaders pressed them to wage a fight for
Later, they walked side-by-side in a cold, driving wind to
send a message about the state's ailing water delivery system.
Following the marchers was a mile-long convoy of farm
equipment signaling the deep hit farmers are taking with
severe cutbacks in water deliveries.
The four-day march organized by the California Latino Water
Coalition drew thousands of people to this west side farm
community on Tuesday, April 14, for an unprecedented protest
of court-mandated cutbacks in federal water deliveries to
Marchers said the huge turnout demonstrated to state and
federal lawmakers the severe economic impact of water delivery
cutbacks. They hope their voices are loud enough to allow
suspension of a federal law that protects endangered species
and spur legislation that will give them a more reliable water
Marchers were to continue north to the San Luis Reservoir for
another rally on Friday, April 17. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
is expected to speak.
The San Joaquin Valley agriculture and communities have been
reeling since announcement of severe cutbacks in water
deliveries from the Sacramento- San Joaquin Delta this year.
Pumps that deliver Delta water to west side growers were
ordered shut down to protect Delta smelt.
Farmers fallowed more then 300,000 acres on the west side due
to lack of water. University of California-Davis economists
estimated 80,000 farm jobs were eliminated due to the water
shut off, and producers and businesses in the area will lose
$2.2 billion in revenue.
For many attending the rally and march, it was the first time
in their lives they were involved in a protest. Tractor
drivers, equipment salesmen, farm managers and labor
contractors normally tend to business first. Without water for
crops, their jobs have been disappearing. They are angry and
astonished the nation values fish over people.
"We're out here to change the (Endangered Species Act).
There's plenty of water, but it's going for fish," said Cantua
Creek farmer Phil Brooks.
Brooks grows onions, cotton and almonds on his farm, but this
year 70 percent of his ground is fallowed. He doesn't know if
his almond trees will survive. His contribution to the march
was three cotton trailers emblazoned with banners proclaiming
"No Water No Jobs."
Wearing a homemade hat covered with vegetable seed packages,
Sharon Wakefield joined the rally.
"A lot of us are hurting, farmers, workers, business people in
these towns," she said. "We have two quarter sections of
almonds, zero water and no wells. "
Firebaugh City Manager Jose Antonio Ramirez said the time to
act on the water crisis is now. "For us, this is do or die, we
need to make a statement not only in this state but
internationally that we feed the world."
Fresno County Supervisor Phil Larsen, who represents much of
the west side, praised the coalition for organizing the march
to bring attention to the desperate situation.
"We may get 10 percent of our water," Larsen said of the
expected announcement by the Bureau of Reclamation on Monday,
April 20. "That might mean 1,200 jobs, but what about the
other 35,000 lost?" he asked.
It is not that the water isn't there, Larsen pointed out. Four
years ago with a similar Sierra snowpack in place; the federal
water project delivered 85 percent of normal.
Actor and comedian Paul Rodriguez led the march. Speaking at
the rally, Rodriguez said the farmers and workers were being
punished for their outstanding record of food production.
"We're farmers, we grew the best fruits, the best oranges and
for that our reward is to have our water cut from under us,"
Rodriquez said. "It's not the American way."
Sitting back and doing nothing about water is no longer an
option, Rodriguez said.
Jean Sagouspe, Westlands Water District board president, said
even if the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation ups the delivery
percentage as expected, they won't grow more crops, farmers
will just keep trees alive. He isn't holding out much hope for
this growing season, but stressed that without a plan in place
for more water deliveries next year, irrigated west side
farming would be history.
U.S. Rep. Jim Costa said there is a possibility that some
water allocations can flow to west side farms this season.
Transfers from other water users could add another 250,000
acre-feet for farmers to grow fall crops.
Waiting alongside Highway 33 for the march to begin, Mendota
farm workers Joe Hernandez and Oscar Aguirre pointed to the
half-finished federal prison and two new schools in the
distance. The schools were built because of overcrowding,
Hernandez said. With the loss of farm jobs there may not be
enough students to open them.