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California drought to get a federal hearing

/ Source: The Associated Press

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."