California's Central Water War Heats Up


California’s State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project (CVP) – which serve the vast Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys of California - have projected dramatically reduced water delivery to all water users.  Municipalities, wildlife refuges and farmers who hold water rights can expect to receive 50% to 60% of what has been requested.  Most agricultural operations without water rights (so-called “contract farmers”) are expected to get between 15 and 20% of requested water. Farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley are the last in the water line; water managers say these farmers will receive no water deliveries this year unless spring rainfall increases dramatically – an unlikely event.

Delivery of CVP water to west-side San Joaquin Valley irrigators was approved based on the availability of “excess water” in some wet years.  Nevertheless these irrigators have planted orchards, vineyards and other permanent crops. Many of them have also developed irrigation wells which they utilize when water from the federal Central Valley Project is not available. However, groundwater pumping is more expensive, groundwater levels have been constantly dropping and land subsidence is a problem.

West-side San Joaquin water users include corporate farms in the politically powerful Westlands Water District. In the past these powerful water users received water despite state-wide shortages. Typically it has been wildlife and endangered fish which have been shorted to provide water to Westlands farms. But this year federal and state officials say they will not cave-in to political pressure. Additionally, environmental groups including the California Water Information Network are on alert to quickly challenge any federal-state backsliding.

But Westlands and its allies have not given up. In fact they have planned what they hope will be a massive protest march for April 14-17 .

Protest organizers are calling for suspension of the federal Endangered Species Act which has mandated less pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and for the development of new reservoirs. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to attend in order to push his plan for more reservoirs and a peripheral canal to by-pass the Delta. Senator Diane Feinstein – who in the past has promoted legislation designed to guarantee water to Westlands Irrigators – will also attend part of the 4-day event.