Marchers will seek water for Valley

They have rallied and lobbied, pleading for more water to revive the downtrodden west Valley.

That hasn't worked -- so now they will march.

Hoping to bring national attention to their cause, members of a group called the Latino Water Coalition will lead a four-day "California March for Water" that begins Tuesday in Mendota and ends near Los Banos.

If all goes as planned, thousands of farmworkers, farmers, college students and others will make the trek, which covers portions of Highway 33 and Interstate 5, ending at the San Luis Reservoir on Friday.

Organizers make no bones about it -- they want to evoke memories of Cesar Chavez and his legendary marches for farmworker rights in the 1960s and '70s.

"Mexicans know what a march means," said Mario Santoyo, a member of the Latino coalition. "It means that they're willing to sacrifice for a cause."

But these are different times, for sure.

Chavez led boycotts of growers in his drive to unionize farmworkers. The Latino Water Coalition, which includes Hispanic business and civic leaders, works in concert with growers.

Together they lobby for state money for dams and canals and the lifting of pumping restrictions at the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that were imposed to comply with environmental laws.

The cutbacks and drought have forced growers to fallow land, leaving farmworkers without jobs.

The march "is kind of a union between the farmworkers and the farmers because they're both hit," said Santoyo, an assistant general manager at Friant Water Users Authority, which represents east Valley growers.

The union that Chavez founded -- the United Farm Workers -- is not participating in the march and declined to comment.

Another group that advocates for farmworkers questioned how much of the coalition's message is being driven by farmers, not farmworkers.

"This is not being organized from the ground up, as far as I can tell, [and] it's hard for us to participate for that reason," said Laurel Firestone, who heads the Community Water Center in Visalia, a watchdog group that pushes for better drinking water for low-income residents, including farmworkers.

Santoyo, who grew up working the fields, said the coalition is speaking out for farmworkers because no one else is.

"Is the message that Latinos ought to shut up because we're not smart enough to say something that should have been said a long time ago?" he said. "Nobody's going to control our agenda. We are going to control our agenda."

The march is the biggest undertaking yet of the coalition, which was formed in 2006 at the urging of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and registered for nonprofit status in December.

The governor has been trying to broker a multibillion water bond deal since early 2007. Last summer he took part in a coalition-organized rally at the Capitol, including a few hundred farmworkers who chanted for "agua, agua, agua."

But the governor and coalition have run into resistance from Democrats, most of whom have sided with environmentalists, who support the pumping restrictions and oppose new dams.

Environmentalists were careful not to criticize the march -- but they said the coalition's goals are misplaced.

The west side should pour its energy into diversifying the economy away from large-scale, irrigated agriculture, said Mindy McIntyre, water program manager at the Planning and Conservation League.

"It's unfortunate that so many are so dependent on such an unsustainable and unreliable water supply," she said.

Many west side growers get their water from the delta, a 700-mile maze of rivers, tributaries and sloughs that is the hub of the state's complex water delivery system.

Declining fish populations in the estuary have led to court-ordered pumping cutbacks, leaving growers without their normal supply.

The three-year drought has made things worse.

In late March, the federal Bureau of Reclamation told south-of-delta growers not to expect any regular deliveries this spring, although officials will update the water forecast later this month.

With the growing season in doubt, jobless rates have soared in small towns such as Firebaugh and Mendota.

Valley city leaders and lawmakers bristle when environmentalists suggest that the region give up on industrial farming.

It "shows a great deal of insensitivity to the people who are there now and need to work today and tomorrow to pay their rent," said Assembly Member Juan Arambula, D-Fresno. "There aren't factories out there, there is not an alternate economy to fall back on."

Arambula is the son of Mexican immigrants who grew up working the Valley's fields before he earned degrees at Harvard and Stanford universities.

He will march side-by-side with farmworkers this week.

The event is the brainchild of actor-comedian Paul Rodriguez, a Valley native and chairman of the coalition.

Organizers are expecting up to 3,000 people to march the first day and a few hundred the following two days.

Buses will ferry demonstrators to Firebaugh and Mendota where they will sleep in tents and hotel rooms before heading out to march again the next day.

The event will cost an estimated $60,000, which is mostly being picked up by donations from area farmers and businesses.

A food drive, called "Project Hope," also is being organized.

At the march's end on Friday, organizers expect thousands to rally at the San Luis Reservoir.

Schwarzenegger has been invited to speak, but his office could not confirm his attendance as of late last week.