Call for water policy reform at summit

mgrossi@fresnobee.comAugust 5, 2013 

A crowd of about 500 applauded often Saturday as San Joaquin Valley water leaders called for change in policies that drastically limited their irrigation supplies this year, resulting in many barren acres of farmland.

Northern California fish protections this year added to drought problems and left federal water contractors with a 20 percent allocation from the sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The Endangered Species Act Protections briefly took center stage at the Delta Water Summit at California State University, Fresno. Westlands Water District manager Tom Birmingham said the law is being applied without regard to people's lives — especially farmworkers.

"You wind up putting people in a food line to protect a fish no bigger than my little finger," Birmingham said.

The gathering featured a discussion of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan for the delta — the state's ecologically damaged water crossroads. Water is pumped at the delta for 25 million people and 3 million acres of farmland.

The conservation plan proposes two huge tunnels and broad ecosystem restoration. It is supposed to restore the delta's health and provide more reliability for water deliveries. The tunnels would divert river water for residents and farms before it enters the delta.

The ecosystem restoration would bring back nature and help dwindling fish species, such as the delta smelt and chinook salmon.

The tunnels were discussed at length, but the farm-dominated crowd wanted to talk about the environmental protections at the delta.

'Too much talk about the fish'

"There's too much talk about the fish," said Daniel Ochoa, 18, of Fresno. "What about people?" Activist Chris Acree, executive director of Revive the San Joaquin in Fresno, was the only support for opponents who call the conservation plan a "tunnel plan." Acree defended the Endangered Species Act and other environmental protections.

"I think we're talking about a false choice — fish versus people," he said. "The Endangered Species Act protects us from ourselves. If the water quality is not good enough to keep fish alive, it shouldn't be used on farms."

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