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Thousands rally for water supply solutions

Issue Date: April 22, 2009m by Kate Campbell, Assistant Editor Ag Alert/California Farm Bureau Federation

Chanting "We need water. We need water," about 8,000 people gathered last Friday on the shores of the San Luis Reservoir, the nation's largest off-stream water storage facility, to demand immediate solutions to the state's ongoing water disaster. With a capacity of 2 million acre-feet, the half-filled reservoir served as a backdrop for the event.

Those who made the long trek to the rally site included farmers, farm employees, families, business owners and elected officials. Speakers said the event, organized by the Latino Water Coalition, aimed to put a public face on the disaster unfolding in the San Joaquin Valley, which is being hit hard by the drought, as well as by legal decisions and regulatory restrictions limiting operation of state and federal pumping facilities in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect endangered species, including delta smelt.

Thousands of farm acres have been fallowed, there's uncertainty about how permanent crops will be kept alive through the summer and unemployment in some farming communities is estimated at 40 to 50 percent.

California Farm Bureau Federation President Doug Mosebar, center, joined the more than 8,000 people last week at the Latino Water Coalition water rally at San Luis Reservoir. California Women for Agriculture President Diana Westmoreland Pedrozo, right, holds a sign calling for the delta pumps to be turned on for water deliveries.

State water deliveries to valley farms this summer will total only 30 percent of contract amount, while federal water deliveries for farmers south of the delta currently are at zero.

Both water delivery systems rely on the San Luis Reservoir to store water for later delivery to about 25 million Californians, as well as farms and wildlife. More than 4,000 people braved blowing dust to march Tuesday from Mendota to Firebaugh, launching a four-day campaign to focus attention on the valley's crippling water shortage.

Looking over a sea of blue T-shirts on Friday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said, "Today is about more than politics. It's about jobs, schools, families, livelihoods, the environment—the entire economy of the Central Valley and the state."

Breaking from his remarks, the governor struck up the chant from the crowd again, "We need water. We need water."

To get to the San Luis Reservoir, marchers walked a 50-mile route through Fresno and Merced counties during four days. More than 50 farm vehicles and diesel trucks also followed the march route, which began April 14 in Fresno.

Last week's final rally was held at the same spot where, in 1962, President John F. Kennedy and California Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown Sr., marked the start of the reservoir's construction. At the time, the state's population was about 15 million residents. Schwarzenegger pointed out that today it's about 38 million, but said little has been done since the 1960s to expand or improve the state's water infrastructure.

Although many of those attending the rally walked the rolling hills of the San Luis State Recreation Area to reach the rally site, dozens of buses of every type were used to shuttle additional participants from the junction of Highway 152 and State Route 33 to the Basalt Recreation Area.

"There's such a tragedy going on in the valley's agricultural communities right now because of fallowing and job loss that it was humbling to attend the rally and see so many people hopeful this issue will be resolved," said California Farm Bureau Federation President Doug Mosebar, who attended the rally. "I hope, given all the media that was at the rally, the message will be carried to the public that this is not just about farmers and those who work the land.

"It's about food production on our own soil, in our own country," he said. "Couple the losses in agriculture with the state and the nation's economic problems and I'd point out what our new U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had to say a few days ago: 'Agriculture is the foundation on which recovery from the global recession and financial and food price crisis will be built.'

"But, not in California, not if we don't straighten out our water problems," Mosebar said. "Turning on the pumps and increasing water deliveries through the state and federal water projects is just one aspect of a much more complex problem. Among other things, we need more water recycling, conservation, desalination and storage."

In addition to thousands of farm employees from throughout the San Joaquin Valley, those attending included CFBF Director Debbie Jacobsen; Fresno County Farm Bureau President Dan Errotabere; Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League; and Diana Westmoreland Pedrozo, representing California Women for Agriculture.

Eli Ayala, center, a Riverdale farm labor contractor, shares details of the water disaster in his hard-hit community. Flanking him, from left, former Fresno Mayor Alan Autry, Rep. George Radanovich, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, (behind Ayala) Rep. Dennis Cardoza, members of the Latino Water Coalition, Fresno City Council Member Cynthia Sterling and Assemblymember Anna Caballero.

Speaking from the podium, Firebaugh farmer Robert Diedrich told the crowd what zero water deliveries mean for his family farming operation.

Political leaders joining Schwarzenegger at the event podium included Reps. George Radanovich, R-Fresno, and Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced. Assemblymember Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, also spoke, as did actor and comedian Paul Rodriquez, who is chairman of the Latino Water Coalition.

"As bad as it is for California farmers right now, this water crisis isn't just about agriculture," Mosebar said. "It's about the health, happiness and financial well-being of every Californian, now and in the future. Our water problems are long standing and they are highly complex.

"But, we must solve them. I'd point out what Thomas Jefferson, one of our nation's founding fathers, said: 'Agriculture is our wisest pursuit. In the end, it will contribute most to real wealth, good morals and happiness.' He was talking about our nation's future and the bedrock of our democracy. This rally both affirms our freedoms and underscores our values," Mosebar said.

Members of a number of valley Future Farmers of America chapters also participated in the event. Overhead a light plane trailed a sign reading: "We Need Water 4 Jobs."

University researchers are warning that even with increases in groundwater use, income loss to the Central Valley could be as high as $2.2 billion with 80,000 jobs lost. When measured on a statewide basis, the income losses rise to $2.8 billion in 2009 with a job loss of 95,000. Most of the unemployment impacts are concentrated among low-wage workers who have the least options for enduring a prolonged water shortage.

Rally participants called on the federal government to ease the Endangered Species Act to allow more water through the delta and to valley farms. They also called for a more comprehensive water plan and federal assistance to those in agriculture facing hardships.

Schwarzenegger warned unemployment in the San Joaquin Valley continues to "skyrocket." He pointed to state unemployment figures released last week indicating the state's overall unemployment rate in March was 11.2 percent, compared to 10.6 percent in February. For comparison, in March 2008, the unemployment rate was 6.4 percent.

In the Central Valley, however, counties are reporting official unemployment levels ranging from about 17 percent to more than 25 percent, with levels much higher in many small farming communities, like Mendota and Firebaugh.

Schwarzenegger told the crowd that the state's unacceptably high unemployment rate is not due solely to the worldwide recession. "It's self-inflicted wounds because we can't get our act together and create the water infrastructure that is needed for 38 million people rather than 18 million people."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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