July 18, 2012

Los Angeles Times


Divvying up California's Water
Farmers Fear a Water Grab by Other Rural and Urban Areas. The Solution is for Everyone to Give a Little.

The lush San Joaquin Valley of literature is dotted with orange groves, grape vines and dairy farms. It runs west from the Sierra foothills and has as its spine U.S. 99, as much a Mother Road for California's heartland as is Route 66 for the wider West. This region was planted and began to bloom on the strength of snowmelt and a high water table in the sponge-like valley floor, but production exploded and farmers grew wealthy only with the construction by the federal government, during the Depression of the dams, pumps and canals of the Central Valley Water Project.

Further west, on the dusty upslope and in the rainshadow of the Coast Ranges, is another, drier San Joaquin, with little or no groundwater. It too began to bloom with federal project water, and was planted with cotton and annual vegetable crops in years that water supply was steady, and sometimes left fallow when it was not. Construction of the State Water Project in the 1960s increased the flow of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, and the steadier supply allowed the planting of orchards.

Agriculture takes an environmental toll in both parts of the San Joaquin Valley, with polluted runoff and concentrated metals and minerals leached from the soil, but also in the mountains and the delta. Delta farmers and their political supporters have mobilized many times and are mobilizing again to fight the increased diversion of water to the south. Their interests are valid and their role crucial to all of California, because in protecting their own farms they inspect and patch the levees that keep the delta from being overcome by brackish bay water unusable not just by themselves but by growers in the San Joaquin Valley and city dwellers from Silicon Valley to Los Angeles.

But the delta, as it currently exists, is as artificial a construct as the water districts farther south. Delta farmers want to keep the westward flow of mountain water strong and steady through the rivers, the sloughs and marshes to the bay to keep out seawater that, naturally, before construction of their islands from decomposed reeds, would seasonally creep upstream past what is now Sacramento and Stockton. That primordial mix of brackish and fresh water kept migratory fish populations healthy.

Delta farmers today argue that they are being asked to give up their farms, their lifestyles and their livelihoods so that upstream Sacramento River water can be diverted around the delta to water the farms of competitors in the San Joaquin, especially those in the naturally dry Westlands Water District. Californians should indeed be wary of transferring public resources to enrich one group of farmers at the expense of another. But they also should not be fooled into believing the situation is quite so simple, and that the delta farmers are completely on the side of the angels. The state's co-equal goals of restoring the delta environmentally and increasing the reliability — not the volume, but the reliability — of the water supply to the San Joaquin fields and to Bay Area and Southern California urban users requires that all parties, including delta farmers, relinquish back to the land and to one another some of the water they have come to see as their birthright.