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Nearly 4,000 People March in Fresno for Water

Thousands of farmers, farmworkers and their supporters rallied at City Hall on Wednesday, calling on federal officials to ease regulations that have cut water supplies to the nation's most prolific growing region.

"Water makes the difference between the Garden of Eden and Death Valley," said comedian Paul Rodriguez, who acts as a spokesman for the Latino Water Coalition, a group lobbying for changes in water delivery policy regarding the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The noon rally was organized by the grower-funded group, which also organized an April march from Mendota to the San Luis Reservoir hoping to draw national attention to the issue.

On Wednesday, nearly 4,000 people carrying professionally printed signs proclaiming, "No water, no jobs, no hope, no future," marched through downtown. One man who declined to give us name said his Kettleman City employer had driven him and other workers there and were paying them for their time. Another woman said she came with 50 other employees of a Tulare agriculture contractor for free, to protect their jobs.

Speakers stressed the importance of San Joaquin Valley agriculture, which they said produces more than half of the domestically grown U.S. food supply.

"If you like foreign oil, you'll love foreign food," some signs read.

The rally came on the heels of a visit Sunday by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who assigned his chief deputy to stay in California to work full-time on solving the delta's many problems.

Growers, with the help of congressional delegates from the region, have asked officials to ease federal protections for threatened fish that have drastically reduced supplies pumped into the state's vast canal system. Federal agencies have ordered reduced pumping in the delta when the delta smelt are spawning in the area, leaving nearly empty the San Luis Reservoir that stores water for farmers and Southern California municipal users.

Farmers on the west side of Fresno County, the top-producing agriculture county in the U.S., will receive 10 percent of their federal water allocation this year as a result of cutbacks and drought that has led to idled land and layoffs.

Environmental activists and fishing groups say that without protections for the delta, the fishing industry will continue to suffer, as will the ocean species that depend on those fish for survival.

A.G. Kawamura, the director of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said he came to march because "without a water system that has predictability," the state's agriculture infrastructure will collapse.

Farmer Joe Del Bosque, who owns 2,500 acres in western Madera County, said he had planted only half of his land this year because he doesn't have a well to supplement this year's water allocation.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," he said. "I'm completely dependent on surface water."