The water wars - Page 2

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

And the state water projects regularly promise more water than they can deliver.


California's water wars stem from a tricky dilemma: two-thirds of the precipitation falls in the north, while two-thirds of the people live in the drier south. The delta, located primarily in Sacramento and San Joaquin counties, is the heart of the state's water supply, where the freshwater flows of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and vein-like tributaries converge. It boasts the largest estuary on the west coast of North and South America, providing critical habitat for at least a dozen threatened or endangered species including salmon, smelt, splittail, sturgeon, and others.

The delta is also like a superhighway interchange of water for the state. Two vast plumbing networks — the Central Valley Project, operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the State Water Project, operated by the Department of Water Resources — transport water from delta pumping stations to cities and agricultural operations across the state.

Roughly 5.7 million acre-feet of water was exported annually from the delta in recent years, a high that many environmentalists say is unsustainable. (An acre-foot, or 325,853 gallons, is the amount that covers an acre one-foot deep.) Before the Central Valley Project was constructed in the 1930s, only 4.7 million acres of farmland were irrigated statewide. By 1997, the acres of thirsty cropland had climbed to 8.9 million, converting many areas that were once barren desert into lush green fields. Agribusiness dominates the sector, with some farming operations like agricultural empires, spanning tens of thousands of acres.

As cropland has expanded, so has agriculture's demand for water. State and federal agencies sell delta water by issuing contracts to water districts, and the water is priced substantially lower for agricultural use. A report issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council suggests that delta water allocation has traditionally gone something like this: "Corporate and agricultural interests demanded more and more water, and the state and federal agencies let them have it."

No one can say just how much rain will fall from the sky in a given year, so stipulations were written into the water contracts to deal with allocation during times of water shortage. Depending on a district's water rights — a status determined by a combination of seniority and a hierarchy of uses — it may get 100 percent of the amount promised on paper during a dry year, or a mere fraction of it.

But the districts continue to promise water to farmers, and the state continues to promise water to the districts.

This latest round of water wars is exacerbated by the drought, which has sapped water supply in California for three years in a row. The dry spell has led to cutbacks in delta water exports, affecting farms throughout the Central Valley and sending unemployment rates up. The drought was responsible for two-thirds of the roughly 1.6 million acre-feet shortfall in water exports, and the remaining third was withheld by federal court order to protect the endangered Delta smelt.

Making matters worse, many growers in water-deprived places like the Westlands Water District, in the Central Valley between Coalinga and San Joaquin, have recently shifted to permanent crops like almonds and pistachios instead of annual crops that might be more adaptable to unpredictable irrigation supply from year to year. It's a bad time for the San Joaquin Valley to take a hit. The region is already plagued with high rates of unemployment from a loss in construction work, foreclosure, and other effects of the economic downturn.


State Sen.