(Note: Two sidebar articles accompany this story: "Dam busters win symbolic victory" and "Flow charts for the Golden State.")

Emptiness.

There was nothing out there on the water - no towns, no light, no signs of civilization at all. Fog rose from the Delta; it covered the sky and inhabited every corner of cold distance.

Twenty years ago, Marc Reisner wrote words similar to these in Cadillac Desert, his landmark book about Western water. Looking down from his cramped seat on a jet traveling from Utah to California, what Reisner saw - empty desert ticking by for 11 minutes at 500 miles per hour, then the suddenness of crowded cities - is still the West today.

But something has changed. Reisner's book altered the way Westerners think about water. We know now that water is not merely fuel for our ambitions, but fragile, and finite.

A large part of Cadillac Desert is devoted to California. The superlatives are familiar: the world's fifth-largest economy, a population bigger than Canada's, the richest agricultural state in the country. California is also the ultimate example of the American West's trillion-dollar, century-long effort to, as Reisner put it "maintain a civilization in a semidesert with a desert heart."

Since Reisner wrote his book, California has had to face the reality that while its profligate use of water had built an empire of astounding proportions, the state's environmental checking account was badly overdrawn. Even if nobody cared about protecting the environment, the tap would eventually run dry for farms and cities, too.

Nowhere was that more apparent than in the California Delta, the 550 square miles of water, marshes and wetlands that lie at the heart of this enormous state but are virtually invisible to most people who live here.

Half of California's rain and snowmelt runs into the Delta, funneling down from the Sierra Nevada, through the Feather River, the Yuba and the American, the Mokelumne, the Stanislaus, the Tuolumne and the Merced. These tributaries feed the Sacramento and the San Joaquin rivers, which meet the Pacific Ocean at the Delta, just northeast of San Francisco Bay.

Carrying water away from the Delta are the pipes and aqueducts of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, two enormous systems of dams and water diversions. Together, they send water south, supplying drinking water for 22 million people in and around Los Angeles - about two-thirds of California's population - and irrigation water for Central Valley farms that grow 35 percent of the country's fruits and vegetables.

Almost 10 years ago, people in California began the most ambitious effort in Western history to make peace between warring water interests and to restore the Delta, which had been diked and developed and starved of the freshwater runoff that keeps its ecosystem alive. Now, the result of their work, a painstakingly negotiated $8.7 billion plan called CALFED, is threatening to die with a whimper, as the Bush administration turns its back on many of the major environmental initiatives undertaken during the Clinton years.

If California can't solve its water problems, the state's environment and economy will both suffer. And as the bursting of the dot-com bubble taught us, California's economic ills reverberate through the rest of the country. This is particularly frightening as the U.S. faces budget deficits and high-priced military adventures with no end in sight.

On the other hand, they say that if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. If California can solve its water problems, perhaps the other Western states can, too.

The ghost of an ecosystem

The California Delta in winter destroys every sun-drenched, hedonistic, surfer-dude fantasy I ever had about this state. I am trapped on a boat in the most unrelenting cold I have experienced in years.

"I grew so cold and numb, finally, that I ceased to shiver," wrote Jack London in The Fish Patrol, a 1905 collection of maritime adventures in the San Francisco Bay Area. California may have changed since then, but the weather hasn't. If the Delta is the heart of the state's circulatory system, it is frozen.

I'm spending the day with Fish and Game biologist Derek Stein and Delta native Bob Buker, cruising through ghostly pale fog that has scared off the party boats that congregate here in warmer weather. We imagine how the Delta looked before it became a sponge squeezed by farms and cities.

Along the shore, black-crowned night herons roost in a tree; I count 60 before they frighten and fly. We see them twice that day, in numbers. Hawks are everywhere. Buker slows the boat for snowy egrets and great blue herons. Some have speculated that the Pacific Flyway - the route followed by millions of migratory birds - came into being thousands of years ago because of the Delta and enormous Tulare Lake, near Bakersfield, which provided stopping points and feeding grounds. These birds are the skeletons of those migrations, these waters a ghost of the old Delta.

Before European settlement, the Delta's marshlands "stretched from Willows to Bakersfield in a continuous swath of green," according to a history published by The Bay Institute, a San Francisco-based environmental group. The Institute estimates that there once were 900,000 acres of tule marsh - tules are sedges that lend their name both to a native species of elk and to the region's blinding winter fog - and 415,000 acres of vernal pools in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river watersheds.

In her 1903 book, The Land of Little Rain, Mary Austin described the southern San Joaquin Valley as "ghostly pale in winter, in summer deep poisonous-looking green, full of mystery and malaria."

Now, after a century of engineering, less than 5 percent of the region's historical wetlands remain. The Delta has been reduced to, in the words of The Bay Institute, "a quilt of disconnected patches too small to sustain dependent species" such as winter run Chinook salmon, the California clapper rail and the saltmarsh harvest mouse.

The Delta's farms are struggling, too. This is where agriculture started in California, on drained marshland, before massive water projects made it possible to farm the desert. But these relatively small-scale operations find it difficult to compete with agribusiness. The rambling network of dikes and levees that make it possible to farm here is wearing out, and so is the Delta itself. The peat soil oxidizes when it is exposed to the air; in other words, it changes chemical composition, dries up and blows away.

Many of the man-made islands that once held farmhouses and fields have subsided, some as much as 15 feet below sea level. Others have simply disappeared, swallowed by winter storms.

We reach Liberty Island, a gray sheen beyond a broken levee made of rock and earth. In the 1970s, a heavy storm burst the levee surrounding the island and let the Delta's waters rush in. The once-fertile farming island is now a ruin, a lake of lost possibilities.

A line of power poles stretches into infinity, or what appears to be infinity in the white haze. The bases of the poles are submerged in at least 10 feet of water. They tilt ominously, a surreal reminder that water is the baseline of existence here.

Buker, who just retired from Pacific Gas and Electric, tells me that the wires are probably live, still providing electricity. "If it falls, it just shorts out," he says. "There are a lot of places in the Delta like this."

Forced to the table

In the Delta, the boomtown past is still visible, its bones scattered where they fell. Historic towns like Locke look frozen in time, the homes and businesses of Chinese workers abandoned. Giant gates hold back the arms of rivers that once alternately meandered and rushed through this giant riverine estuary.

After a century of hard use, it was inevitable that the Delta would lose its resilience. In the 1930s, the federally funded Central Valley Project, an enormous system of dams and water diversions, had been built to rescue farmers in Southern California. After the completion of the State Water Project in the 1960s, which helped spur the growth of the city of Los Angeles, signs of a breakdown began to appear.

By the 1990s, the Delta's tributaries were so altered that more than 90 percent of Central Valley salmon spawning habitat had been destroyed. Winter run chinook salmon were placed on the endangered species list in 1990, after the population declined to only 533 fish.

The Delta itself was in trouble, too. In 1993, a coalition of environmental groups sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to establish water-quality standards. The lawsuit did not concern industrial pollution, but salt water; too much freshwater was being siphoned off, pulling the line of saltwater farther into the Delta.

Concerns about the altered ecosystem were confirmed in 1994, when the tiny Delta smelt, once prolific enough to be caught and grilled for lunch by Derek Stein's predecessors at the Fish and Game Department, was listed as endangered. The three-inch-long, translucent smelt is a resident here. Unlike the migratory salmon, the loitering smelt is "susceptible to being in the wrong place at the wrong time," in the words of one U.S. Fish and Wildlife official.

As the Fish and Wildlife Service moved to protect the smelt, the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project faced crippling shutdowns. With the lawsuit over water quality and the listing of the smelt, things seemed to reach critical mass. For the first time, cities and farms in Southern California confronted the possibility that the days of Chinatown were numbered: Long-term water shortages could end a century of empire-building.

Someone had to give up water, or so it seemed. Environmentalists said it was time to retire inefficient farms. Farmers said the food supply couldn't be compromised. Cities knew they represented the state's future; surely they couldn't be expected to give up any water.

Timing, as they say, is everything. Several months earlier, California Gov. Pete Wilson had abandoned state water reform to gain support from traditional agricultural interests. The Clinton administration realized that Wilson, a Republican, would use this perennially divisive issue in a presidential bid.

In early December 1994, Betsy Rieke, assistant secretary for Water and Science at the U.S. Department of Interior, headed to California to defuse the crisis. Rieke, who had a strong track record dealing with Arizona's water issues, was known for her strategic prowess. She realized that the various interests - agriculture, urban and environmental - were aligning in a way that might make an agreement possible.

With a 48-hour deadline looming - a federal judge had set a Dec. 15 ultimatum for a resolution of the water quality lawsuit - Rieke got the water warriors into a room, and told them they couldn't come out until they had agreed to agree.

CALFED is born

It may have surprised everyone when they actually did it. Rieke's formidable personality may have had something to do with it. Or perhaps the Republican takeover of Congress made environmentalists eager, even desperate, to make a deal. Maybe someone just had to go to the bathroom.

In any case, environmentalists said they would stop suing, at least for a while. Government officials promised agricultural and urban interests that water needed for endangered species would be purchased only from willing sellers. And everyone agreed to spend several years figuring out a way to manage California's enormous plumbing system so it fulfilled the needs of fish as well as farmers and city-dwellers.

On Dec. 15, Gov. Wilson stood on a podium to announce, "Peace has broken out." Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, EPA chief Carol Browner, and representatives of the agricultural, urban and environmental communities stood beside him as he unveiled the agreement, called the Bay Delta Accord.

"It was one of those hair-stand-on-end moments," said Rieke.

Over the next six years, Californians spent thousands of hours in intensely public "stakeholder" meetings. When it was all over, a small group retreated behind closed doors to come up with a final plan. It wasn't a popular way to do it, but officials believed it was the only way to sift through the cacophony of interests, ideas and ultimatums.

When they emerged in August 2000, they had a 1,199-page plan to restore the Delta, while inflicting minimal pain on agriculture and cities. It was called CALFED because it was designed to satisfy the requirements of both state and federal environmental laws.

CALFED is not the largest ecological restoration effort ever attempted. That dubious honor probably falls to the Florida Everglades. But it is the only such undertaking that balances restoration with the need to supply water to one of the world's most heavily irrigated agricultural regions and enough urbanites to overpopulate a small European country.

Over the next three decades, CALFED - a program involving 23 state and federal agencies - will install fish screens, replant marshes, tinker with the operation of dams, improve levees, conduct millions of dollars' worth of scientific studies, defend itself from lawsuits, fund water-conservation programs, buy land, set up regional water councils, buy water for fish, and maybe even build a few new dams or reservoirs. The cost of the program's first seven years is $8.7 billion, to be split among federal, state and local authorities.

This enormous win-win scenario will also vindicate the Clinton-era approach to resolving environmental conflict - the "let's all hold hands and agree or at least agree to disagree," touchy-feely alternative to the region's more familiar dig-in-your-heels Western warfare.

Unless there isn't enough money. Or enough water.

"Wasted water"

In theory, at least, water shouldn't be a problem. The great irony is this: There is no shortage of water in California. The average freshwater runoff to the Delta is about 23 million acre-feet, with 30-60 percent diverted to cities and agriculture.

But that average is misleading, because California's rain and snowfall gyrate wildly from year to year. In the record-breaking storms of 1982-83, more than 60 million acre-feet barreled down from the Sierra into the Delta. In 1979, in contrast, only 6 million acre-feet flowed into the Delta.

The solution to California's water problems has always been to stockpile water during wet years for use during dry ones. But the state doesn't have enough dams and reservoirs to hold all of the runoff in wet years, inspiring an old California phrase that drives environmentalists crazy - people talk about water that is not "used" as being "wasted to the sea."

It all seems so simple. If California could hold back just a fraction more of those winter storm bonanzas, the state's farms could still be irrigated and lawns could stay green - there might even be some water left for fish - when the inevitable punishing drought arrives.

The CALFED plan recommended studying the feasibility of water-storage projects, but did not call for any action until the project's second phase, which begins in 2010. The most controversial option for new storage is raising Shasta Dam near the headwaters of the Sacramento River. Raising the dam would flood a portion of the McCloud River, a world-class trout river that has already lost 15 miles to the dam.

Other possibilities include dramatically increasing the storage capacity of the Los Vaqueros Reservoir in suburban Walnut Creek, building an offstream water-storage facility north of the Delta called Sites that would divert 1.9 million acre-feet of the Sacramento River during wet years, and constructing a reservoir south of the Delta.

CALFED officials have even revived the idea of a peripheral canal, an aqueduct that would haul water around the Delta instead of letting water flow through it. In the 1970s, a similar plan caused one of the epic battles of California water history.

Some members of the environmental community, like Gary Bobker, program director of The Bay Institute, seemed willing to consider some of these projects. Others, like Tom Graff of Environmental Defense and Steve Evans of Friends of the River, criticized CALFED for considering raising dams when the rest of the country was tearing them down. "There is a finite amount of water," said Graff. "If you want to deliver more, the environment is going to suffer."

Last winter, as CALFED was in danger of running out of money, the critical question of water storage nearly landed all 1,199 pages of the plan in the recycling bin. Faced with the task of authorizing CALFED - and providing roughly one-third of its funding - the California congressional delegation seemed to fall back in time, splitting along all-too-familiar ideological lines. Ken Calvert, a Republican congressman from Riverside, introduced a CALFED authorization bill that would give Bush's Interior secretary, Gale Norton, the power to jet-propel water-storage projects through Congress.

Environmentalists and taxpayer advocates viewed the Calvert bill as a return to the bad old days of rubber-stamped dam projects and handouts to agribusiness. "The best dam sites are taken," said Aileen Roder of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "We're just recycling the same garbage - these dinosaur projects - over and over again, instead of looking at solutions."

Calvert's supporters, like California Farm Bureau spokesman Dave Kranz, argued that without new storage, CALFED couldn't succeed.

Congress approved a temporary funding package, and Calvert has been forced to remove most of the provisions in his bill that environmentalists found objectionable. Still, supporters have yet to get CALFED formally authorized by Congress - a threshold that would make long-term funding much easier to come by.

This fall, the House version of CALFED authorization is being held up by Republicans who oppose a provision inserted by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., a staunch advocate for the environment and labor, which requires the use of union labor on CALFED projects. At the same time, powerful Western senators John Kyl, R-Ariz., and Pete Domenici, R-N.M., are threatening to add $10 billion of antiquated Western water projects to the Senate version of the CALFED authorization bill.

Despite the infighting, observers expect CALFED authorization to pass before Congress adjourns for Christmas. The big change is that funding for the program is likely to drop. Although Calvert's bill still contains the full $3 billion, which is the federal share of the plan, the Senate version is expected to call for $800 million in funding. When it comes to the actual appropriations, the amount could be far less.

With time running out before Congress adjourns in December, CALFED's supporters must weigh the advantages of authorization with the price of pork - Democratic or Republican.

The Bush administration, for its part, recommended spending only $15 million next year for all environmental work in the Bay Delta region, including CALFED.

The Interior Department's lead man on CALFED, Assistant Secretary of Water and Science Bennett Raley, chafes at the suggestion that he hasn't supported the program. He blames the downturn in the economy for the funding cuts. "There's enormous good in CALFED," he says, "But it's one thing to negotiate a deal for the future with the assumption that money is no object. It's another thing to implement that deal when you have (fiscal) limitations."

An uphill battle

Meanwhile, on the ground, CALFED is moving ahead in fits and starts. So far, its record is marked by successes ranging from the subtle to the dramatic - and a few devastating failures.

In its first year of operation, and in the years leading up to its creation, the focus was on restoration. In 1999, four dams were removed from Butte Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento River south of Mount Lassen, and fish ladders were installed on five other Sacramento River dams. Spring run salmon numbers shot up to 6,000, from a low of 10 a few years earlier.

But this was followed by an ugly glitch. One of CALFED's cornerstones is something called the "Environmental Water Account," which allows CALFED to buy water to hold in reserve for emergencies that threaten fish. This water is crucial, because the whole Rube Goldberg contraption of CALFED is based on assurances to Central Valley farmers and Southern California cities that they won't suffer unexpected cutbacks in water supply because of endangered species.

During winter storms in early 2001, officials held back water while winter run Chinook salmon, the most endangered fish in the Delta, died in droves at the state and federal water projects. In the end, 18,503 juvenile fish died, far exceeding the 7,404 permitted under the Endangered Species Act rules set by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

To place the issue in perspective, it helps to know that the previous year's entire population of adult winter run Chinook salmon in the Delta was a mere 1,200 fish.

Environmentalists were critical of the managers' decision not to release water to save fish. But CALFED had not yet devised a plan for such extreme situations. Managers may have been overly cautious because they were afraid that they would need the water for other species of fish expected to hit the pumps later in the year.

The astonishing part was that everyone stayed on board. While farmers were practically rioting in the Klamath Basin (HCN, 8/13/01: No refuge in the Klamath Basin), both environmentalists and agricultural interests in California remained involved in CALFED through its early, sometimes rocky years.

Then, in early February 2002, CALFED got a nastier jolt when its Environmental Water Account lost between 200,000 and 300,000 acre-feet of water. In 1992, the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, backed by Miller and Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., had promised a revolution in California water policy. For the first time, a law put nature into the equation of California water use. The law set aside 800,000 acre-feet of water to double anadromous fish populations.

In 1997, the Clinton administration came up with a plan to put that law into effect. That plan is full of arcane details, but they don't matter much now. In early February, a federal judge struck it down, gutting the Environmental Water Account and throwing off all the calculations, computer models and spreadsheets painfully constructed by water wonks.

CALFED executive director Patrick Wright says there was enough water this year that water users still received the assurances promised by the Environmental Water Account - guarantees that their water won't receive further cutbacks for environmental reasons. What happens next year? Nobody knows.

Wright, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official, isn't deluding himself about his job. California's water system is a Persian rug that must be carefully picked apart and painstakingly rewoven. "Around the West, people have been saying the era of big dams is over," says Wright. "But in California, the fight is (still) very, very real."

A foggy future

Tom Graff of Environmental Defense thinks he knows the future of CALFED - it doesn't have one. "The plan doesn't have any coherence. It's just sort of a big, muddled mess, so nobody can get too mad at it," he says. "The good thing from my point of view is that the Bush administration has come along and defunded it."

Gary Bobker of The Bay Institute has been deeply involved in California water issues for more than a decade. He believes that the water-storage projects envisioned in the CALFED plan will be too expensive to build. He foresees the program turning into what he calls "CALFED Lite," a massive ecosystem-restoration project.

But planting willows along rivers won't solve the problem of ensuring a water supply for California industry. This is no small matter; without water, the California dream fades from boomtown to ghost town.

To free up more water, Bobker is willing to talk about the great CALFED taboo * retiring farmland. "There are parts of the Central Valley that are a thriving economy that everyone's interested in keeping viable," Bobker says. "But then there are parts of the valley that should never have been farmed."

In particular, he points to the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, where pollution problems prohibit food crops, and farmers grow subsidized cotton that costs 70 cents a pound to produce, but sells for only 35-40 cents a pound on the world market (HCN, 11/19/01: Global market squeezes sheep ranchers). "The question is not whether this land will be retired, but when," he says. "Should we really be turning cartwheels and doing things that cause environmental harm to prolong a terminal patient?"

In the last days of the Clinton administration, officials came close to making a deal to buy out San Joaquin Valley farmers most affected by pollution. The clock ran out on that attempt, but many view a buyout, which would free up water for other uses, as inevitable.

Bennett Raley says the Interior Department is again looking at buying land and conservation easements. "Most people recognize that in the long run, retiring farmlands is going to be a piece of the equation," he says.

But the Farm Bureau is resisting. Although it is still participating in CALFED, the group has two lawsuits pending against the plan, claiming that it fails to evaluate the environmental consequences of the program on agricultural land. "We just think that's a bad idea," says Bureau spokesman Dave Kranz. "This program focuses all on water, almost exclusively on fish. We have a population that's headed toward 50 million in the next 20 years, and those people need to eat."

CALFED's architects may have been wise to temporarily sidestep the question of retiring farmland. Confronting the volatile question might have threatened the fragile coalition on which CALFED depends. And by delaying construction of water projects until at least 2010, CALFED officials may have chosen to let history take its course.

But, as Tolstoy believed, sometimes history needs a strong leader to move it forward. So far, in the Bush administration, that leader has not appeared. Some theorize that the administration simply refuses to hand out largesse to California, where voters overwhelmingly supported Al Gore in the 2000 election.

Whatever the reason, Central Valley farmer Paul Betancourt says the Bush administration has shown no interest in buying out farmers whose land is too polluted to grow food crops. "A lot of nothing has happened," says Betancourt, a registered Republican and local Farm Bureau official. "Under a Gore administration, it probably would have gone much faster."

Many Clinton-era initiatives - from the Columbia River to the Sonoran Desert - are withering because of inertia on the part of the Bush administration. Whether or not one believes, like Clinton's Interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt, that "compromise is the answer all the time," one wonders how all the "stakeholders" who spent months sitting in meetings feel, now that their efforts are being discarded in this de facto fashion.

For CALFED, a bit of belt-tightening may not be fatal. A massive restoration project washing across the California Delta could create a version of the future that looks at least a little like the past. Perhaps it's possible that, with restoration alone, Californians can build a real and metaphorical nest for black-crowned night herons, and create refuges for fish like the Delta smelt, which could once again be plentiful enough to eat without a second thought.

Susan Zakin writes from Tucson, Ariz

This article is the second in a two-art series, "California's Water Balancing Act."

You can contact ...

  • Bennett Raley with the U.S. Department of the Interior, 202/208-3186;
  • Patrick Wright with CALFED, 916/657-2666, http://calfed.ca.gov;
  • Gary Bobker with The Bay Institute, 415/506-0150, www.bay.org;
  • Tom Graff with Environmental Defense, 510/658-8008.