Politics & Government

Interior secretary, top aides to visit drought-stricken Fresno

WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and his top staff will soon be feeling Fresno's pain, in a high-profile town hall meeting now being organized for Sunday afternoon in the drought-stricken city.

Making his first official on-the-ground visit to the southern San Joaquin Valley, Salazar will be coming with Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Mike Connor and several Valley lawmakers. They plan a 90-minute public session focused on the Valley's profound water shortage.

"They're going out to listen to people on all sides of the issue," Salazar's spokeswoman, Kendra Barkoff, said Wednesday afternoon. "This is an issue the secretary has been working on for a while."

Interior Department officials have not yet identified a location for the meeting, which is scheduled to run from 2:30-4 p.m. Officials also have not indicated whether Salazar plans additional announcements at the Fresno session, although Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, observed that "people don't usually show up with nothing."

Low precipitation and the diversion of irrigation water to protect salmon and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have prompted Californians to request everything from federal funding and streamlined rules to new water project approvals.

"He isn't going to solve every California water problem on this trip," Cardoza cautioned. "It's a fact-finding trip."

Cardoza and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, were both meeting Wednesday morning with Interior Department officials and both plan to attend the Fresno meeting.

"Ever since we first met with Secretary Salazar in March, we've been telling him he needed to get involved in this," Costa said. "We've been hammering on them every week."

Several weeks ago, for instance, Costa and Cardoza brought out Salazar's brother, Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., for a fact-finding trip to parched Valley communities including Los Banos and Mendota. Hayes already has some painfully gained knowledge of California water woes, from his prior Interior Department service during the Clinton administration.

The two congressmen said Wednesday that the meeting's format is still being worked out, and that any potential field trip outside of the city depends on Salazar's schedule.

Republicans, too, have been urging Interior Department officials to pay greater heed to the Valley's water problems. Spencer Pederson, spokesman for Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, said late Wednesday that Salazar "needs to see for himself what's going on out there."

Interior Department officials had not advised Radanovich about the Fresno meeting, though the congressman represents 233,000 Fresno County residents. Radanovich is not currently scheduled to be in California this weekend. Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of Visalia, who represents 271,000 Fresno County residents, also had not been informed about the visit.

The lawmakers from both parties had criticized as inadequate Salazar's last visit to the vicinity.

In mid-April, following an aerial tour of the Delta, Salazar landed at Sacramento's Mather Field to announce the delivery of $260 million in economic stimulus funds for California water projects. The funding announced then included money for Folsom Dam safety projects, new pumps and fish screens on the Sacramento River and planning for Delta conservation.

At the time, Costa called Salazar's offering "very disappointing," while Westlands Water District spokeswoman Sarah Woolf said "there is absolutely nothing in there that would benefit us."

In the weeks since, the Valley lawmakers have lined up behind an amendment authored by Nunes that would block a federal decision steering more water into fish habitat protection. Though the amendment failed by a 218-208 vote last week, lawmakers suggested it sent a signal that could not be ignored.

"It's OK to value fish, that's OK," Nunes said during House debate, "but understand you're starving families while you value fish."