ABC: Judge Cuts Water to California Farmers to Save Endangered Fish

On the March 28 World News Saturday, ABC gave rare attention to the plight of drought-stricken farmers in California who have been denied access to a major water supply by a judge citing the Endangered Species Act to protect a type of fish. During a story recounting the unusual level of problems facing these farmers – a recession coinciding with drought – correspondent Lisa Fletcher informed viewers: "And for the first time ever, farmers may be completely cut off from one of their sources of water. Farmers don't have access to this water that runs right through the center of their farmland. It is being allocated to the delta smelt, a little fish protected by the Endangered Species Act. Conservationists say the smelt are dying in the irrigation pumps, so a judge ruled they must be shut off for much of the growing season."

Fletcher then told of an almond farmer who is now forced to spend $600,000 digging his own well. Fletcher: "That hits almond farmers, like Shawn Coburn, particularly hard. Ninety percent of the nation's almonds come from this valley, and almond trees need a lot of water. ... So Coburn is spending $600,000 to dig a new well, and he hopes to buy himself some time."

The report ended with a soundbite of Firebaugh, California, city manager Jose Ramirez pleading for more water: "All our people want here is a job. That's all we want. You let the water flow, food will grow, and jobs will flow after that, and we're in business."

Below is a complete transcript of the story from the March 28 World News Saturday on ABC:

DAN HARRIS: In California, the problem is not too much wet weather, but not enough of it. A drought combined with the bad economy have delivered a one-two punch to the Central Valley, where much of the nation's food is grown. 100,000 acres went unplanted last year, and this year, it could be 750,000 acres. Economists say that will mean $1.5 billion in lost income and the elimination of 40,000 jobs. Lisa Fletcher is in California tonight.

LISA FLETCHER: In just a glance, you know something is very wrong.

PETE RAMIREZ, CROP DUSTER: It's like a desert. A couple of years ago, it was all farmland and everybody had a job.

THEDA LAWRENCE, MENDOTA: What are the people gonna do? How are they gonna eat whenever there's no farming?

FLETCHER: A quarter of the nation's fruits and vegetables are grown here in California's Central Valley. But the farmers here have been hit with two crises at the same time. They're in their third year of severe drought. And now, they must also cope with the worst recession in a generation. That has driven unemployment to staggering levels – 35 percent in some places, numbers that recall the Great Depression. And for the first time ever, farmers may be completely cut off from one of their sources of water. Farmers don't have access to this water that runs right through the center of their farmland. It is being allocated to the delta smelt, a little fish protected by the Endangered Species Act. Conservationists say the smelt are dying in the irrigation pumps, so a judge ruled they must be shut off for much of the growing season. That hits almond farmers, like Shawn Coburn, particularly hard. Ninety percent of the nation's almonds come from this valley, and almond trees need a lot of water.

SHAWN COBURN, ALMOND FARMER: If you have a crop that needs water year in and year out, you, it either dies, or you try to find a way to keep it alive.

FLETCHER: So Coburn is spending $600,000 to dig a new well, and he hopes to buy himself some time.

JOSE RAMIREZ, CITY MANAGER FOR FIREBAUGH, CALIFORNIA: All our people want here is a job. That's all we want. You let the water flow, food will grow, and jobs will flow after that, and we're in business.

FLETCHER: Lisa Fletcher, ABC News, in California's Central Valley.