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Farmers implore legislators to find water solutions now

POSTED January 16, 2010 12:11 a.m.
U.S. Reps. Dennis Cardoza (D-Merced) and Jim Costa (D-Fresno) held a briefing on Thursday at the Los Banos Fairgrounds to discuss the valley water crisis, but many of the 200 plus in attendance weren’t happy with the seeming lack of short-term solutions to the lowest water allocations in history.
“This was a complete waste of time,” said Ben Bergquam, a member of the Central Valley Tea Party. “They could have just sent out a press release saying, ‘You’re screwed.’”
Bergquam was particularly disappointed that only four questions were taken from the audience during the two-hour plus meeting, during which a bleak picture was painted for those in the south and western parts of the San Joaquin Valley where the water crisis is most severe. Turlock Irrigation District customers are not as affected by the water crisis as the district does not source irrigation water from the State Water Project or Central Valley Project, both of which are reeling from years of drought and Environmental Services Act regulations.
While water districts have no control over the lack of rain in the valley, the traditional response — pumping water from north of the delta — has been hamstrung by efforts intended to save endangered species that valley lawmakers say are misguided.
The National Academy of Scientists issued two biological opinions that require the release of water to protect the Delta Smelt and salmon, diverting the supply from farmers and preventing the use of pumps that can trap and kill fish. Since 2007, more than 1.7 million acre-feet of water have been released from the State Water Project and Central Valley Project to preserve the Delta Smelt.
“Despite everything we have done for protection of fish in the delta … hundreds of millions of dollars spent since 1992 and millions of acres of water, those actions have done absolutely no good,” said Tom Birmingham, general manager for the Westlands Water District. He went on to note that smelt counts are lower today than at any point since records have been kept.
A new NAS report is due March 15, which will examine alternatives to protect the species that may allow for more water to be released. The report will not, however, fully examine the role of other biological conditions in the decline of fish populations, such as water treatment plant effluent and residential fertilizer runoff. The full report dealing with such issues is not due until September 2012.
“We don’t have two years with the banks,” said Manuel Cunha, Jr., president of the Nisei Farmers League. “The banks are calling on their loans.”
U.S. Department of the Interior representatives did offer information about a few short-term solutions, including an approved intertie between state and federal canals that will allow some redirection of water if one has excess. Officials with the Bureau of Reclamation also announced the installation of temporary San Joaquin Valley pumps and pipes for drought relief, and that 55 wells will be enhanced for groundwater pumping.
Those fixes — among others that have yet to be identified — are needed, but are ultimately just “Band-Aids,” said Cardoza, which won’t address the long-term issues with water.
A permanent fix, supported by farmers at Thursday’s meeting, would involve a complete overhaul of the delta and building new reservoirs for increased water storage. That solution could be financed in large part if voters approve the state-approved $11 billion water bond on November’s ballot, but will take years to construct.
In an attempt to get construction started sooner rather than later, Costa and Cardoza introduced a bill on Oct. 7, 2009, to allow stimulus funds to be used on valley water projects, without needing matching local funds. The bill has languished in the House Subcommittee on Water and Power since then.
Despite difficulties in finding solutions — both short and long term — for the water crisis, Costa and Cardoza say they will not stop working until a resolution is found.
“This is the crisis of our generation and, ladies and gentlemen, we’re in this together,” Costa said.
To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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