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Thousands join mile-long parade to protest water cuts

Cecilia Parsons, Capital Press 4/14/09

MENDOTA, Calif. - Farmers and farm workers stood shoulder-to-shoulder Tuesday listening as leaders pressed them to wage a fight for water.

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 farms.

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 supply.

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.

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