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The water wars: San Francisco Bay and the delta are dying: big agriculture still wants more water

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  • Teresa Binstock
    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 By
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 3, 1939
      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

      By Rebecca Bowe rebeccab@...

      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.

      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

      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

      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

      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 violating 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

      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."


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