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Get used to curbing water use, Californians told

California Gov. Schwarzenegger has promised to help ease water shortages, but not even he can provide what Mother Nature hasn't — an end to a three-year drought.
CORRECTION Water Protest
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.Gary Kazanjian / AP
/ Source: staff and news service reports

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.

California Water Salazar
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, left, and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger look over a pumping plant in Sacramento Delta region in California during a helicopter tour, Wednesday, April 15, 2009. Salazar is expected to promise federal funds to help with California's water problems.Robert Durell / AP Pool

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."