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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updated 6/25/2009 6:17:05 PM ET 2009-06-25T22:17:05

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Wednesday he will hold hearings in California on the prolonged drought that has turned fields into dust bowls and resulted in a spike in rural crime, high unemployment and low property values.

Salazar's visit to Fresno Sunday underscores the dire situation farmers, businesses and residents face as the nation's most productive agricultural state struggles through the third year of drought, compounded by cutbacks in water deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect endangered fish.

He'll be joined by his top deputy and members of the California congressional delegation.

On Wednesday, as temperatures climbed to 102 degrees, a panel from the Department of Food and Agriculture sat in a high school cafeteria in Mendota, the so-called epicenter of the drought where unemployment hovers around 40 percent, listening to farmers describe their suffering in a valley dependent on imported water for its agriculture economy.

Farmer Bob Dietrich said he has planted 300 of his 1,100 acres because his single well isn't enough to water his entire farm. Shawn Coburn apologized for arriving late, saying the $750,000 well he drilled earlier this year "is sucking air" as aquifers shrink under increased pumping.

Studies estimate that as of May, the lack of water in the San Joaquin Valley has cost 35,000 jobs and $830 million in farm revenue.

"We need to show how that impacts the rest of the state and the rest of the country," said A.G. Kawamura, the state Food and Agriculture secretary. "We need to convey this idea that if certain things aren't fixed, we'll have a decrease in production, an increase in food costs, increases in unemployment and crime, increases in so many negative factors just because water isn't flowing."

The three-year drought and more recent delivery restrictions have revealed shortcomings in the state's water system, designed in the 1930s for a population of 18 million people. Now, with 38 million people, 35 percent of the water is set aside for smelt, the salmon run and wetland habitat.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has advocated for more surface water storage and a peripheral canal to move water from north to south by avoiding the delta and its fragile ecosystem. The idea is unpopular, however, with some environmental groups and construction is at least 15 years away.

Farmers asked state officials Wednesday to petition the federal government to relax endangered species regulations to allow more pumping.

"I don't know how this region gets through the next two to three years," said Dan Nelson, executive director of the San Luis & Delta Mendota Water Authority.

Currently the San Luis Reservoir, which holds water for San Joaquin Valley farmers and users in Southern California and the Santa Clara Valley is at 23 percent capacity, said Wendy Martin of the California Department of Water Resources.

At a time when it normally would be filled by transfers from Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville, control gates are closed to protect the smelt.

Board members said the problems experienced in Australia, where a prolonged drought has cut that country's agriculture revenue in half, should serve as a warning that our nation's food system is in peril. Already Kawamura said a representative of the Japanese consulate has called wondering whether the exports of rice will decrease, leaving his country scrambling for its dietary staple.

"Agriculture is the economic driver of California," said board member Donald Valpredo. "It's the duty of this board to come up with a quick fix."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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