The water wars

Pub date September 1, 2009
WriterRebecca Bowe

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. 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. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) put the dilemma simply: "The question is, how do you ensure that two-thirds of the state has a reliable supply of clean water while at the same time acknowledging and addressing the fact that from an environmental standpoint, the delta’s gone to hell in a handbasket over the last five years?" Simitian has taken a leadership role in crafting legislation to reform the broken system.

"I just think that things have come together at this particular time to suggest that there ought to be a sense of urgency about all of this," Simitian added during a recent conversation with the Guardian. "But I worry that inaction is always the default mechanism, and in a conversation such as this one, I don’t think we can afford inaction very much longer."
Right now five bills are pending in Sacramento. Backers say they strive to meet two "co-equal goals" that in the past have proven to be at odds: more reliable delta water deliveries, and a restored delta ecosystem. Simitian’s bill would create a Delta Stewardship Council, a powerful body authorized to approve spending for a new system for moving water through the delta that could include a new version of the much-maligned peripheral canal, a hydraulic bypass diverting freshwater from the Sacramento River around the brackish delta to ship south.

A bill introduced by Assembly Member Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), who heads the water committee, would require a 20 percent reduction in statewide urban per capita water use by 2020. Other objectives in the legislation are to firm up ecological protections for the delta, reevaluate the state’s system of water rights, and establish new water-use reporting requirements.

"Is there a win-win here? I think there is," Simitian told us. "But only if you look at this from sort of a big-picture, comprehensive standpoint, which is why we’ve got five different bills that seek to make sure there’s a balancing of interests. One of the things we’ve talked about was the co-equal goals of a reliable supply of clean water with delta restoration. And that’s going to require not looking at any one of these issues in isolation, but taking it all together."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has made it clear that he believes building a peripheral canal is the best plan. Variations of this idea have been proposed since the 1940s, but in 1982, Californians voted it down at the ballot (with an overwhelming majority of Northern Californians voting no).

Some groups perceive this as a water grab for Southern California and agribusiness, and delta interests say it would cripple both delta agriculture and the estuary by increasing salinity levels from seawater and preventing the delta from being flushed out by natural freshwater flows. Cost estimates for that project range from $10 billion to $40 billion.

Schwarzenegger has also threatened to veto any package proposed by the Democrat-controlled Legislature that doesn’t include bonds for new dams (in their current form, the bills do not). A bond bill would require a two-thirds majority, while the proposed water bills would only need a simple majority vote to pass.

"I think it’s helpful for the governor to weigh in and share his opinions," Simitian noted cautiously. "However, I did not think it was helpful for the governor to simply draw a line in the sand."

The proposals are being met with skepticism from all sides. Many environmentalists who’ve gone to battle over water policy issues for years have little faith, saying the proposed Delta Stewardship Council would cater to the governor’s agenda because he would have the power to appoint four out of seven members. They’re concerned that environmental issues will play second fiddle as plans are hatched.

Lloyd Carter, an environmentalist who grew up on a raisin farm in the Central Valley, is suspicious the policy will be weighted toward agricultural interests. "What’s most useful is to think of water as cash," Carter told us. "It starts out as cash in the public treasury, and one little segment goes in and scoops out as much as it can. Agriculture accounts for less than 5 percent of the state’s economy and they use 80 percent of the water."

Agricultural interests and the water districts that serve them, not surprisingly, view water cutbacks as a signal of government failure and are hard-pressed to go along with anything that doesn’t include provisions for new dams and a canal. Rather than recognize limits in the amount of available water, they want new projects that will increase the supply.

The Latino Water Coalition, an organization backed by agribusiness that has put together marches and rallies to protest the water cutbacks, is critical of the proposed package of bills because they say it doesn’t go far enough. "For years there’s been committee after committee, board after board. If the best that the legislature can do is propose a new committee, how can that be a good solution?" asked Mario Santoyo, technical adviser to the coalition. "There are people who don’t have jobs, there’s food that’s not being grown. It’s a human rights issue. There has to be a solution, and it has to be real."

Sarah Woolf, media spokesperson for the Westlands Water District, which is among the most vocal advocates for agricultural water, echoed Santoyo’s view. "If you do not have above-ground and below-ground storage and a peripheral canal, then you don’t have a solution," she told the Guardian. "There’s no point in passing legislation that doesn’t solve the whole problem."

But of course, when there’s not enough water to go around, building more dams and canals isn’t going to solve the whole problem, either.


Patrick Porgans, a Sacramento-based water policy expert, is critical of the proposed package of bills for a very different reason. "We can’t expect the very government that created the problem to solve the problem, because they are the problem," he says.

Porgans arrived at the Guardian office not long ago dressed in a salmon-colored suit with matching snakeskin belt and shoes. The rail-thin 63-year old walks with a bit of a fragile step, but once he gets talking about water, he’s a bundle of uncontrollable energy. For more than two hours, he held a pair of reporters in thrall as he unpacked and held up big armloads of charts, color-coded graphs, and government documents.

It’s just a sampling from what Porgans calls his "database," and he’s got photos: a storage space piled to the ceiling with file boxes containing thousands of pages of documents. This is his life’s work, and it’s easy to wonder how he even has time to eat and sleep.

In the wake of the 1987-92 drought, his consulting firm, Porgans & Associates, publicized the fact that the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project had pumped more water out of the delta during the dry spell than at any other time in their history of operation. The firm is now suing the government for vioutf8g the Endangered Species Act.

Ask Porgans, and he will tell you that "the peripheral canal is a peripheral issue" because it couldn’t possibly address the underlying shortcomings of the water-policy system itself. He pointed out that 80 percent of DWR’s operating budget is derived from water contracts, and noted that many top officials in water-project agencies arrive through a revolving door from the water districts themselves. There’s a conflict of interest, he said, because the agencies are in charge of both selling off delta water and acting as the stewards of the estuary, a natural resource owned by everyone.

Then there’s the underlying problem of the government having sold off contracts for more water than it could actually deliver, a point Porgans highlighted in his notice of intent to sue. In the years following a drought that struck California in the late 1970s, plans were made to expand water storage for the State Water Project — but they fell through at the last minute. Unfortunately, the limited capacity didn’t slow the sale of water contracts.

From 2001 to 2006 alone, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation signed more than 170 long-term contracts with water districts around the state, promising to increase significantly water deliveries from the Central Valley Project for the next 25 to 40 years.

"Basically, they oversold the project," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. "We had all these contracts to deliver all this water, but nobody looked to see how much water there was. More importantly, they didn’t look at the minimums that would be needed to protect the delta."

"The shortages are inherent in the project," Porgans said. A court opinion issued by California’s third appellate district court in 2000, plucked from his database, underscores this point. "DWR forthrightly admits that ‘the State Water Project (SWP) does not have the storage facilities, delivery capabilities, or the water supplies necessary to deliver full amounts of entitlement water,’" Judge Cecily Bond noted, citing a DWR bulletin. "There is then no question that the SWP cannot deliver all the water to which contractors are entitled under the original contracts. It does not appear that SWP has ever had that ability."

Grader puts the blame directly on the water districts. The growers, he said, are "innocent third parties affected by the actions of water districts that should’ve known better" because the water contracts specified from the beginning that there would be less water available during times of water shortage.

"We have nothing but empathy for farm workers who are unemployed," said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, a 501(c)3 nonprofit representing delta farmers, fishermen, and environmentalists. "But their leadership told them, go ahead and do it. We’ll get you the water."

Farmers have organized rallies and marches to protest the water cutbacks, angrily putting the endangered delta smelt at the front and center of its campaign. A band of farmers traveled up to San Francisco in recent months, chanting "turn on the pumps!" outside Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco Federal Building office.

Rep. Devin Nunes, a Republican who represents Tulare County and parts of Fresno County, unsuccessfully tried to convince Congress to waive Endangered Species Act requirements to forego protection of the delta smelt and restore irrigation for struggling farmers. (Nunes even attended a Congressional hearing toting a goldfish bowl containing minnows to play up the fish-vs.-families mummery.) The Latino Water Coalition has been particularly vocal, getting airtime on Fox News and publicly appearing with Gov. Schwarzenegger to call for construction of new dams and a canal to ensure a more reliable water supply.

Carter, the environmentalist watching it all unfold from Fresno, shakes his head at the display. If their campaign is successful, he told us, the state will wind up embarking on expensive infrastructure projects that serve an agribusiness agenda at Northern California’s expense. "There’s a sense of entitlement down here," he said. "They say it’s ‘our water.’ But the rivers in California belong to all the people."


A series of studies, court decisions, and a Blue Ribbon Delta Vision Task Force convened by the governor have all found that massive water exports out of the delta pose a tremendous environmental problem, and the delta smelt is a mere indicator of the trouble. Failing to ensure adequate freshwater flows through the delta could spell doom for California salmon runs and sound a death knell for the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary. And many contend that building a peripheral canal would be the quickest route to the delta’s demise.

According to data Porgans & Associates has collected, excessive delta water exports are aligned with salmon-population nosedives. The numbers tell a tale: high water exports correlate with dramatic decreases in salmon returns after the fish’s three-year spawning cycle. Conversely, fish populations bounce back following years of reduced pumping.

Delta water exports reached an all-time high of 6.7 million acre-feet in 2005, and three years later, the salmon returns were so low that the commercial salmon harvest was cancelled for the first time. It happened again this year.

While Westlands farmers bemoan what they call a "man-made drought," they’re not the only ones facing job loss due to delta water issues — an estimated $255 million was lost last year as a result of low salmon returns, according to California Department of Fish and Game estimates. A report from the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based environmental research group, estimates puts farm losses due to water shortages at $245 million as of midsummer 2008.

"This closure is among the nation’s worst man-made fisheries disasters," an NRDC report notes. "It is on par with the loss of Atlantic cod fishery, and its economic impact for the fishing industry is comparable to the losses that followed the Exxon Valdez oil spill."

It’s said that California salmon were so plentiful 70 years ago that farmers plucked them from waterways with pitchforks. Now biologists say those salmon runs that haven’t already been listed as threatened or endangered are in a losing battle with worsening water quality and massive water pumps in the Delta.

An estimated 90,000 juvenile salmon die prematurely each year by being sucked into the heavy-duty pumps, according to a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Water Resources study. Sometimes the pumping levels are so high it reverses river flows, causing salmon to swim upstream instead of out to sea. "If you or I go out and shoot an eagle, we’ll go to jail," said Barrigan-Parrilla, from Restore the Delta. "But DWR has no accountability to the Endangered Species Act — they’re grinding up fish."

The salmon also suffer from poor water quality, which environmentalists say is a consequence of the voluminous freshwater diversions. If the freshwater isn’t available to flush out the ecosystem, the negative effects of toxins and pollutants discharged into the Delta are amplified, and the water gets warmer, dirtier, and saltier. The ramifications of salmon decline can ripple along the food chain, putting even southern resident killer whales, which feed heavily on Sacramento River salmon in the ocean, at risk.

The impacts of freshwater diversions aren’t limited to the region’s ecology: delta agriculture is taking a hit, too. The construction of a peripheral canal would "destroy the estuary and shift economic problems from one geographic location to another," said Barrigan-Parrilla. "Agriculture in the southern delta would not make it." South delta farmers have already had to contend with increasing levels of salinity due to the massive freshwater diversions, she says. A homegrown bean festival held every year in Tracy has had to resort to purchasing beans, she told us, because it’s become too salty to grow them.

"The estimates are $10 to $40 billion to build a canal," Barrigan-Parrilla said with a note of disbelief. "We’re going to spend that much money on a project when we have just gutted education and welfare?"

As Sacramento lawmakers pull at the threads of this tightly-wound knot, looming uncertainties are waiting in the wings. For one, the delta’s network of 1,100 miles of earthen levees is under increasing strain due to its age, making it susceptible to failure. In fact, some say a peripheral canal could help prevent levee failure. Meanwhile, climate change is a challenge that can’t be ignored because it will affect overall water supply even as the state’s population continues to climb.

"The science makes it increasingly clear that the current system is unsustainable, Simitian said. The scientists are telling us there’s a two out of three chance that in the next 50 years the whole system will collapse, and that serves neither the delta well nor the two-thirds of the state that relies on delta water." Simitian doesn’t endorse the canal, but told us that the system of water conveyance needs to be changed.

Doug Obegi, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told us that thinking about water supply is just as important as thinking about how to move it around. He pointed out that some Colorado River dams just aren’t filling up anymore. If you build a new dam without managing the water supply, he said, "you have a big hunk of concrete that just isn’t doing anything."

Climate change will reduce the Sierra snowpack, an important natural reservoir, anywhere from 15 percent to 60 percent, according to the Department of Water Resources. The warmer air temperatures will also shift the runoff flows to earlier in the year, making major adjustments necessary. Climate change models also predict worsening drought. Water shortages worse than those caused by the 1977 drought could occur in one out of every six to eight years by 2050, and one out of every three to four years by 2100, according to the department’s study. The change in weather patterns will also increase the likelihood of floods.

Rising sea levels will also bring more saline ocean water into the delta, making it necessary to inject more freshwater into the system to maintain water quality and protect native species.

All told, climate change is expected to reduce overall delta water exports from 7 percent to 10 percent by 2050, and 21 percent to 25 percent by the end of the century — a heavy toll that can’t be managed without smarter water management.

Pending water shortages can be addressed in part with what NRDC calls California’s "virtual river," Obegi said, an aggressive system of water efficiency, waste-water recycling, groundwater cleanup and storm-water management that could yield a potential 7 million acre-feet per year.

As for agriculture, the 800-pound gorilla of water consumption in the state, there’s plenty of room for improvement. A report by the Pacific Institute estimates that annual agricultural water savings — with a combination of strategies like smarter irrigation management, modest crop shifting, and more efficient technology — could save up to 3.4 million acre-feet of water per year. The study strongly recommends avoiding expensive infrastructure projects that will burden taxpayers when the state has more budget-friendly options like targeted conservation and efficiency.

It won’t happen without the political will, however. During a discussion about the bills that are currently being debated in Sacramento, Barrigan-Parrilla said she fears the delta will lose out in the end. It’s hard for her to swallow the whole concept of "co-equal goals," she says, because it amounts to putting the environment, which is owned collectively, on equal footing with the interests of a small group of people who consume the vast amount of the state’s water supply.

"It just doesn’t make sense to me," she says. "You can’t have a reliable water supply unless you take care of the environment first."