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Rice Farmers Cry Foul Over `Sucking Sound From South'

BUMPER stickers saying ``Remember the Owens Valley'' are being seen with increasing frequency on the lonely ribbons of highway crisscrossing this stark agricultural plain. The 100-mile-long, one-time Eden on California's southeastern flank was leeched dry in the 1920s to make way for a little desert town known as Los Angeles.

Now comes a fresh threat to this central-northern valley whose tributaries produce 75 percent of the state's water. If four federal agencies have their way, a lot more water in coming years is going to be needed to help fix the state's ailing Delta region. Water activists in the region cry: ``Don't take it from us.''

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They are seizing the chance to stew anew about a ``giant sucking sound from the south'' - not United States jobs going to Mexico, but the water of this vast wetlands being siphoned off to Beverly Hills swimming pools and other uses.

``It doesn't look good for us up here,'' complains Allen Garcia, a rice farmer who has seen his water prices sextuple since 1988 - from $5 per acre foot to $30 per acre foot.

Already, state and federal water projects take 5 million acre feet of water out of the region per year. Now, new standards may put dibs on another half million or even much more in a dry season.

What's left is not only scarcer, but it costs more, thanks to fees levied by the federal Bureau of Reclamation to help mitigate problems caused by pumping the water south.

The increased fees are used for fish screens in diversion levees, ``curtains'' that provide colder water more suitable for spawning, and pricey repairs of spawning grounds.

These costs should be incurred by water users to the south, not those in the area of the water's origin, farmers here say. What's worse, Mr. Garcia says, is that if the price of water goes much higher, he will have to move out of rice production - a program praised by high-ranking national environmentalists for providing wetlands habitat to tens of thousands of migrating waterfowl.

Rice farmers have been lauded in recent years for helping to reverse the state's trend towards paving over its wetlands. Since 1967, more farmland has been paved over than the combined area of New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

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Rice farms also harbor 21 special-status species ranging from giant garter snakes to sandhill cranes to snowy egrets. ``Are we going to destroy the habitat of 21 species here to help three somewhere else?'' Garcia asks.

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