- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 19, 2014

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) - Farmers holding signs protesting dramatic cuts to their irrigation supplies packed Fresno City Hall for a congressional hearing Wednesday, delving into the politics of California’s drought crisis striking the state’s agricultural heartland.

Visalia farmer Michael Malmgren’s sign had the words “Water is the heart of the matter,” surrounding a big, pink heart.

The House Natural Resources Committee’s hearing on California’s drought and the need for fixes began with statements from eight members of Congress followed by testimony from Central Valley farmers, community leaders and state officials.

Republicans dominated the spirited session. They blamed the shortage of water for farming on environmentalists bent on protecting endangered fish, such as the Delta smelt, a lack of action from Democrats in the U.S. Senate and what they called a misguided focus on California’s high-speed rail or global warming.

Everybody’s attention should be on building more water storage in wet years, they said in the hearing lasting more than two hours and attended by more than 250 people.

Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., said a “radical ideology” has made its way into California water policy, overburdening new projects with government regulation.

“Translation,” he said. “That means these dams will not get built.”

Yet, an hour’s drive north of Sacramento on Wednesday, Democratic Rep. John Garamendi and Republican Rep. Doug LaMalfa in a bipartisan display announced a bill to build a new reservoir. The Sites Reservoir in Maxwell would be about the same size as the San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos.

Wednesday’s activity across the state comes amid California’s third consecutive dry year.

Gov. Jerry Brown in January declared a drought emergency, and in February President Barack Obama visited to see the crisis firsthand, delivering millions of dollars in relief aid. The two weren’t at the hearing, but they took their share of criticism for mismanaging California’s drought.

Rep. Jim Costa, a Fresno farmer and the lone Democrat on the panel, said he too was angry that California’s water system hasn’t been upgraded to keep pace with the state’s growing population. But this is no time for politics, he said.

“We continue to point fingers and play the blame game,” Costa said. “It does not bring us one additional drop of water.”

February delivered promising rain, but many farmers - especially in the Central Valley - expect to receive no irrigation water from two vast systems of canals, reservoirs and dams operated by state and federal authorities.

Members of Congress heard from farmer Larry Starrh, who choked up explaining that 1,000 acres of his almond trees will dry up and die. Sylvia Chavez grew up working in the fields, and today she’s mayor of Huron, a Central Valley farming town of nearly 7,000 that may run out of drinking water.

“If you didn’t grow up in the Valley or have not traveled here before,” she said, “you may be unaware that lettuce and tomato in your garden salad or the topping on your McDonald’s burger come from here.”

Story Continues →