'The Cadillac of California irrigation districts' has more than a tiny fish to blame for its troubles

  • A locked irrigation pump in Mendota, California, where drought and federal policy have left some farms dry.

    Renee C. Byer/Sacramento Bee/zuma
  • San-Luis-Reservoir.jpg

    The San Luis Reservoir, almost empty in October 2008 after a season of irrigating.

    Peter Bennett/Green Stock Media
  • Delta Smelt

  • some of the crowd that turned out last summer to watch Fox News' Sean Hannity broadcast his show on the California water crisis.

    Todd Fitchette
  • Farmland in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

  • A fishbowl containing look-alike relatives of the protected Delta smelt sits on a table between Reps. Ken Calvert and Devin Nunes at a House Natural Resources committee meeting last March.

    Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
  • A sign in a dried-up orchard in the San Joaquin Valley.

    Stephanie Ogburn/Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis
  • The Harvey O. Banks pumping station, capable of moving ing 21,000 acre-feet a day from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta into the California Aqueduct.

    California Department of Water Resources

Updated April 21, 2010

On Sept. 17 of last year, the famously hypertensive right-wing Fox News commentator Sean Hannity rolled into the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley, satellite truck in tow. Months earlier, when it became clear that a 2-year-old drought would grind on for another year, the federal government announced plans to slash water deliveries to local farmers. Hannity smelled blood. He, and many others, quickly blamed the whole crisis on a two-inch-long fish called the Delta smelt, which is protected under the Endangered Species Act. The bright yellow CONGRESS CREATED DUST BOWL signs that began popping up all over the valley were prime-time stuff. And, at least in Hannity's telling, the farmers' fight against the water cutoff was swathed in the populist bunting of a peasant revolt against heavy-handed government.

These farms are muscular emblems of American-style production agriculture, and odds are better than even that something inside your fridge right now was grown on the West Side. One of Heinz's biggest suppliers grows and processes tomatoes here, and the green-produce giant Tanimura & Antle sends armies of workers into the fields to harvest lettuce. The relatives of one of the district's founders raise the organic spinach that goes into Amy's-brand pizzas and vegetable pot pies.

The farmers are confederated as the Westlands Water District. The largest irrigation district in the United States, it has a reputation for bare-knuckled combativeness. But Westlands has fared badly in the face of the drought, complicated by the Endangered Species Act, which has stringent protections for the smelt and several other fish that are affected by pumping operations. Because farmers received only 10 percent of the water they held federal contracts for, they were forced to leave roughly 156,000 acres -- about a quarter of the district -- unplanted this year.

And so Hannity arrived to check out the damage for himself. His retinue set up camp on a fallowed field, clipped microphones to the area's congressional delegation, and began beaming the farmers' plight to the world. As a boom cam floated over the sign-toting, flag-waving throng, Hannity said, "The government has put the interests of a two-inch minnow before all of the great people that you see out here tonight." He brandished a blown-up photo of a smelt and said: "This is what this comes down to: No water for farmers, because of this fish."

The crowd gave a hearty boo. Then the cameras turned to the darling of the hour: Rep. Devin Nunes, the hot-headed 37-year-old Republican who represents the neighboring congressional district. "The liberals and the radical environmental groups have been working on this for decades: They've been trying to turn this into a desert," Nunes fumed. "And what's important about you being here tonight -- and the rest of your viewers need to understand -- is this could happen to you. They're on their way. Nancy Pelosi's the speaker of the house. George Miller's her lieutenant. They're on their way to the rest of America."

But there was more to the story than the drama that Fox News beamed out of Westlands that day. Congressman Nunes had been hard at work in Washington, D.C., introducing a series of amendments that would force the federal government to ignore the Endangered Species Act when it determined how much water to deliver to farmers this year. His efforts were repeatedly turned back. Then, five days after Hannity's broadcast, Jim DeMint, a conservative Republican from South Carolina, introduced a similar amendment in the Senate, with Westlands' endorsement. That's when the needle skipped off the record.

California's warhorse Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, has been a longtime champion of Westlands, but she has also tried to negotiate common ground in the state's complicated water politics. And back home, the California Legislature -- after years of ignoring the problem -- was working feverishly to hammer out a sweeping package of bills to relieve the crisis in the Delta. When Feinstein learned of the DeMint amendment, she denounced it as "a kind of Pearl Harbor on everything that we're trying to do."

The amendment failed. Several days later, before a press conference at the U.S. Department of the Interior, Feinstein approached Tom Birmingham, the man who runs Westlands, and pulled him aside. The senior senator from California managed a tight smile, and then shook her fist at Birmingham, who has contributed to her campaigns. "Tom, I'm angry," she said. "I'm so angry that I want to punch you."

Chastened, Birmingham later made a rare admission that Westlands had gone too far. "We just made a terrible, terrible mistake," he said in early November. "We made a mistake, and we need to acknowledge that."

With scant naturally available water, the West Side was an unlikely place for an agricultural empire to begin rising roughly a century ago. Yet the farmers in Westlands have shown a rare knack for overcoming adversity and actually turning a profit in sometimes seemingly hopeless circumstances. Westlands has never been afraid to aggressively seek advantage wherever it could, and the district has played its cards well. But the foundation beneath the entire enterprise has always been unstable. And if the drought is revealing anything, it is not government regulation run amok but an empire that may have seriously over-extended itself.

West side water
Sibyl Iris
Sibyl Iris
Jan 23, 2010 07:28 AM
Wouldnt Westland and others money be better spent convincing Los Angeles and San Diego to establish desalination plants all up and down the coast? Think of all the water that would free up for farming!
West Side Water
Paul Tebbel
Paul Tebbel
Jan 28, 2010 11:17 AM
In response to the idea of desal - that option is constantly explored but is still far more expensive than the other alternatives that Westlands is pursuing. What this article didn't mention is price and subsidizing. Most ag producers still pay around $55 per acre foot for water and desal could easily be as much as $1500 per acre foot. Almost all of the water delivery systems in CA were and still are subsidized by the taxpayers - both state and federal - and the profits seen by Westlands and others depend on that water being cheap. The other factor is delivery. Desal is produced on the coast - delivery of that water inland would be very expensive. There are no easy answers. What is evident is that the demand for CA water continues to go up with no affordable options available for "new" supplies.
Westlands and San Joaquin WATER
wally emery
wally emery
Jan 31, 2010 08:01 PM
Matt, Maybe you can help us up here in Northern Calif. I have wrote and commented to a reporter for the Sac. Bee quite a few times and never see a positive notion of his responses in the Bee. I was hoping maybe an article in the High Country News may strike some sort of nerve and help the whole STATE of CALIFORNIA out. My thoughts are for the large water districts,farmers and humans in the San Joaquin Valley to unite and get together and DREDGE the SACRAMENTO RIVER. If the river was dredged from RIO VISTA to RED BLUFF we would have another water storage facility right in the clay banks of the river. The water could be 30' deep again at the COLUSA bridge like it was 35 years ago when you could catch a nice fish that you hardly ever see caught any more. The water would be colder for the "endangered" SALMON,STURGEON,SMELT and alot more species to reproduce and restock the populations naturally. The GOVERNMENT is spending BILLIONS on raising and refortifying the levees so we do not have a MERIDIAN or NEW ORLEANS style flood again. But I am a firm believer if you get the Feather and Sacramento rivers back in their clay banks where they belong and not on top of 30' of infill,sediment from 35 years of runoff and washouts that the fish would survive the pumps could pump from the reclaimed lake which has been filled up to capacity over these past 35 years.

     I read an article in the Bee a couple years ago where our great state is importing sand from Canada to retrofit the Bay Bridge????? Whose great idea was that??? They could of dredged the silt onto these same barges floated them to the ocean was the silt and had FREE sand to build the bridge !!!!!.

     I just think it would be an interesting subject with a few of our current legislature members telling me it would never happen with the Environmental wacko's out there today. If enough people jump on this idea/bandwagon I think it would be a major hurdle for every human being in CALIFORNIA and the people in WASHINGTON who approve it. The GOLDEN state would not FLOOD up here ,the fish would reproduce and survive , the pumps would run and not waste money on a NEW canal, the farmers in the SAN JOAQUIN survive, and the populations in L.A. and San Diego drink.

     Anyways, enough babling from a concerned JOHN DEERE salesman from up north. MAYBE you could write a note to the WESTLANDS bosses and see what kind of response. Or if you could get me an e-mail I will try it. Thanks Wally
Sustainable Water Practices
Richard Mazzucchi
Richard Mazzucchi
Feb 02, 2010 12:30 PM
The problems associated with the Westlands stem largely from a lack of sustainable planning and water use practices. The use of large pumping facilities and water diversion and storage projects have deleterious effects on the natural environment where they are built and everwhere downstream unless they are very carefully designed and operated.

The best way to alleviate these damages are to fully implement efficiency measures to minimize man-made water requirements, the majority of which are cost-effective when the marginal costs of new water supplies are considered - such as desalinated water. With such measures applied to residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural sectors statewide water demands could be cut by up to 50%.

If present and plannned uses of water are not cost-effective at the marginal water suppply costs they should not be continued or pursued. Demanding subsidies from the government, including massive water storage and diversion projects to support unsustainable agriculture will distort the economic and tax systems in ways that compound rather than solve this man-made "crisis."
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Feb 02, 2010 04:37 PM
Another wisdom gained in the 1980s was that the CVP lost a large percentage of water in evaporation and seepage (where the canal was not concrete lined). Yes, it would be expensive to cap the canal, but the water is still relatively cheap. Before hunting new supplies, shouldn't we be using what we have most efficiently, all through the delivery system?
water for the Delta
Susanne Twight- Alexander
Susanne Twight- Alexander
Dec 29, 2010 02:47 PM
As a former long-time resident of Trinity County in N. California, I noticed one thing missing (perhaps good for an article on its own) was the affect of the water manipulations upon the counties of origin. Your map shows only the Sacramento River, ending at what appears to be Shasta Dam. When the Trinity River Dam was built, the spawning beds for salmon were destroyed, willows encroached, etc. The entire town of Trinity Center had to be moved. Trinity Lake is a large reservoir with fluctuating shoreline; good for tourism when full, bad in drought. Battles are still going on as to what constitutes the fair amount of water for the fish runs. My guess is that the construction of the Peripheral Canal would mean more water being diverted from the Trinity. How about lining and covering all canals first, reducing leakage and evaporation? What about, at the very least, ensuring those little mountain communities, that are basically giving away their water, be compensated? What about charging the users a fair price for the water they are consuming? Providing enough water for fish and wildlife in streams and rivers to thrive should have equal standing when considering allocations, as should providing just compensation to the rural counties of origin. The rural counties provide timber, water and recreational opportunities to the rest of the state that often degrades the quality of life for their residents (true in other states as well). We should make sure that they are invited to the bargaining table.
environmentalist whackos
marty weiss
marty weiss
Dec 29, 2010 08:58 PM
As what some might call an environmentalist whacko, a defense is in order. Think of it this way: You don't burn down your house to keep warm. Us whackos are the responsible adults expressing sensible prudence. Remember, the back to Nature movement among writers like Thoreau didn't start till Nature was plowed, paved and polluted-- gone.
The adults have seen that the web of life includes us. Management of resources merely to create wealth degrades the resources. Us whackos want to keep them and us around awhile. The real whackos sacrifice irreplaceable life for greenbacks and gusto. It's not just the water enriching Del Monte while killing wild fish, not just spewing lead by the ton every season, not just treating our land like a garbage dump, our air, too. Us environmental whackos see the infinite long-term dollar value of Nature, which after all, sustains us by generating the food General Mills and Monsanto and McDonald's and all the others sell us. We may be dependent on corporate food, water, fuel and banking, but all that is predicated on a viable environment.