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California's Tangled Water Politics

 

The Sacramento and San Joaquin Delta, formed where the two rivers meet in California's Central Valley before flowing into San Francisco Bay, is the largest estuary on the entire West Coast of the Americas. But much of the Delta is a remote, labyrinthine wateriness that, for most people, exists only in the mind, wrapped in an impenetrable mist.

Yet without the Delta, California -- at least as people generally think of the place -- would not exist. Two-thirds of the water used in the state is drafted from the Delta by two sets of enormous pumps that form the heart of the largest water-supply system in the United States. That system -- composed of the federally operated Central Valley Project canals and the State Water Project canals -- sustains 4.5 million acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley along with 23 million people in homes and businesses in Los Angeles, San Diego and elsewhere. Delta water pulses through the lives -- and the bodies -- of most Californians and keeps much of the state's economy afloat. The food grown with it travels to every corner of the country and beyond.

The Delta has also become a source of vexation, as California struggles to keep once-bountiful Delta fish like salmon -- the defining icon of Fisherman's Wharf and the California coast -- from spiraling to extinction, while keeping the pumps running full-throttle. Over the past 18 years, powerful interests, including farmers, city water bosses, environmentalists and government regulators, have endured four arduous efforts to achieve that balance, with little success. Just over a year ago, in October 2009, amid rising tensions over dramatic cutbacks in the pumping and a seemingly irreversible fisheries collapse, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger launched a fifth attempt. He pressured the Legislature to pass a sweeping package of bills, forcing a scramble to craft a plan that will shape the fate of the Delta for the next half century.

When the legislation passed, the governor sounded triumphant. "Democrats and Republicans came together and tackled one of the most complicated issues in our state's history," he said. "This comprehensive water package is a historic achievement."

 

 

But none of that has stopped the world's largest irrigation district, Westlands, which supplies more than half a million acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley, from continuing to practice its own brand of gun-slinging diplomacy.

In November, David J. Hayes, the Obama administration's Western water czar, called several big California water honchos together at the Interior Department's headquarters in Washington, D.C., for a progress report. Tom Birmingham, the veteran water attorney who leads Westlands, had some complicating news. The water district had already invested more than $43 million in the new planning effort, hoping to regain the water supplies it had before the cutbacks. But according to several people present at the meeting, Birmingham delivered an angry tirade, declaring that Westlands couldn't justify spending any more on an effort that wouldn't produce what the district wanted. "We're done," he announced, before walking out.

Twelve days later, Westlands sent a letter that elaborated on that sentiment. It accused Hayes of "myopic and unscientific obstructionism," and of siding with environmental groups that "have measured success in the Delta not by improvements in the Delta ecosystem or in fish abundance, but by how much water can be taken from export contractors" -- the irrigation districts and Southern California water agencies that pump from the Delta -- "and the communities they serve."

The confrontation revealed the deep currents of distrust that still run through the state's water politics, casting considerable doubt on the prospect of ever striking a balance. The stark questions now looming have far-reaching implications: Can the Delta survive as a functioning ecosystem, or will it become nothing more than a super-sized water hole dedicated solely to slaking California's legendary thirst? And what happens when the Endangered Species Act becomes so restrictive to powerhouse economies that we're forced to choose between throttling back those economies or abandoning the law?

The struggle over the Delta is often cast as environmentalists versus industrial-scale "water users," which is to say, Central Valley farm barons. But every one of the 37 million Californians, including the most strident critics of the state's farmers, is ultimately a water user. And even if you don't live in California, if you've ever eaten Blue Diamond almonds or Muir Glen organic tomatoes, Dole asparagus or Bunny Luv baby carrots, Corn Nuts or Earthbound lettuce, or knocked back a bottle of POM Wonderful or Bolthouse Farms juice -- or Two Buck Chuck from Trader Joe's -- you are a California water user. Which, at a rough tally, makes about 309 million of us.

And, in truth, the Delta -- whatever its broader importance -- can be a hard place to love. When the '49ers first arrived in California, it was a 700-square-mile expanse of tide-washed marshland. Today, it is radically transformed: dredged, rip-rapped, leveed and corseted into an almost incomprehensible tangle of sloughs and ship channels. Some of that remodeling was done to permit farming in the Delta itself, where about a half-million people now live and farmers grow everything from asparagus to Bartlett pears on 425,700 acres of Dutch-style diked fields. But most of the re-engineering was done to create the long-distance water extraction system.

At the south end of the Delta, the two batteries of pumps send 6.7 million gallons of water per minute thundering southward. The suction power of the pumps has scrambled the natural flows in the Delta, causing salmon to get disoriented in the Delta's maze as they try to find their way back to their home streams to spawn. And Delta smelt, two-inch long fish that are not exactly gold-medal swimmers, get sucked toward the pumps as if by a giant Star Trek tractor beam. The more the pumps draw, and the more the rivers' flows through the Delta are diverted, the worse the effects.

Other threats also hammer the Delta's native fish, including contaminants from sewage treatment plants; pesticide runoff from farms and lawns; invasive predatory fish that gobble up baby salmon; clams that are eating their way through the bottom end of the natural food chain; and thousands of smaller fish-pureeing pumps on individual farms in the Delta. Irrigation districts and urban water agencies have seized on that cloud of threats to argue that the two main sets of pumps are not necessarily the primary culprit in the ecosystem collapse. But even inside the water agencies, people have long been aware that the huge pumps have a huge impact.

"It's illogical (to assume) that our projects pumping like hell in the south Delta were not harming fish," says Dave Schuster, an engineer who was once the lead negotiator for several of the biggest water agencies. "Were we the only ones harming fish? No. Were we solely the problem? No. But we were the biggest problem. Nobody would ever say that publicly," Schuster adds, "but that was the concern."

The environmentalists and state and federal biologists fighting to save the Delta ecosystem seemed to gain ground in 1989, when the National Marine Fisheries Service determined that populations of winter-run chinook salmon -- the radiant, blushing creatures that were once the mainstay of the San Francisco fishing fleet -- were so low that it classified them as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.

Against that backdrop, in 1992, the Democrat-controlled Congress passed the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, the brainchild of California Rep. George Miller, who was determined to give environmental concerns an explicit place in water politics, and New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. The law, which was the first attempt to create a balance between economic and ecological needs for water, pried a big chunk of water away from the Central Valley Project's irrigation districts and re-dedicated it to the environment. "This statute was like a little mini revolution," says Cynthia Koehler, a senior attorney and the California water legislative director for the Environmental Defense Fund. "There was nothing like it before or since that really seriously tried to reform how a federal (water) project worked."

The farmers who buy their water from the federal government were considerably less delighted. "We'll do anything and everything to keep from being harmed," Jason Peltier, then a point man for many of the irrigation districts, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "If that means obstructing implementation (of the 1992 law), so be it."

Those who sought a higher priority for the Delta's ecological needs chalked up another win two years later. With substantial nudging from the Democratic Clinton administration, California's main water players signed an agreement called the Bay-Delta Accord. Republican Gov. Pete Wilson compared it to the Oslo Peace Accords that Israel and Palestine had just signed, and declared, "Peace has broken out amid the water wars."

One of the major goals of the Bay-Delta Accord, which was to last three years, was to protect fish like the chinook that were already listed as threatened or endangered, and "to create conditions in the Bay-Delta Estuary that avoid the need for any additional listings." In signing the deal, the water agencies agreed to give up as much as 1.1 million acre-feet of water a year, just slightly less than a quarter of what they had received, on average, over the previous decade.

For them, the deal was a strategic compromise. They received a promise that the federal government would not take any more water than that, essentially shoring up the security of their remaining supplies. When Clinton's secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, signed the Accord, he said, in a quote carried in the San Jose Mercury News: "Basically, what we're saying is a deal's a deal. We've made a deal, and if it turns out there are additional requirements of any kind, it'll be up to the United States and the federal agencies to find the water."

But in spite of the optimism surrounding the Bay-Delta Accord in 1994, it merely led to yet more fights over the promises and commitments the Accord actually entailed. One that was particularly bitter still colors Delta politics to this day.

The biggest portion of the 1.1 million acre-feet per year for fish was the 800,000 acre-feet that Congress had reappropriated two years earlier, in the Central Valley Project Improvement Act. That water was explicitly intended to help double populations of salmon and steelhead, an ocean-going trout. The responsibility for managing it was assigned to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- an agency that, until then, had been "just basically tin-cupping, going out there with our hand out" for water, says Jim McKevitt, a Fish and Wildlife Service veteran who is now retired.

Practically overnight, the Service was transformed from the province of guys in hip-waders mucking around obscure Delta backwaters into one of the largest water agencies in California. No matter how you slice it, 800,000 acre-feet is a lot of water -- enough to fill 29 million semi-truck tankers. The agency's managers visualized that water as a flexible, quick-response cache -- reserved behind dams when necessary and used to "shape" flows in streams, rivers and the Delta to more closely approximate the yearly fluctuations the fish had evolved with. The more flow they could create at the crucial times, the less the fish would be affected by the pumps' draw.

But by then, the aggrieved farmers felt that the Clinton administration was acting in bad faith, determined to wrest that water from them in ways that would damage their enterprises as much as possible. "The views of the politicals" -- the political appointees -- "in the Clinton administration seemed to be, 'We're gonna right the wrongs of the past, and we're gonna put those people down where they belong,' " Peltier says. "It was like open season on the water users."

And so, in 1997, Westlands, together with a broader coalition of water agencies, sued the Clinton administration, demanding that it abandon its recently released proposal for strategically deploying the 800,000 acre-feet to help the fish. The case dragged on, and then in 2001, the farmers gained a powerful ally when Republican George W. Bush became president.

Bush appointed Gale Norton, an oil and gas lawyer from Colorado, as Interior secretary. Bennett Raley, another Coloradan who had long experience as a lawyer for that state's largest irrigation district, became Norton's assistant secretary for water and science. And Peltier -- who had once threatened to do "anything and everything to keep from being harmed" by the law that earmarked 800,000 acre-feet for fish -- became a special assistant to Raley, advising him, as Norton would later officially note, on issues related to the Delta.

Oliver Wanger, a federal district judge in Fresno who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1991, was just then taking up critical questions about how much water the Fish and Wildlife Service actually had to work with to protect salmon. Even within the federal government, that issue had generated considerable antagonism between the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation, the water-supply agency that has traditionally aligned itself closely with irrigation districts. The Bureau argued for a restrictive interpretation of how much water the Fish and Wildlife Service could get -- a position that the Service, in its own analysis, noted was "largely motivated by pressure to increase the (water) allocation to south of Delta agricultural users."

In early December 2001, as a Fish and Wildlife Service supervisor was preparing to appear as a witness before Judge Wanger, Raley called the government's legal team in Sacramento and delivered a message: The Fish and Wildlife supervisor was not to testify; a representative from the Bureau of Reclamation would go instead.

One month after Raley's call, Fish and Wildlife Service biologists watched helplessly from the gallery of Wanger's courtroom as Westlands' general manager, Tom Birmingham, argued for accounting rules that would seriously limit how much water could be used to protect fish. The representative from the Bureau of Reclamation offered little to rebut his argument.

"It was like a bad movie," says one source who was at the hearing.

Shortly after that, Judge Wanger ruled in favor of the restrictive interpretation. The next year, Bush's Interior Department unveiled a new policy for how the Fish and Wildlife Service would use the environmental water. According to sources who were involved in that process, both Jason Peltier and Julie MacDonald -- perhaps Bush's most controversial environmental appointee, then an adviser to assistant Interior Secretary Craig Manson and later deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks -- provided input. In the new policy, Interior not only incorporated Judge Wanger's restrictive interpretation, as it was legally bound to do, but went even further, increasing the frequency with which the salmon-water account could be "shorted" due to drought -- exactly the conditions when the fish would need that water most.

Asked recently about the sidelining of the Fish and Wildlife Service in the key court hearing, Bennett Raley says that the decision was his alone. "Jason (Peltier) was involved to a significant extent in some of the Bay-Delta discussions," he says, "but I was very careful in this decision to not involve him." Peltier also says that he refrained from getting involved in that specific issue. Asked whether he provided input on the Interior policy issued after Judge Wanger's ruling, he says, "I can't recall," adding, "I'm sure I was consistent with my position in just staying away."

Regardless, those changes dramatically undercut the effectiveness of the water-for-fish program. "The way this has been interpreted, it's as if this piece of the statute has never been enacted," says the Environmental Defense Fund's Cynthia Koehler. "It's as if Congress has issued a provision that is absolutely meaningless.

Another attempt at a long-term deal, called CalFed, arose out of the Bay-Delta Accord -- and also quickly got bogged down in endless meetings, studies and arguments. And though the majority of the rivers' annual flow into the Delta was still allowed to travel onward to San Francisco Bay, the Delta pumps were being steadily cranked up. In 2005, the federal and state water projects pumped 6.3 million acre-feet of water from the Delta -- a new record. It was a high-precipitation year, but the increase in pumping showed the continuing power of the farmers and city water bosses.

At the same time, the fish in the Delta were faring worse than ever. New additions to the endangered species list made for a grim menagerie of piscatorial ruin. In 1993, Delta smelt were designated threatened. Winter-run chinook numbers deteriorated so much that in 1994, the species' status was changed from threatened to endangered. In 1998, Central Valley steelhead trout were declared threatened; in 1999, they were joined by spring-run chinook and Sacramento splittail.

By 2005, it was clear that those fish -- and a broader suite of Delta fish, including longfin smelt, striped bass and threadfin shad -- were circling the drain.

Finally, in August 2007, environmentalists won a round in Judge Wanger's courtroom. In a lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the judge threw out a federal "biological opinion" written under the Bush administration that allowed further increases in pumping. Wanger's ruling substantially cut back the amount of water that farms and cities could pump from the Delta -- and was immediately compounded by a serious drought.

Last year, the state and federal water projects pumped only 3.7 million acre-feet from the Delta -- 40 percent less than in 2005. The Westlands farmers bore the brunt of the cutbacks, receiving just 10 percent of the amount in their contracts. They replaced some of the lost water by pumping groundwater, and bought emergency water from elsewhere, but were still forced to fallow about a quarter of the land in the district. According to new estimates produced by researchers at the University of California-Davis and the University of the Pacific, roughly a quarter-million acres were fallowed throughout the San Joaquin Valley last year, causing around $350 million in lost farm revenue. Such losses will likely get worse not only because of increasing competition for water, but also due to more frequent -- and severe -- droughts as the climate warms.

"We're facing the economic meltdown of a huge swath at the center of California," says Peltier. All this has only hardened the district's position: "We've got to defend ourselves, and protect ourselves."

Meanwhile, the political landscape has shifted again, but the battle formations look familiar. David Hayes, Obama's deputy secretary of Interior, served as Babbitt's lieutenant in the 1990s; for many farmers, he was the primary instrument of what they view as the Clinton administration's attempt to destroy them. And Westlands has reinforced its top leadership with veterans of the Bush administration, including not only Peltier, who is now chief deputy general manager of the district, but also Craig Manson, who is now Westland's chief lawyer. Julie MacDonald -- who resigned from the Interior Department in 2007 amid scandals over how she overruled many recommendations of the agency's own scientists -- now serves as a consultant to Westlands.

Faced with the massive cutbacks caused by the drought and the court-ordered endangered species restrictions, Peltier and some other irrigation district bosses have taken to reciting Babbitt's "a deal is a deal" promise like a bitter mantra. In the years after the Bay-Delta Accord, and particularly after Judge Wanger's 2007 ruling to protect salmon and smelt, "lo and behold, the water contractors started losing more water," says Peltier. "Babbitt didn't say, 'You're not going to lose any more water under the Accord.' He said, 'You're not going to lose any more water, period.' "

Babbitt won't argue that a deal is anything but a deal. But he says that particular deal is, by its own terms, a relic in the receding past. "The Accord had a limited life," says Babbitt. "I don't think it's reasonable to go back and pick out any particular language from an accord that expired more than a decade ago."

The national media soon smelled blood in California's near-hopeless efforts to thrash its way out of the Delta quagmire. A year ago, the CBS investigative news show 60 Minutes dispatched ace correspondent Leslie Stahl to the Golden State. In an on-screen interview, Stahl went head-to-head with Gov. Schwarzenegger, who had just pushed his Delta-policy barrage through the Legislature. Stahl noted the seemingly intractable showdown between farms, cities and the environment over the Delta's water, and then put a hard question directly to Schwarzenegger:

"You think you can have it all?"

Schwarzenegger barely missed a beat: "Absolutely, you can have it all." Then, as if realizing how absurd that sounded, Schwarzenegger waffled: "It's just ... you've got to recognize that it is a very, very complicated issue."

How complicated? Stahl never got that far -- thanks, apparently, to some fancy barnstorming on the governor's part. Schwarzenegger strapped Stahl into a Blackhawk helicopter and took her for an Apocalypse Now-style spin over the Delta. When Stahl returned to earth, about all she could manage was to goo-goo that "Arnold Schwarzenegger, who first became famous for pumping iron, wants to be remembered for pumping water back into California."

But the Governator had gotten at least one thing right: The situation is complicated. A bevy of water agencies, state and federal representatives and environmental groups have responsibility for drawing up the new comprehensive vision of the Delta's future, called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. They have already been working on it for four years, and they got a boost from last year's actions by Schwarzenegger and the Legislature.

The linchpin of the new planning process is a massive hydraulic engineering project known colloquially as the Peripheral Canal, whose blueprints have been around, in various forms, for several decades. If it's ever built, the Peripheral Canal would dispense with the pumps in the Delta altogether, and instead route water from the Sacramento River south around the Delta's periphery in a giant tunnel that would have a wider bore than the Chunnel between England and France.

Such a design could, conceivably, untangle the competing demands for the Delta's water. A portion of the river water routed through the Peripheral Canal would be released through sluice gates into the Delta to mimic its historic flows, although at far less than natural levels. But even as the Peripheral Canal could make the Delta a tidier, more-manageable place, it would also -- by giving San Joaquin Valley farmers and Southern California cities a direct tap into the Sacramento River -- provide them with the means to take even more water than they've been able to in the past.

One of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan's main goals is winning federal and state endorsement that the operation of the Peripheral Canal would not imperil endangered species like the salmon. In the hope of ensuring that an ecologically credible proposal is eventually presented to government regulators, several prominent environmental groups -- including The Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund, Defenders of Wildlife, American Rivers and the Bay Institute -- have been participating in the negotiating process.

The Peripheral Canal's proponents are also trading on the deep-rooted California fear of earthquakes. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there is a 2-out-of-3 chance that the Bay Area will be hit by a magnitude 6.7 or higher earthquake in the next 30 years. "The Big One" would likely collapse many of the levees that give the Delta what little integrity it has as a water-supply source today, swamping the pumps for the San Joaquin Valley farms and Los Angeles and San Diego with brackish, undrinkable water as seawater rushes in. A Peripheral Canal could greatly increase the Delta's resistance to an earthquake, as well as to seawater intrusion from rising ocean levels caused by global warming, which would likewise overwhelm the pumps with salt water.

Critics, though, remain uncertain about the Peripheral Canal's ecological benefits, and many see the Bay Delta Conservation Plan process as merely a smokescreen for an effort to push the new canal through, no matter what. "The (water) exporters wrote the rules for this process," says Jonas Minton, the water policy adviser for the Sacramento-based Planning and Conservation League, which, along with several other groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, has not joined the negotiations. "They loaded the dice. You had to agree (to the concept of a Peripheral Canal) in advance, before any scientific analysis was performed, or even begun."

Indeed, one irrigation district's boss says he was bluntly presented with a choice: Agree that "the most promising approach" to achieving a balance in the Delta for the next 50 years is the Peripheral Canal, or be left outside the negotiating room. Dante John Nomellini Sr. is the general manager and counsel of the Central Delta Water Agency. His agency supplies farmers in the Delta itself, and he is therefore wary of a project that could streamline other water agencies' ability to export water from the region. "This whole thing is just a fig leaf for the water contractors," he says. "They're just trying to use the Bay Delta Conservation Plan as cover to get through the Endangered Species Act requirements."

And though it's crystal clear how a Peripheral Canal would improve life for Southern California's cities and the irrigation districts in the San Joaquin Valley, it's not clear that it would make things better for fish, given the chance that it could be used to take even more river water that would otherwise flow into the Delta. The environmental groups that do have seats at the negotiating table have played an important role in insisting that the water agencies come up with a plan that will pass ecological muster. "They've been trying to find a lot of shortcuts to get there," says Ann Hayden, who represents the Environmental Defense Fund in the negotiations. "But when it comes to permitting, you've got to have a credible, scientifically sound plan."

Ultimately, the negotiations are less about the technical details of a Peripheral Canal than whether it would be operated in good faith. "It all comes down to how it's operated, and who's governing (the operation)," Hayden says.

The environmental groups in the negotiations essentially play only an advisory role; the quarreling government and water agencies have the real power. As the negotiations grind on, it has become increasingly clear that irrigation districts like Westlands, and urban water agencies like the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies water to 19 million people in L.A. and San Diego, are seeking guarantees that they'll be allowed to pump roughly the same amount of water they did in 2005, when pumping hit its historic peak.

But even as the water bosses push a plan that would let them take more from the Delta than they have in any year but 2005, federal and state agencies independently released four separate warnings that the pumping should be further reduced to prevent a total fish collapse.

In June, federal Environmental Protection Agency biologists bluntly noted that, in the face of the fish declines, "significantly increasing exports out of a stressed Delta is the wrong policy."

In August, the normally timid State Water Resources Control Board, which oversees water rights, surprised many people with a bold recommendation that fully 75 percent of the water that flows into the Delta be allowed to flow out, to keep fish populations healthy.

Then, in September, the state Department of Fish and Game unambiguously concluded that "current Delta water flows for environmental resources are not adequate to maintain, recover, or restore the functions and processes that support native Delta fish."

And later that month, a team of biologists with the U.S. Department of Interior concluded that the "substantial reductions in Delta outflow" that would come with the Peripheral Canal "have not been adequately evaluated" as part of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. More ominously, they warned that increases in pumping over current levels "are likely to increase the risk that Delta smelt will become extinct."

That warning irked Jason Peltier. During a Legislature water committee hearing in November, he railed against what he called "a little weak paper written by some scientists."

"If we simply just sit back and say, 'What do you think, mid-level biologists?' " Peltier groused, "we're going nowhere."

Peltier also invoked what is now a favored theme among the farm and urban water agencies that want to increase pumping. The causes of the Delta fish decline are clouded by "great scientific uncertainty," he said. "There's great difference of opinion about the science."

But in fact, the federal biologists who wrote that paper had pointedly noted that the data from the computer model they used -- the standard go-to model for the Delta -- "clearly indicate that adverse affects would likely occur. Hence, this is not a case of simple uncertainty about the science."

In many ways, the negotiations over the Bay Delta Conservation Plan have become their own morass of dysfunction. In late November, when the 2,517-page draft was released to the public, many of the most critical components of the plan still had not been completed. And the details may have already become moot anyway.

One day earlier, Westlands, elaborating on the sentiments Tom Birmingham expressed to David Hayes in D.C., formally announced that it was pulling out of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. And a day after the draft plan was released, the San Luis-Delta Mendota Water Authority, a broad coalition that includes 28 water agencies in addition to Westlands, announced that it was also withdrawing. With that, half of the funding that had been pledged for the latest heralded effort to fix the Delta disappeared.

When the Legislature passed the water package at Schwarzenegger's insistence in 2009, it again invoked the idea of balance in the Delta, this time as a pair of "co-equal goals" of "providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem."

That notion of balance may, however, simply be a refusal to confront the Delta's fundamental problem. The recent drumbeat of warnings from federal and state agencies makes it clear that the Delta is on the brink of ecological catastrophe. Disaster can't be avoided without a radical rethinking of much of the California image -- particularly the huge, trademark agricultural enterprise in the Central Valley, by far the biggest user of the Delta's water. If 75 percent of the water that flows into the Delta is earmarked for fish, as the Water Resources Control Board recommended, deliveries to San Joaquin Valley farms and cities in Southern California have to be reduced an additional 25 percent from current levels, and deliveries to farms in the Sacramento Valley, to the north, must be cut by as much as 67 percent.

Even the Metropolitan Water District, which tends to play the staid, even-tempered gentleman in water politics, appears dismayed by the extraordinary recommendations to keep more water in the Delta. "It would obviously devastate water supplies," Metropolitan assistant general manager Roger Patterson told Bettina Boxall of the Los Angeles Times. "Nobody is proposing (that) this is what we're going to do -- because that clearly wouldn't work."

The hundreds of millions of dollars the farmers lost last year because of water cutbacks are just a tiny fraction of California's $1.74 trillion economy, but they hit hard locally. If the farmers lose more water and money, the flow of crops and processed farm products to consumers nationwide will be affected. Further cutbacks would eat deeper into the state economy and ultimately reach urban areas like Los Angeles. And if that happens, the Endangered Species Act, and environmental-protection goals in general, will start to feel like an ever-heavier millstone around California's neck.

That threat has already spurred an effort to get Congress to loosen the Endangered Species Act. Last February, at the behest of Westlands and other farm and urban water agencies, California's senior senator, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, prepared a rider that would have relaxed endangered-species pumping restrictions in the Delta. Public outrage caused her to abandon it. But with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives set to take office in D.C. next month and an apparent rise in anti-government sentiment, there is widespread speculation that a similar push may soon occur. It would certainly win support from the rural Western proponents of other recent efforts to weaken the Endangered Species Act, including Montana's Democratic senators, Wyoming's and Idaho's Republican senators, who think the law is too protective of wolves, and Doc Hastings, the Washington Republican who will likely head the House Natural Resources Committee. But this time the effort would have the promoters of the biggest regional economy in the nation behind it.

Underneath all of this, though, lies another grim reality. Nothing can be done in California that will keep its farms and big cities thriving at today's levels and also keep the fish and the Delta alive. There's simply not enough water to go around anymore: Either the Delta slowly turns into nothing more than a water hole -- as is already happening -- or California's sunbeam-and-salad, fruit-crate-label ideal dries up and blows away -- which is already happening, too. Schwarzeneggerian fantasies to the contrary, it is no longer possible to have it all in California -- or anywhere else in the West, soon enough.

That point has not been lost on Westlands. "We're not going to defy physics in reality," says Jason Peltier. "You can defy physics in planning -- you can say, 'Everybody's going to get better together, and the world's going to be a happy place.' But in reality, there are choices, right? And the choices mean that somebody's not going to get what they want."

This story was made possible with support from the Kenney Brothers Foundation.

Matt Jenkins, a High Country News contributing editor based in the Bay Area, has been covering Western water politics for nearly a decade. He has also written for a range of publications including The New York Times, Smithsonian and Men’s Journal.