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Monday, Apr 01 2013 02:56 PM

Farm water cutbacks: Small cities face return of food lines

BY MARK GROSSI The Fresno Bee

FRESNO -- With severe irrigation water cutbacks this year, food lines again will form with unemployed workers and their families on the San Joaquin Valley's west side, local leaders said Monday.

Two congressmen and farmworkers joined them in a downtown Fresno news conference to tell the public that the cutbacks will cost thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in the California economy.

The news conference was arranged by the Latino Water Coalition, a group formed in 2007 to advocate for water improvements in California. Coalition members attended from the cities of San Joaquin, Mendota, Parlier, Orange Cove, Huron and Fowler.

They were reacting to the announcement last month of a 20 percent allotment of federal irrigation water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The projection was 5 percent lower than the disappointing 25% announced in February.

"The 5 percent reduction was a shocker," said Mayor Robert Silva of Mendota, which had food lines in 2009 during a drought. "Do we want more welfare, more food stamps, more unemployment? No. We want the 5 percent back, plus 10 percent more."

Mendota had 41 percent unemployment at one point in 2009, which was part of a multiple-year drought. In a big swath of the country's most productive farmland, some people couldn't stock their own kitchens with food.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation says the water cutback this year is tied to the dry season. The snowpack is about half its average size. But federal leaders also say less water is available because Endangered Species Act protections for delta smelt forced water pumping reductions.

The reductions resulted in the loss of more than 800,000 acre-feet of water, which leaves the massive San Luis Reservoir in Merced County far below full.

The smelt is only part of a much bigger problem that includes the need to protect chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead and green sturgeon.

The delta has been in decline for years. Scientists have blamed invasive species, drought, pollution, discharges of treated waste water and water pumping.

For seven years, the state has been working on a fix as part of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. This year, leaders are releasing a $23 billion proposal to restore endangered fish and improve reliability of diverting fresh water for farms and cities.

The proposed fix includes construction of twin tunnels to take some fresh water for cities and farms before the water enters the sensitive delta. Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, on Monday supported the tunnels -- which also are supported by many city water districts, Valley farm water leaders and Gov. Jerry Brown.

Costa said he believes the delta is being managed with flawed science right now. "We must break this cycle of water insecurity," he said.

Costa, Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, and others at the news conference Monday said the delta fix is years down the line, but the Valley needs help right now.

Kings County Supervisor Richard Valle agreed. He said he has been in office five years, and this is the second water crisis he has seen.

"Here we go again," he said. "We need help."

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