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San Joaquin dust bowl blamed on water fight

November 24, 2010 7:55:44 PM PST
Parts of California have turned into a modern-day dust bowl over the past few years. Many blame it on three years of drought; others are blaming Congress. Here's an update on the latest round in California's war over water.

One Central Valley orchard is dead and even though it is just a few feet from water, there wasn't enough to keep it alive.

"We can't get a stable supply of water," says almond grower Curtis Stubblefield.

Stubblefield's business counts on water to grow almonds and he worries he too will have to let some of his trees die.

"We realize that there's been a drought, that this has been a political drought in our opinion," says Stubblefield.

Many farmers blame Congress and environmentalists for creating a dustbowl in the San Joaquin Valley by diverting water that used to come to their fields back to the Sacramento delta.

"It's created a tremendous financial hardship and just left our company and our ability to farm hanging in the balance," says Stubblefield.

"The purpose of delivering water to this region was really to develop the agricultural region," said Sarah Woolf.

Woolf is with the Westlands Water District, established in 1952, to supply water to 600,000 acres of farmland in western Fresno and Kings counties along I-5. But legislation passed 40 years later dramatically cut how much water goes to farmers.

"We went to where we were receiving really only about 65 percent -- almost half of what we had contracted with the federal government to receive," says Woolf.

East Bay Congressman George Miller, D-Concord, wrote the law that cut water to farmers. The goal was to protect the delta environment and figure out how to put it on the path to recovery, but that didn't happen.

"But what really in fact happened was that the law was ignored. It was ignored by some of the Clinton administration, it was ignored by the Bush administration, and it continues to be ignored today," says Miller.

Environmentalists sued to get the law enforced and they won. In fact, the judge ruled that even less water would go to farmers and more to the delta and San Francisco Bay.

Barry Nelson is with the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the groups behind the lawsuit.

"Essentially, all of the fish populations in the San Francisco Bay delta system are in free fall," says Nelson.

Congressman Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, represents farmers in the San Joaquin Valley.

"All the San Joaquin Valley wants is the water that they've been entitled to for decades," says Nunes.

Nunes says the combination of lawsuits and federal legislation has gone too far.

"We need the Congress to step in and do something. If the Congress doesn't, then we will in fact have a dust bowl," says Nunes.

Nunes says current water restrictions could force farmers to idle even more land. He also blames the water restrictions for the valley's skyrocketing unemployment rate -- one in four can't find a job here. However, Miller says water limits are not the only reason times are hard.

"The big problem in the Central Valley was the collapse of the housing market. You had a huge number of people involved in housing construction," says Miller.

In fact, economists at the University of the Pacific found water restrictions accounted for just a small fraction of the farm jobs lost. Salmon fisherman say they are the ones being hit hardest.

"We've been unemployed 100 percent in the salmon fleet for the last three years," says San Francisco Bay fisherman Larry Collins.

Collins is one of many salmon fisherman looking at another bad season. He's hoping crab season will help him make ends meet. He's also tired of hearing the farmers complain.

"Those guys are down there planting almond trees. They had the biggest tomato crop in the history of California the third year or second year of the drought, the second biggest almond crop in the history of California, and they are planting more and more and more permanent crops, so when I see those dust bowl signs down there, it's a lie. It's a lie to the American people," says Collins.

ABC7 checked those statements and those claims are accurate, but not all crops are doing so well. Farmers told ABC7 they don't want to fight with fishermen, but they just can't keep up with demand if the water supplies continue to dwindle.

One more note on this: the Westlands Water District has now withdrawn its support for the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan for managing California water distribution. The district says it will not contribute to the plan unless it is guaranteed sufficient water deliveries in the future.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel


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