Image: Schwarzenegger at water protest
Gary Kazanjian  /  AP
With the abnormally low San Luis Reservoir as a backdrop, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks to thousands of protesters in the farming town of Gustine on April 17.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 4/24/2009 12:07:32 PM ET 2009-04-24T16:07:32

When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger joined thousands of farmers and farm workers at the end of a four-day march to protest water shortages, he said he'd do all he could to bring more water to the San Joaquin Valley.

He promised state and federal dollars to replace an antiquated irrigation and water delivery system. The Obama administration immediately earmarked $260 million from the federal stimulus funds to help do just that.

State and federal officials this week also slightly raised how much water farmers can get from managed rivers around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the critical region where most of the nation's fruits and vegetables are grown.

But those allocations are still far below what farmers are used to getting. Moreover, any significant improvements will take years or decades, and not even Schwarzenegger can deliver what Mother Nature hasn't provided — rainfall to end a three-year drought.

As a result of the drought and water restrictions, California farmers have left large swaths of land unplanted — and fewer jobs for farm workers, most of them Hispanic immigrants.

'Saving water ... a way of life'
California's head honcho for water resources was blunt, even as the governor promised help.

"By no means has California been lifted out of this third year of drought," Lester Snow, director of the Department of Water Resources, said last week. "In fact, 2007-2009 is expected to rank in the top 10 driest three-year periods in the last century.

"Saving water must become a way of life for all Californians now and into the future," he added.

Two months earlier, Schwarzenegger declared a state emergency because of California's drought. That order directed state agencies to provide assistance to drought-affected communities and businesses.

He also urged all urban users to reduce their water use by 20 percent.

And even with March rain and snow storms, California's largest reservoirs — Shasta and Oroville — are still only three-quarters as full as they should be at this time of year. The San Joaquin Reservoir is at a historic low.

The Westlands Water District — which serves farms in King and Fresno counties that produce about $1 billion in crops annually — estimates that the water shortages have meant that 300,000 acres of lettuce, tomatoes and other crops won't be planted this year.

Besides the drought, a federal court ruling to protect Delta smelt fish has reduced pumping capacity in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The delta, which provides water to nearly two thirds of all Californians, has become a highly troubled resource. Three years of below-average precipitation have wreaked havoc on its habitat and water supply. Urban and agricultural pollution are also problems.

"In the future, the delta's fragile ecosystem, uncertain precipitation patterns and reduced snowmelt will further reduce California's water supply reliability," the Department of Water Resources stated.

Obama aide takes notice
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar personally weighed in by touring the delta area with Schwarzenegger earlier this month.

Image: Salazar, Schwarzenegger on helicopter tour
Robert Durell  /  AP
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger study a pumping plant in the Sacramento Delta during a helicopter tour on April 15.
After a helicopter view, Salazar noted that California's massive system of reservoirs, pumps and canals, built a half century ago, was designed for a population half the size of the state's 37.7 million people.

"It is time to modernize, it is time to make hard choices and it's time for the federal government to re-engage in full partnership with the 21st century water system for the state of California," he said in announcing the $260 million in infrastructure funds.

Schwarzenegger, for his part, reiterated his call to build more dams and urged state lawmakers to place a water bond on next year's ballot. He also favors building a canal to pipe river water around the delta, an idea rejected by voters in 1982.

Salazar declined to endorse building new dams or a canal. He did rule out suspending federal environmental laws, as some members of California's Republican congressional delegation have suggested in an attempt to funnel more water to farmers.

"That is not the solution here," Salazar said. "The solution that we're looking at is one that is going to have to be comprehensive in nature that takes into account the huge variations you're seeing in water supply."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photos: California's water woes

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  1. Tumbleweeds have replaced this irrigation canal near Tranquillity in California's Central Valley, seen on April 19. Drought and tight water supplies mean Central Valley farm losses are expected to be around $400 million this year. Some 20,000 full-time jobs will likely be lost, and fewer crops means upward pressure on food prices nationwide. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A farmer plows a dry field near Buttonwillow in California's Central Valley on April 16. The state's three-year drought hasn't shut down farming, but it has severely reduced planted areas. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Deprived of irrigation water, this field near Firebaugh, Calif., lies fallow and cropless on April 18. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. California's drought is also affecting the southern part of the state. Vacant storefronts are seen on March 12 along Main Street in El Centro, a farming town in Imperial Valley east of San Diego. El Centro is seeing 23 percent unemployment, nearly as high as rates during the Great Depression, with Latinos especially being hit hard. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Farmers and farm workers shout their demands as Gov. Schwarzenegger shows up on April 17 at the last stop on their march near Los Banos. The march was organized by the California Latino Water Coalition. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger greets farmers and farm workers demanding more water after their four-day march through the Central Valley that ended on April 17. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Sunrise on March 12 illuminates a farm irrigation canal near El Centro in California's Imperial Valley, an area north of the border with Mexico that was once desert. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Sprinklers water a field crop at sunset on April 16 north of Buttonwillow. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Hispanic farm workers harvest broccoli on March 12 near El Centro. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Sheep butt heads near an abandoned and dried-up irrigation ditch on April 18 near Firebaugh, Calif. The ditch is on a farm that receives no water allocation from government managers. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. El Centro residents in need receive a monthly food handout on March 13 from the Imperial Valley Food Bank. California is also reeling from a massive budget crisis that ushered in deep cuts to social services. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Maya Ramirez, a single mother in El Centro who relies on a monthly food handout for herself and her five children, helps her daughter Sherhar, 7, with homework on March 13 while holding her baby Alma. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A fence surrounds a site where new home construction has been suspended in El Centro. Like other once-booming areas across the U.S., El Centro's housing market has gone bust. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The El Centro area has also relied on trade with Mexico. The nearby border town of Calexico is full of currency exchange outfits like this one. A plummeting Mexican peso has undercut the buying power of Mexicans who shop on the U.S. side of the border. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Many truckers, like this one in Firebaugh, are among the non-farm workers who rely on California's farms for their own livelihood. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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