Interior chief offers water help to California

FRESNO -- Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Sunday announced several steps he hoped would ease the toll the state's water shortage is taking on farmers and said he would assign a top deputy to help find solutions.

At a spirited town hall meeting in California's agricultural heartland, Salazar told a packed auditorium that Deputy Interior Secretary David J. Hayes will "bring all of the key federal agencies to the table" to coordinate efforts.

Salazar said he wanted to direct $160 million in Recovery Act funds to the federal Central Valley Project, which manages the dams and canals that move water around the state, and will expedite water transfers from other areas.

Members of the San Joaquin Valley congressional delegation told Salazar that three years of drought were forcing farmers to fallow hundreds of thousands of acres and idle farmworkers.

"The time for meetings and talk is over," said Rep. George Radanovich. "We need action now."

Farmers packed into the auditorium at California State University, Fresno erupted with loud applause.

The congressional delegates and other agriculture industry representatives asked Salazar to hasten the environmental review of the so-called two gates proposal, which would place removable gates in the central Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to block threatened fish such as the tiny smelt from getting killed by the pumps.

"We hope to make an expedited review of that project," Salazar said after the meeting.

The cause of the state's water shortages is not simply three years of below-average rainfall. Federal protections for threatened fish has limited the transfer of water from Lakes Shasta and Oroville through the delta into the state's system of aqueducts.

Searing 109-degree temperatures on Sunday underscored the need for water, and farmers appealed for action.

On the west side of Fresno County, the most prolific agricultural county in the nation, farmers have been told they would receive just 10 percent of their allocation this year, news that forced them to fallow hundreds of thousands of acres.

The farmers argued that cutting water deliveries to farms in the San Joaquin Valley oversimplifies the problems threatening salmon and smelt in the largest freshwater estuary in the West. They have asked for Salazar to ease enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, something he said he was reluctant to do.

"At this time, that would be admitting failure," Salazar said.

Fishing industry speaks up

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, told Salazar that farmers were bearing full responsibility for environmental problems caused by waste-water discharges from cities and by invasive species that eat native fish.

Lost in the chorus of catcalls and applause were the voices of environmental groups, fishermen and coastal communities affected by the collapse of the salmon season. They were there to remind Salazar that the north coast fishing industry has been hard hit by a decline of salmon in the delta and has resulted in the cancellation of commercial fishing season for two years.

Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, said that 23,000 commercial and recreational people were unemployed because California's salmon fishery is shut down, which has cost the economy $1.4 billion.

Researchers at the University of California at Davis estimate that as of May, water shortages in the San Joaquin Valley have cost an estimated 35,000 jobs and $830 million in farm revenue.

Comedian Paul Rodriguez, who owns 40 acres of nectarines near Dinuba and heads the Latino Water Coalition, mocked environmentalists' argument that the decline in smelt is the "canary in the coal mine" warning of a declining ecosystem.

"The canary is there so it will perish and the miner can live, but these people got it backward: They want the fish to live so we can die," Rodriguez said as audience members stood and cheered.