THE BEGINNING OF THE END?
There is an uneasy sense of déjà vu in Westlands these days. Because its Delta water supply is so unreliable, Westlands, unlike most of the rest of California, has been fairly proactive in managing its groundwater, which is its farmers' insurance policy for dry times. But over the past three years, farmers have been drilling many new groundwater wells, and they have fired up many previously idle ones, too. As its Delta supplies have plummeted, Westlands' groundwater use has dramatically increased. The district estimates that its farmers pumped half a million acre-feet this year.

At the edge of an almond orchard on his farm, 41-year-old Shawn Coburn shows off a new well with a mixture of pride and chagrin. "This is a million-dollar hole," Coburn says. It goes 1,800 feet down, and taps into a nasty realm. "Say a prayer, because there is a hell. When this water comes out of the ground, it's 97 degrees."

It's also heavily laden with salt and boron, so it has to be used sparingly and mixed with scarce canal water. It is hell on pumps: Many are rotting out from the inside because the chemical concentrations are so strong. And the groundwater has an equally diabolical effect on crops. Farmers who had to rely solely on well water to grow lettuce saw their crops yield stunted, disease-prone heads fit only for shredded salad mix.

The drought is already beginning to reshape the district. "A small farmer can't afford to go out and punch a million-dollar hole in his dirt," says Coburn. As smaller growers go bust, one of the district's largest landowners says he is considering whether to buy their ground.

District insiders also say that the drought and water restrictions are taking a toll on the finances of the water district itself. Last year, Westlands had to cover a $93 million operating budget with shrinking revenues. Because irrigation districts have to maintain their full pipeline system to deliver even much-reduced supplies of water, they're ill-equipped to trim operating expenses in dry times. "You have a minimum operating budget divided by a smaller and smaller supply, so prices have gone up considerably," says Dan Errotabere, who sits on Westlands' board and whose family partnership farms about 5,500 acres. "We have a little bit of reserve that we try to use to smooth prices out, but you quickly burn that up."

Contrary to popular perception, Westlands is relatively water efficient. The district's entire distribution system is underground pipe, instead of open canals that lose water through evaporation. And its farmers have gone in for drip irrigation -- widely recognized as the most efficient form of irrigation -- in a big way.

Frank Coelho, the Westlands board member, is the grandson of a Portuguese immigrant who came to the West Side from the Azore Islands in 1917. Coelho's family partnership farms about 8,000 acres, primarily growing tomatoes. "Our first drip went in in 2000, and we'll be 100 percent drip on our ranch (this) year," Coelho says. "Nobody stretches a gallon of water in agriculture like Westlands does."

Last year, fully half of the district's farmed acreage was drip-irrigated. Yet the adoption of this method has been driven less by a desire to save water than by the fact that drip increases crop yields by as much as 50 percent. And while farmers have made a major shift away from cotton, a fairly heavy water user, the replacement crops don't necessarily use any less. Almonds, for instance, which now cover more than 68,000 acres, use just as much water as cotton does.

Indeed, in spite of the recent irrigation and crop shifts, Westlands' total water demand has not gone down. Birmingham says that the district's annual demand for water is 1.4 million acre-feet per year. That's 210,000 acre-feet more than Westlands holds contracts for from the Central Valley Project. In a year with full deliveries from the project, Westlands could almost make the math work. The amount of water that can be pumped reliably over the long term without depleting the aquifer is roughly 200,000 acre-feet, about what it would take to cover the difference.

But in any year with a less than 100 percent supply from the Central Valley Project, the district runs a deficit that it must cover by buying water in the open market (at rates that, this year, were four times what Westlands paid for its own water), or by pumping groundwater at unsustainable levels. Over the past 22 years, a period that extends back beyond the first restrictions in the 1990s, Westlands -- even after buying water and relying on wells -- has only once managed to pull together a full 1.4 million acre-feet. And even as the district's water supply has become less reliable, many of Westlands' farmers have made themselves more vulnerable to water shortages. Today, as much as a third of the district's cultivated acreage is planted to permanent crops like grapes and almonds -- crops that farmers can't fallow in a dry year.

Once already, the district has been forced to confront the fact that it is over-extended. In 2002, it settled a lawsuit filed by a group of Westlands farmers because there wasn't enough water to ensure equal deliveries to everyone, by permanently retiring about 90,000 acres. That reduced the farmed acreage in the district by about 15 percent, and increased the amount of water available to the remaining landowners.

That may be about to happen again. As the Coast Range eroded to form the Panoche sandy loams that thrill the farmers here, its rocks infused those loams with the toxic element selenium. In 1983, the selenium-poisoned runoff led to an outbreak of gruesome deformities in birds at the Kesterson Wildlife Refuge, which, despite its name, was little more than a sump for the selenium-contaminated water that trickled out of Westlands.

For years, Westlands has been negotiating with the federal government to retire as many as 200,000 acres that have selenium and drainage problems. That would shrink the farmed area in Westlands to about half of its former size, in exchange for a firmer, though somewhat smaller, supply of water.

Taken together, Westlands' water and drainage problems suggest that, in the future, the district will look quite different than it did in its heyday. And as the entire state grapples with drier times, irrigation districts like Westlands are assuming new importance as a potential source of water transfers for the agencies, like the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, responsible for keeping cities supplied through good years and bad. Birmingham, and many Westlands landowners, remain adamant that the district won't sell its water off to outsiders. "It hasn't happened, and it isn't going to happen," says Birmingham.

Still, the prospect of selling water does quietly figure into the farmers' calculus. "It's gotten a lot of talk," says Errotabere. "It's the realization that we've been squeezed so hard that now people are giving up water supply to survive. If you're a financial steward of whatever operation you've got, you have to consider whether it's better to park the ground and sell the water next year."

Back in November 2003, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was sworn in as governor of California, his predecessor, Gray Davis, left him with a piece of parting advice. "Pray for a good economy," he said, "and rain."

Six years later, it appears that Schwarzenegger has not prayed hard enough on either count. For the first time in a long time, however, the state seems ready to confront the Delta crisis. Last year was just the first step in what is sure to be an exhausting process that will go on for years. Over the next decade, the state's water system and its water politics could be dramatically transformed. But peril lurks at every turn. And every winter brings a new roll of the dice that could either push things to the breaking point, or buy the state a year's reprieve.

John Diener is the nephew of one of Westland's founding fathers. Although he seems happiest dispensing folk wisdom from behind the wheel of his GMC pickup, he is known as one of the most progressive farmers in Westlands.

In November, Diener wheeled the truck through his fields, checking on next spring's crop of organic spinach. It had been an extremely frustrating year: Diener had fallowed about 750 acres, and he hoped that this year would be better. "Just having dirt for the joy of having dirt is great," Diener said. "But our business is about growing things."

When I asked what needed to happen next, Diener thought for a moment before saying, "We pray a lot!" He burst out laughing, and then thought some more. "We would like to see some biological opinions reviewed. And, God willing, it rains.

"I mean, honest to God," he said, "we do need it to rain."

Matt Jenkins is an HCN contributing editor.

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