Political rhetoric is all Hanford, Calif., pistachio and row crop producer Russ Waymire and an estimated 8,000 farm workers and farmers heard on a Friday morning by the shore of the San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos, Calif. That is where the four-day, 50-mile March for Water through the heart of the San Joaquin Valley ended in mid-April. The march was organized to focus attention on the human toll being extracted by California’s three-year natural/political/judicial drought.
The March for Water was staged not to invoke God to make it rain. Sponsored by the California Latino Water Coalition, the march that drew as many as 15,000 people over the four days was carried out to convince politicians to start putting people first rather than fish or other so-called endangered species, and to ramp up water deliveries for farms in the central and southern San Joaquin Valley.
More than 2 million acre feet of water has been diverted to protect fish over the past two years, while the unemployment rate on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley moved past 40 percent due to idling of farmland for lack of water. California’s statewide unemployment rate is just over 11 percent.
March organizers were hoping Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would announce at San Luis, the terminus reservoir for both the state and federal water projects, that more water would soon be flowing through the Delta by state emergency order to turn on the banks of pumps that move water from Northern California to Central and Southern California.
The governor called the water crisis in the Valley and the state “self-inflicted wounds” because state leaders have for years refused to update the water delivery system designed to serve 20 million people to deliver water to 38 million Californians today.
Schwarzenegger did nothing to heal the wounds. Rally leaders were hoping the governor would order the huge Delta pumps to run at full capacity to refill San Luis immediately. Rather, he repeatedly led a chant of “We need water.”
That was no revelation to the farm workers and farmers who have idled hundreds of thousands acres of land because the federal and state governments are not delivering what producers have paid for.
“Political rhetoric does not impress me. I have heard promises before. We need action,” says Waymire.
The Kings County farmer was quick to point out that the kind of actions he has seen from two of the rally’s political speakers, U.S. Reps Dennis Cardoza, a Democrat from Merced, Calif., and George Radanovich, a Republican who represents the Fresno area, were contrary to their political posturing before the throng at San Luis, where they admonished the government to provide more water to mitigate the growing crisis.
Both, Waymire points out, voted for the San Joaquin River Restoration bill less than a month earlier. This environmental project restores river flow by taking water from agriculture on the East Side of the San Joaquin Valley to restore salmon to the river.
“They voted to take Friant-Kern Canal water that has been used by three generations of farmers and send it to the ocean” to re-establish fish in the San Joaquin River below Millerton Dam, he says.
They were part of the cheerleader squad of politicians demanding the government provide more water for the West Side of the Valley.
The parade of political speakers offered no immediate help and very little in the way of future help. It so frustrated another SJV congressman that he called for Schwarzenegger to resign due to the governor’s failure to respond to the ongoing California water crisis.
“San Joaquin Valley communities are drying up and they are dying. Communities have withered away … people are literally starving,” said Devin Nunes, a congressman from Tulare County.
“The governor’s remarks were little more than lip service; a rehash of what he has said on the subject for years. By ducking the issue of Delta pumps, he demonstrated not only a total lack of understanding, but a callous disregard for our communities.”
“When a government can’t provide the people access to a reliable supply of water, it has failed. This government has utterly failed and Gov. Schwarzenegger should resign from office.”
Phil Larsen, a retired pest control advisor, now represents a district where the water shortage has been devastating to rural farm worker communities.
“I see people struggling to survive. It is disheartening,” says Larsen, who participated in the March for Water.
Although the farm workers, who represented at least 90 percent of the crowd, and farmers were clearly disappointed in the final outcome of the march, Larsen said the turnout was “over and above what we expected.”
Asked if he thought the thousands marching toward San Luis was worthwhile. “I would like to think it made a difference. We will know in an hour,” Larsen said before the governor arrived. He did not hear what he had hoped from the governor.
It was obvious the march made no immediate impact as buses loaded to take most of the 8,000 people back to slowly dying farming communities to search for work. The California Latino Water Coalition vowed at the close that the march and rally were only the beginning of their efforts to draw state and national attention to the human toll the drought is taking.
Some of those people could have worked for Bill Son, a Hanford, Calif., custom cotton harvester who employs only half the people to work in his shop he did two years ago.
“Sixty five percent of my business is in Westlands Water District,” he said. Westlands is the largest federal reclamation project in the West and growers there have been told they can expect no federal project water this year.
“We are just taking it day-by-day and seeing what happens for 2009,” says Son.
Ted Sheely is a member of the Westland board. He is also chairman of Cotton Incorporated.
“Three years ago we had 4,800 acres of cotton. Last year it was 2,400. This year it will be 1,200,” said Sheely.
“We are not hiring as many people as we have in the past,” adds Sheely.
He has wells and some carryover water in San Luis from past years to make it through 2009.
While no tangible relief came from the march and closing rally, Sheely said he was “pleasantly surprised by the size and diversity of the group. My son and I walked in the march Friday morning and saw some of the most successful farmers in the Valley walking side-by-side with farm workers because everyone who makes a living in agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley knows how critical the issue of water is right now.
“I am hopeful something will be done … you have to believe,” he adds.
As the march began in Mendota, Calif., Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced in Sacramento that California would receive $261 million of the department’s $1 billion under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. However, none of that money will significantly impact the San Joaquin Valley.
Almost $110 million of that will go to build a screened pumping plant at the Red Bluff Diversion Dam in Northern California to protect fish populations.”
It was a disappointing announcement amid the march.
There were reports Salazar was going to speak at the rally, possibly to offer the Obama administration support for emergency suspension of the Endangered Species Act, so the federal project pumps could become fully operational.
Although Salazar was in San Francisco at least the day before the San Luis rally, he did not speak at the event.