California News

Farmers angry over water restrictions

Monday, June 29, 2009

Bus loads of Central Valley farmers brought the battle for water to San Francisco. They crowded in front of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office complaining about federal environmental laws that are restricting their access to cheap water.

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The farmers say they're being cut off from water supplies by federal regulations protecting endangered species like Chinook salmon.

About 200 farmers and farm workers marched in front of the Federal Building shouting "turn on the pumps." The pumps they're talking about are the ones that pump water from the Sacramento River Delta to farmlands in the Central San Joaquin Valley.

"I've grown onions, garlic, tomatoes, cotton, wheat, barley and safflower," said Fresno County farmer Jim Walls.

Walls is a third generation farmer in western Fresno County, where water supplies depend on the federally run Central Valley Project. The federal government has been cutting back on water for farming in order to protect fish like the Chinook salmon.

"The more water they've taken away from us, the worse the situation has gotten with the fish," said Walls.

Walls said pollution or something else must be killing the fish because cutting back on water for farms hasn't helped restore the salmon runs.

"It just doesn't make any logical sense that the more water they've taken away from the farmer, the more the fisheries have declined. Those two just don't add up," said Walls.

But the Sierra Club's expert on California fisheries, Jim Metropulos, says it's not that mysterious.

"The simple fact is we're in the middle of a drought and there's not a lot of water to go around," said Metropulos.

Metropulos doesn't dispute that pollution in the Delta is a factor, but it's not the primary cause of the salmon's decline.

"The water itself coming from the Delta is very high quality water. That's why people in southern California would prefer Delta water over Colorado River water because it's such high quality water," said Metropulos.

"The courts have looked at it for three years, the scientists have looked at it for three years that under current conditions in the Delta, salmon cannot survive," said salmon fisherman Dick Pool.

A federal judge agreed and ordered water allocations must take into account the Delta smelt and the Chinook salmon.

Pool says there are 23,000 salmon fishermen who have gone two years without a salmon season.

"It's not a few fish versus people. It's people versus people, jobs versus jobs and food versus food," said Pool.

It's not just salmon and smelt that are declining. Last week, State Fish and Game closed the commercial herring season off the coast. It's the first time that's ever been done. The herring population that spawns in San Francisco Bay is now at its lowest level in 30 years.

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