The water wars

San Francisco Bay and the delta are dying. Salmon runs are collapsing. Droughts are getting worse. And big agriculture still wants more water
Illustration by Caitlin Kuhwald

When arch-conservative Fox News host Sean Hannity decided to weigh in recently on the contentious — and immensely complicated — issue of California water policy, here's how he summed it up: "Farmers in California are losing their crops, their land, and their livelihood — all because of a two-inch fish!"

Television viewers were treated to scenes of the Central Valley, showing a lush field of crops — followed by a dusty, withered almond orchard that has been cut off from water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. A news anchor informed viewers that the nation's most productive agricultural lands were "threatened by a small, harmless-looking minnow called the Delta smelt."

Because a federal judge ordered cutbacks in the amount of water shipped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to farms in the valley, a farmer explained on camera, growers have fallen on hard times. After showing a long line stretching around a food bank in the tiny agricultural town of Mendota, the newscasters concluded: "It's fish versus families, and [the government is] choosing the fish."

It's a dramatic portrayal, and the poor farm laborers who are out of work are truly struggling. But it isn't the fault of a fish.

The state Legislature is now struggling with a series of bills to address a problem that sometimes seems to defy political solution, while agricultural interests — which consume the lion's share of the state's water supply — are campaigning aggressively to secure even more water for irrigation.
But while the political forces battle, an environmental nightmare is being created in the Delta. Years of massive water diversions are putting the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary at risk. Massive projects that take freshwater from the delta appear linked to declines in bay and delta fisheries, threatening not just endangered species but California's salmon fishing industry, which lost more than $250 million last year as a result of declining salmon runs.

Delta exports (at left) have increased in recent years, while returning Chinook salmon populations have declined at the end of a three-year spawning cycle. Graph created using data from Porgans & Associates

Meanwhile, climate models predict that California's tug-of-war over water will only get uglier as the state is hit with more frequent droughts. As lawmakers scramble to find a solution to the state's water woes, the challenge isn't just to balance the needs of families and fish — it's to steer an increasingly crowded state toward smarter management of shrinking water resources.
"It all comes down to climate change," Lt. Gov. John Garamendi noted in a recent interview with the Guardian. "Everything we know about water in California is going to dramatically change."

Critics say the bills in Sacramento are, at best, a duct-tape-and-baling-wire solution to a problem that could define the state's economy and environment in the coming decades. "The bills ... have been slapped together in such a slapdash way that it's reminiscent of energy deregulation," said Nick Di Croce, lead author of "California Water Solutions Now," a report produced by the Environmental Water Caucus.

As things stand, much of the problem is inherent in the system. The pumps that export water out of the delta regularly pulverize federally threatened and endangered fish, yet the government agencies that operate them are rarely held accountable. The agency that is supposed to monitor and protect the health of the San Francisco Bay and the fragile delta ecosystem also gets 80 percent of its budget from water sales.