The Drought's Strange Bedfellows 

Some family farms are teaming up with agribusiness to push for a peripheral canal. Plus, NUMMI's eco-problem.

When news broke last week that an El Nino was forming in the Pacific, it raised hopes that California's three-year drought may finally end. But the cyclical warming of ocean waters may be moderate, and not produce the prodigious rainfall that accompanies an intense El Nino event. If that's true, it will be bad news for small family farms, many of which grow organic crops.

The last three winters have severely harmed small farmers in the Central Valley. According to David Runsten, policy director of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, small farms along the southwestern valley have left land fallow because of the water shortage. "It's a very difficult problem," he said.

The drier-than-normal conditions also have prompted small farmers to take opposing sides in the war over whether to build a peripheral canal around the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta. Many farmers south of the Delta have teamed up with Southern California developers and agribusiness to push for the canal, because they want a more reliable water supply. Family farmers in the northern Central Valley, by contrast, are working with environmentalists to kill the proposal, saying it will further starve the fragile Delta of fresh water. As for the alliance, Runsten says it's not taking sides. "We're pushing for water conservation," he said. "We think everybody in California has to start conserving water all the time."

NUMMI's Environmental Mess

Toyota will be deciding over the next few months whether to close the NUMMI auto plant in Fremont. And it turns out that one of the pivotal concerns for the auto maker is the costly environmental clean-up that will be required if it closes the plant and puts the property up for sale. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal last week, a Toyota executive said the environmental problem at New United Motors Manufacturing Inc. is so severe that the property has "almost zero asset value." In other words, the cost of clean-up could exceed the value of the 367-acre property once it's rid of toxins.

Fremont City Attorney Harvey Levine said he was not aware of any governmental assessment of NUMMI's environmental problems, nor does he think that Toyota and its former partner, General Motors, were negligent. "My assumption has always been that there will have to a major clean-up," he said. "It's a very large facility that has used lots of oil and paint over the years."

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