Down on the farm

How California water policy wiped out highly productive farming and fishing on one delta island

On Sherman Island, cow pastures have replaced productive agricultural lands

Sherman Island may barely register for motorists traveling over the Antioch Bridge and through the delta on Highway 160. Almost wholly owned by the Department of Water Resources, the roughly 10,000-acre patch of Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta flatland is barely developed, and probably home to more cows than people. It lies at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, where freshwater mixes with the salty seawater of the San Francisco Bay.

What isn't obvious at first glance is that Sherman Island was once host to highly productive agriculture — but as delta water quality diminished, farmers saw their crop yields plummet. Larry Del Chiaro, who formerly headed the Sherman Island Landowners Association, used to grow asparagus, wheat, barley, safflower, milo, hay, and other crops on the island. But today, like nearly all the others who previously raised crops there, he no longer has property there and has moved on. His story illustrates how California water policies have benefited one group while affecting the livelihoods of the people who live in the state's central water hub, the delta.

"I was a third-generation farmer on the island," Del Chiaro told the Guardian on a hot August day in the city of Pittsburg. "My grandfather started it. My father, his brothers, my cousins were all on the island farming." Del Chiaro majored in soil science in the 1970s and was interested in increasing crop yields, so he set up test plots and was closely monitoring their progress.

But by 1987, the yields were plummeting dramatically — a drought had hit the state, and Sherman Island farmers weren't getting enough fresh water to sustain their crops. Instead of going to irrigate farmland in the delta, much of the scarce freshwater was being pumped south through the State Water Project to agricultural lands in the arid San Joaquin Valley, causing the delta water to get saltier and saltier.

It presented a problem that was particularly acute in that location. "Sherman Island, to use a cliché, is the plug for the Sacramento Delta," Del Chiaro said. "We're the last one to get the freshwater, and the first one to get the saltwater intrusion."

The North Delta Water Agency, a regional water body, had a contract on behalf of the island's landowners with the Department of Water Resources (DWR) that guaranteed a certain level of water quality. But DWR's contractual obligations weren't met that year. "As the drought continued, our water quality diminished, and diminished, and diminished, till it got to the point where we had to rely on Mother Nature for rainfall," Del Chiaro said. "And when we didn't get rainfall, our crops suffered."

Under state water law, Sherman Island landowners had riparian water rights, which allowed them use of the freshwater that flowed past their land. The overarching problem, he said, was that DWR couldn't meet contractual obligations to both the delta farmers and the San Joaquin Valley farmers in a dry year because it had over-promised water deliveries through the State Water Project. "We have no control over what Mother Nature gives us in terms of rainfall and the snow pack," he said. "So they were being overly optimistic in terms of all those contracts."

With the help of consultant Patrick Porgans and a San Francisco attorney, Del Chiaro and the 26 other Sherman Island landowners sued DWR for damages. In 1991, the state settled for $3.6 million, and the farmers were paid for not drawing water out of the delta. Soon after, DWR bought up the island. Once the water agency took control, it eliminated the need for DWR to satisfy contractual obligations to provide freshwater to the Sherman Island farmers. The farmers had cleared out, and the agency's problem was solved.