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The sun sets at the southern end of the parched San Joaquin Valley: America's salad bowl no longer. (David McNew/2009 Getty Images)
The sun sets at the southern end of the parched San Joaquin Valley: America's salad bowl no longer. (David McNew/2009 Getty Images)

Sonia Verma

How green was my valley: California's drought Add to ...

Farmers here have always relied on imported water to make their fields bloom. At the turn of the century, they hauled it by horse and buggy. In the 1950s, Mr. Allen's grandfather, who had immigrated to America from Sweden at the height of the Depression, helped to build a complex network of canals to carry runoff from the Sierra Mountains snowpack south to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

As California's population swelled - to more than 38 million today from 23.6 million in 1980 - the water system became strained. Climate change also took its toll, shrinking the Sierras' snow, and for the past three years, rainfall has been below average.

Environmental groups have long argued that the massive water diversions come with a cost. The tiny Delta smelt was chewed up so badly in the powerful pumps that it was designated an endangered species. Salmon, green sturgeon and a handful of other species showed dramatic declines.

Last December, fresh restrictions meant to protect the fish were imposed, effectively shutting down the spigots and starving the Central Valley farmers of water.

Those in Fresno County saw their monthly allotments evaporate, virtually overnight. Here's how Mr. Allen recalls it: "When it came time to get my initial water allocation in January, we were told it would be zero. In February, my heart was pounding. Zero again. March, same thing. April, zero." By that point, most of his crop of winter wheat had already withered and died.

UNEMPLOYMENT 'REALLY SAD'

"The farmers may be facing hardship, but so are the fishermen and the fish," says Carolee Krieger, president of the California Water Impact Network, a lobby group based in Santa Barbara on the Pacific coast that fought for the restrictions.

If water pumping resumes in the Delta, more wildlife will be endangered, she argues. "The smelt is a bellwether and it's a very important marker for the health of the whole estuary."

As for impact on humans, "it's really sad that there is unemployment, but we're all in an economic downturn," she says, noting that stocks are so low, salmon fishing hasn't been allowed in California for nearly three years.

While it's true that the downturn is causing widespread pain, the water restrictions came on the heels of a brutal three-year drought, hitting the farmers especially hard and sending parts of Fresno County - a poor place even in the best of times - hurtling toward collapse.

"There's a big dichotomy between the Fresno experience of California and the Baywatch experience of California," says economist Richard Howitt of the University of California at Davis. "This state is really one big country with a wide range of situations and these guys are really, really hurting."

California faces a long list of economic woes, but he contends that water scarcity is an "unprecedented crisis" - the single biggest problem facing California's massive agricultural industry.

Today, Interstate 5, the highway that slices through the San Joaquin Valley, is flanked by parched fields. Signs, in English and Spanish, proclaim: "Congress-created dustbowl" and "No water, No future" and "Like foreign oil? You'll love foreign food."

The bitter irony that farm families in the region known as America's salad bowl are flocking to food giveaways at churches and community centres is lost on no one.

Without water, farmers have left an estimated 200,000 hectares of once-productive farmland fallow. Thousands of farm workers, mainly Spanish-speaking migrants, have been laid off.

Mr. Howitt estimates lost farm revenue in the San Joaquin Valley could top $2-billion this year and will suck as many as 80,000 jobs out of its already-battered economy.

"This is one of the classic, really difficult trade-offs we are faced with in hard times: environmental values versus human suffering," he says.

"The rest of California should care about this because what's happening in Fresno is a forerunner of the essential environmental and economic debate that we're going to have because our environmental rules were set up before people were confronted with the real effects of an economic downturn."

The bottom line, Mr. Howitt says, is that "we are going to have to make fundamental choices. ... It's fish versus jobs and communities."

OBAMA GETS THE FINGER

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