SAN LUIS RESERVOIR — Gov. Schwarzenegger urged on thousands of demonstrators Friday on the final leg of a four-day march across California's agricultural basin designed to draw attention to surging unemployment caused by water shortages in the state's rural middle.
Framed by a half-empty reservoir perched above miles of dry cropland, the governor told farmers and farmworkers he was doing all that he could to bring more water to the region this growing season.
"Farmworkers are losing their jobs because crops are not being planted, and in towns across our Central Valley, our unemployment is going skyrocketing," Schwarzenegger told the crowd of about 8,000. "It is not just because of the world economy being down; it is self-inflicted wounds because we can't get our act together and create a water infrastructure that is for 38 million people."
California farmers have had to leave large swaths of land unplanted because of a three-year drought, coupled with reduced pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to safeguard a native fish.
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The California Latino Water Coalition joined with farmers and others to promote the march, which began Tuesday and wove through fallow fields and towns struck by record levels of unemployment. Farmers and farm labor contractors hired buses to take hundreds of largely Spanish-speaking participants each day to walk a total of 30 miles.
The numbers swelled to 8,000 Friday when the march arrived at the San Luis Reservoir.
Estela Cruz, a 34-year-old single mother of three, said she walked for two days hoping the march would help speed water to the west side of Fresno County, where unemployment is 17 percent.
She said she sometimes can't pay her rent because she can't stretch the $800 she earns each month in the fields any further.
"It used to be that I would buy a little bit of everything at the store, but now I'm just buying things for the children's lunches. I can't send any money back home to my father in Mexico, either," she said.
In recent years, the delta, which provides water to nearly two-thirds of all Californians, has become a troubled resource. Three years of below-average precipitation have wreaked havoc on its habitat and water supply.
Facing record-low reservoirs, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation last month told hundreds of valley farmers they would get no irrigation water from the federal government, though they could get some later this year.
Schwarzenegger favors building a canal to pipe river water around the delta, a costly strategy that environmentalists reject.
On Friday, he encouraged marchers to follow the example of the late civil rights leader César Chávez.
But Arturo Rodriguez, who heads the 27,000-member United Farm Workers union, which Chávez co-founded, said the march's organizers cared little about farmworkers' real needs. The union didn't participate, he said, to focus on their priorities, which he outlined as immigration reform, workers' rights to union representation and better job conditions.
Rodriguez said some of the protesters were being paid to attend the march as a part of their workday, which several participants confirmed.
"The organizers of this march are growers and farm labor contractors, they're not farmworkers," he said. "We're not opposed to growers getting more water, but they need to ensure that farmworkers simultaneously get access to good, clean drinking water in their communities and a way to raise their voices for good working conditions."