More than 4,000 people braved blowing dust to march Tuesday from Mendota to Firebaugh, launching a four-day campaign to focus attention on the Valley's crippling water shortage.
The March for Water drew a diverse group of demonstrators, including farmers, farmworkers, business owners, politicians and actor-comedian Paul Rodriguez, chairman of the California Latino Water Coalition, one of the event's organizers.
"What we have not had in the past is unity -- but look at us, we share the same issues," said Rodriguez. "There is no reason this coalition should not have existed a long time ago."
Many of the marchers wore blue T-shirts that read: "No water, no work, no life." They walked on dusty roads that ran along Highway 33 on their eight-mile journey between the two farm towns. A parade of more than 50 farm vehicles and diesel trucks followed.
"Yes, it's cold and windy, but we have to let people hear us," said Maria Rodriguez, her face wrapped in a scarf.
Rodriguez and her husband Sixto Rodriguez have been farmworkers for more than 30 years.
"It has been our life, but now it feels like it is ending because the work is less and less," said Sixto Rodriguez of Mendota.
Organizers called the event historic and likened it to the the famed marches led by farm labor leader Cesar Chavez, who battled the agriculture industry and government for better working conditions in the fields.
But this new battle is about striking a balance between the water needs of the environment and agriculture, the San Joaquin Valley's economic engine and a multibillion-dollar industry.
March organizers say pumping restrictions at the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have pinched water supplies to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley. Many 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 pumping cutbacks, leaving growers without their normal supply. And a three-year drought has made things worse.
This year, growers in west Fresno County have fallowed thousands of acres and laid off hundreds of workers because of a shortage of water.
Marchers called for the federal government to ease the Endangered Species Act to allow more water through the delta and to Valley farms.
They are also calling for a more comprehensive water plan and federal assistance to those in agriculture facing hardships.
Assemblyman Juan Arambula, D-Fresno, said that unless state and local government come up with a sensible plan, rural communities that depend on the farming economy will be in peril.
"The environmentalists are concerned about a fish because it is an endangered species," Arambula said before the march began. "But the people of Mendota are also an endangered species if we don't get any water." Farmworker Maria Ortiz of Mendota is among those having a tough time. She and her husband have worked sporadically in the last several months, and they have fallen behind on their monthly bills. She barely manages to make her $900 a month rent payment, leaving little money for anything else.
"I don't think people really know how hard it is for some of us right now," said Ortiz at the end of Tuesday's eight-mile march. "We marched today because we want people to know that the farmers need the water, and without it, no one will be able to survive."
Farmers who marched Tuesday say the issue of depending on an unstable water supply has been simmering for years, and they hope their combined voices of those involved in Tuesday's march will make a difference, before it's too late.
"It has to work, because things aren't getting any better," said Todd Diedrich, a west Fresno County farmer.
The march continues today and Thursday, heading north on Shields Avenue along Interstate 5 into Merced County. On Friday, the march will begin at the interchange of Highway 152 and 33, west of Los Banos and end near the San Luis Reservoir.
Gov. Arnold Schwarze-negger is scheduled to address the marchers at 10:45 a.m. Friday.
Today, the governor will join U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for a helicopter tour of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Afterwards Salazar is expected to detail water projects funded from the recently approved $787 billion economic stimulus package. The package includes $1 billion for Department of Interior water programs nationwide, including up to $50 million for ecosystem restoration in the delta and San Francisco Bay.
Also on Tuesday, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors approved a proclamation asking for Schwarzenegger and President Barack Obama to declare a state of emergency because of drought-related hardships.
Supervisors are looking for state and federal assistance for the Community Food Bank. In recent months, the Community Food Bank has given food to thousands of people hurt by the drought, but also has had turn away thousands of others who have lined up for food in Mendota and Fowler, county officials said.
Supervisors delayed the start of their meeting so they could attend the start of the March for Water rally in Mendota.
Supervisor Phil Larson said he, U.S. Rep. Jim Costa and a federal Bureau of Reclamation official were all moved by a long line of people recently waiting for free food in Mendota.
"You had three men in tears," Larson said. "I asked, 'Is this America?' "