Central Valley

Latino group enters California's water wars

SACRAMENTO -- A new army has joined California's water wars.

A group called the Latino Water Coalition is pushing for state-financed dams and canals, joining white farmers and big water districts.

The coalition -- mostly comprising Latino business and civic leaders -- is targeting the Legislature's Latino caucus in hopes the lawmakers will break with other Democrats who oppose dams for environmental reasons.

It's a mostly personal appeal.

"We're able to connect because these are individuals who, for the most part, understand the culture," said Firebaugh City Manager Jose Ramirez, a Democrat and coalition member. "They speak our language."

His farming town is reeling from the drought and pumping cutbacks at the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the state's water hub. In December, Firebaugh's jobless rate was 23 percent.

Rather than quote numbers, the coalition likes to put a human face on its cause: hundreds of poor farmworkers who they say will suffer if the state does not boost water supplies.

In early February the coalition sent about 60 workers to Sacramento to press their case before lawmakers.

At a Capitol rally over the summer, at least 300 farmworkers marched and carried signs declaring "agua es vida," or water is life.

The coalition is scoring some victories.

Assembly Member Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, vice chairman of the 26-member Latino Legislative Caucus, said he would support a state bond that includes money for dams.

"I'm not from the Central Valley, but I understand," Mendoza said. "I have family that lives there, I have relatives that live up and down the state and water is a critical issue."

The Latino caucus plans to soon send a letter to Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, and Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, urging them to restart water negotiations.

Latino Caucus member Jose Solorio, a Democrat whose Assembly district includes Anaheim and Santa Ana, said the coalition is "an important new part of the debate."

"It's nice to know that the needs for water in the Central Valley extend far beyond the needs of Big Ag," he said.

Gov. Schwarzenegger has been trying to broker a water deal for two years. But Democratic leaders have balked at his $9.3 billion water bond proposal, which includes $3 billion for water storage, including possibly a dam near Millerton Lake east of Fresno.

The coalition supports the bond, as well as a proposed new canal to send water around the delta to cities and farms. In the short term, they want the state and federal government to ease environmental regulations to increase pumping from the delta. The rules are in place to protect endangered fish.

Environmentalists say conservation and ground-water storage are the quicker and cheaper options to boost the state's dwindling water supplies.

Some groups say the Latino caucus is too focused on farms, while ignoring the clean drinking water needs of farmworker communities.

"I appreciate the fact that they're going out and trying to engage folks on the ground," but "I'm not sure they're conveying the whole story," said Debbie Davis, legislative analyst for the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water based in Oakland.

The Latino coalition was formed in 2006 after a meeting in Selma between valley Latino leaders and Schwarzenegger. The governor "encouraged us to put together a coalition and spread the word," said Mario Santoyo, assistant general manager of the Friant Water Users Authority.

"The water world has not been a world where there's been great diversity of people," Santoyo said. "There's only a few Latinos in that world. I always felt kind of lonely." Orange Cove Mayor Victor Lopez reached out to actor-comedian Paul Rodriguez, who as youngster worked in the valley's fields.

Rodriguez signed on as a chairman and the group has grown to about 200 members, including some from Southern California.

The coalition, which registered for nonprofit status in December, is planning fundraisers. Organizers say that, to date, their activities have been paid for with private donations routed through the cities of Fresno and Mendota. Also, a Sacramento public relations firm that does work for Friant has given time to the coalition.

The coalition's recent Capitol trip was spurred in part by controversial comments made by Fresno environmentalist Lloyd Carter.

In a television interview in early February, Carter said farmworkers who could lose jobs if west-side Valley farmers don't get water are "not even American citizens for starters. Do you think we should employ illegal aliens?" In the aftermath, Carter stepped down from the environmental group California Water Impact Network, which said the comments did not reflect their views.

Still, the Latino coalition seized on the saga to bring attention to their cause. In the Capitol, the group distributed DVDs titled "Farmworkers Are Americans" that included a recording of Carter's comments, which aired on Fresno's KMPH (Channel 26).

In a statement, the coalition said the Carter incident "unfortunately reinforces what our coalition has long suspected -- that too many in California's environmental community care more about fish than people." Carter said the coalition is "being used by big agribusiness" and that "my remarks we're taken out of context." "What I'm talking about is exploitation of a migrant class of people, the farmworkers, who are not provided adequate housing, adequate schooling, even clean drinking water."