A demand to increase water supplies in a parched region of the San Joaquin Valley descended on Rep. George Miller's offices in Concord on Thursday, as more than 1,000 farmers and farmworkers arrived by bus to shout for more water at several dozen counterprotesters.
Farms in the nation's largest irrigation district, on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, have seen water supplies cut in recent years. Tempers boiled Thursday as opposing sides screamed at each other — at one point across Waterworld Parkway, a wide road that leads to a water theme park.
Miller, who was in Southern California, issued a statement that called the protest shallow.
"Special interests are trying to use stunts like this to restart the state's water wars for political and financial gain, but solving California's water problems will take more than talk radio slogans and name-calling," he said.
Miller has been instrumental in redirecting water from farms to boost the dwindling salmon population, requiring farmers to speed up interest-free repayment on the Central Valley Project, which the farmers depend on for water. Farmers said he also was blocking more recent efforts to suspend environmental protections to increase water flows to farms.
Still, state and federal water officials say the biggest reason for water supply cuts this year has been dry weather and low reservoirs — not fish protection.
A smaller percentage of the cutbacks is attributable to court-ordered efforts to prevent Delta smelt, a tiny fish, from going extinct, and that is where the protesters' anger was focused.
There were no injuries or arrests, but there were several heated arguments. Mostly, it was two hours of shouting.
The tenor of the protest was probably best illustrated when Robert Johnson, a Delta fisherman who helped organize the counterprotest, attempted to defend Miller and call attention to water policies that led to overpumping and an environmental crisis.
He was shouted down and finally asked for a chance to be heard.
He got it when a bullhorn-wielding protest organizer, Ben Bergquam of the Central Valley Tea Party organization, urged protesters to give Johnson a chance to speak.
When the crowd quieted down, Johnson said a few words and then said it was time to disperse, prompting Bergquam to shout, "I thought you were going to talk about the issues. Talk about the issues."
So Johnson did, again, and was again, promptly booed and shouted down.
Farm labor contractor Piedad Ayala, one of the event organizers, said the other organizers of the rally included the Central Valley Tea Party, a limited government group; Families Protecting the Valley, a new organization headed by former Fresno Mayor Alan Autry; and the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta, which shares an office in Bakersfield with Beverly Hills billionaire Stewart Resnick's farm interests.