The Associated Press
COALINGA, Calif. (AP) - U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and California's senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, promised farmers Wednesday they would press for solutions to the water crisis hitting the state's San Joaquin Valley, one of the most prolific farm regions in the world.
Vilsack stopped at a packing house in Fresno County to hear concerns on issues ranging from trade tariffs to the threat the Asian citrus psyllid poses to the state's citrus industry.
Farmers kept returning to the issue of drought and water, however, and ongoing problems with the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the fragile ecosystem that serves as the main conduit moving water from north to south.
A three-year drought, combined with environmental restrictions on delta water deliveries to protect a native fish, have forced farmers on the valley's west side to fallow more than a quarter-million acres and left thousands jobless.
"I understand these are serious issues with serious consequences," Vilsack said. "I will tell the President it's not just about California, but it's about the country and the world."
The meeting came as federal attention has been focused this week on the water crisis crippling the region.
On Tuesday, Democratic Rep. Jim Costa, who represents much of the region, took House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer to the western Fresno County farm community of Mendota, where idled farmworkers have driven the unemployment rate to nearly 40 percent.
Shortly after Vilsack's meeting with farmers, Feinstein began a water summit in nearby Coalinga.
The meeting drew major growers and water districts from the Sacramento Valley to Los Angeles, as well as Deputy Interior Sec. David Hayes, the federal government's envoy to find solutions to the state's water shortages.
"We are the largest agricultural state in the union and if agriculture can't function here, it means more and more of our food will be brought in from other countries," Feinstein said. "I think we need to stay out of the courts and sit down around the table … to find solutions."
In recent years, legal battles over dwindling supplies have interrupted and reduced irrigation flows to the valley. Low rainfall also has meant there is less water in the delta and rivers to sustain native fish, which has resulted in the cancellation of commercial salmon fishing season for the past two years.
Fishermen and environmentalists, who have sued state and federal water managers arguing the ecosystem needs more water to survive, were not invited to Wednesday's private summit.
Their concerns will be heard at a public meeting hosted by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in Washington next month, Hayes said.
In the meantime, federal and state water managers said they had roughly $27 million to finance a potential interim fix, the so-called "Two Gates" proposal, which would place removable gates in the delta to block threatened fish from getting killed by the pumps.
Farms on the valley's west side are clamoring for such support. Tom Birmingham, general manager of the Westlands Water District, said 1 million acres of almonds, tomatoes, lettuce, grapes and other commodities are "in a crisis" because environmental edicts have limited the flow of high-quality water.
Vilsack, who swept through the valley as part of the administration's tour of rural America, said California's water problems should be a wake-up call for the rest of the country. He also met with dairy farmers and state agricultural officials in Modesto.