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Calif. Water Deal No Quick Fix For Struggling Farms

— When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was promoting a complex legislative package to rebuild California's water system, he often appeared alongside farmers who were unable to cultivate their land amid a third year of drought and federal pumping restrictions.

Yet agricultural relief from the bills adopted last week by California lawmakers will not be immediate, meaning the state that grows half the nation's fruit, vegetables and nuts will face a repeat of this year's tough times unless the winter brings epic rain and snowfall.

Most of the reforms included in the legislation won't produce measurable results for years, and the projects funded through an $11.1 billion water bond are far from getting started - and that's assuming voters pass the spending measure in November 2010.

"We'll be all gone by the time it gets implemented," said Bill Koster, whose family has farmed in the Central Valley for 129 years. "If we have another drought year, we're toast. Forget it, we're done."

California farmers this year left about 500,000 acres unplanted in the Central Valley because of the ongoing drought, conditions that are compounded by federal orders to reduce pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta as a way to protect a native fish.

So little water was available to Koster that he fallowed 600 acres of what would have been a wheat and barley crop. That's nearly two-thirds of his fields in Vernalis, about 70 miles south of Sacramento. What little water he did receive kept his almond and walnut trees alive.

If passed by voters, the bond part of the legislative water package could lead to the construction of two dams, with some of the water in the new reservoirs destined for farms. It also would launch a major restoration project for the delta, the largest since rescue efforts for the Florida Everglades started in 2000.

Policy changes included in other bills mandate statewide conservation for cities, require local water districts to monitor groundwater levels, and change how California manages the delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast and the conduit through which water for two-thirds of the state passes.

Some farmers, business leaders and city mayors have praised Schwarzenegger and the Legislature for reaching an agreement to upgrade California's antiquated water system and its policies after decades of inaction.

The compromise reached by lawmakers will create a more stable and reliable water supply in the future, said Tom Birmingham, general manager of the Westlands Water District, which covers 600,000 acres of farmland in the Central Valley.

Others fault the legislation for doing little to help the farmers who are struggling today. In addition to the vast acreage left unplowed this year, California's farm crisis has worsened an already high level of unemployment throughout the central section of the state. Jobless rates have climbed above 15 percent in some Central Valley counties that depend on farming, creating the sadly ironic scene of farmworkers standing in handout lines for food.

"There is nothing in here for our current water crisis," said state Sen. Jeff Denham, a Republican whose family grows almonds at their ranch in Merced County. "You're seeing farms that have been passed down from generation to generation that are now bankrupt, employees that are left unemployed and standing in bread lines. It will get worse."

Denham, a Republican who voted against the bond and the four policy bills, doubts voters will approve new spending next year while the state struggles to balance its books. Earlier this week, Schwarzenegger's office estimated that California faces another massive budget deficit, likely between $12.4 billion and $14.4 billion.

Northern California farmers also oppose provisions of the legislation that will impose expenses for monitoring their groundwater. Farmers who grow crops in the delta, which feeds into San Francisco Bay, complained that a new stewardship council has been equipped to approve a controversial canal that would siphon fresh water around the delta and send more of it to Southern California cities and Central Valley farms. Their main worry is that the water left in the delta will be too salty to irrigate their crops.

"A lot of people were patting themselves on the back about this tremendous accomplishment," said Bruce Blodgett, executive director of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau, which advocates for 6,000 families. "I think in 20 years we'll figure out whether anything gets built."

Lester Snow, director of the state Department of Water Resources, said the water legislation is intended to address long-term solutions for conservation, storage and other infrastructure projects.

Earlier this week, Schwarzenegger acknowledged that very little of the bond money would be spent in the early years. In the meantime, the Republican governor said his administration was working with U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to get water flowing to the state's farms.

While federal water officials say the drought is to blame for much of the water shortage, the pumping restrictions in the delta accounted for about a third of the cutbacks this year.

Anticipating continued restrictions, many farmers say they are bracing for another year of limited water deliveries. California's largest reservoirs are less than two-thirds as full as they should be this time of year.

Doug Mosebar, president of the California Farm Bureau, said the state needs to refocus its efforts to help farmers get through the next few years.

"We're glad this package has passed," he said. "But the short term is a major concern because you have farmers just hanging on."

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