‘The Cadillac of California irrigation districts’

Westlands 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

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In the 1980s, veteran reporter Eric Brazil dubbed Westlands "the Cadillac of American irrigation districts." Westlands has a defiant air of invincibility, and its leaders have never blinked when trouble materialized -- including at the very start.

Farmers first tried to make a go of it on the West Side in the late 1800s. They found themselves blessed with deep, rich, Panoche sandy loams that had eroded out of the nearby hills –– and cursed with scanty local water. That, in turn, inspired a number of creative efforts to correct the problem. In 1924, for instance, the city of Coalinga paid $8,000 to Charles Mallory Hatfield to make it rain. He set fire to a secret recipe of chemicals, and induced the heavens to pour forth.

By that time, though, most farmers were looking not to the skies but to the ground beneath their feet for water. The invention of deep-well pumps allowed them to reach the groundwater beneath the dry scrub, and farms began spreading across the West Side. But by the 1940s, trouble was on the horizon. As the pumps furiously sucked water from beneath the valley, the ground beneath them sank like a collapsing soufflé, leaving some pumps stranded 10 feet in the air.

This time, the farmers turned to the government. In 1952, several prominent landowners on the West Side organized the Westlands Water District and began lobbying for water from the delta formed where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers meet, a hundred-odd miles to the north, before flowing to the Pacific. In 1960, Congress agreed to finance construction of San Luis Reservoir and a canal to the water district, as part of the massive Central Valley Project. On Aug. 18, 1962, President John F. Kennedy helicoptered into the valley to join Gov. Pat Brown. "It is a pleasure for me to come out here and help blow up this valley in the name of progress," Kennedy said, before setting off an explosive blast that broke ground for the reservoir.

Today, Westlands sprawls across 605,000 acres. Tomatoes and almonds are the two most-widely grown crops, but farmers grow everything from alfalfa to garbanzos to pomegranates –– more than a billion dollars' worth of crops in a normal year. Westlands is famously secretive about how many farm operations actually do business in the district. The official line is that Westlands is home to "more than 600 family farmers," but many of those are, in fact, parts of large family partnerships. Farms run from couple-hundred acre operations to Woolf Farming's roughly 25,000-acre spread.

When Westlands lobbied for the construction of the San Luis Reservoir, the district's farmers hitched their star to the fate of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. For most Californians, the Delta is a world far from mind, but it is the heart of California's complex water-supply system. Two enormous batteries of pumps on the edge of the Delta feed the federal Central Valley Project and its sister, the State Water Project. Those two projects, in turn, push water south to over 1.2 million acres of farmland and more than 25 million people, primarily in Los Angeles and San Diego. It's a complex system, but the Delta's ecosystem is even more complicated -- and fragile. It is a critical link in California salmon's annual spawning runs, and is home to more than 120 species of fish, including the smelt.

By the late 1980s, it was becoming clear that competing demands for the Delta's water could unravel everything. Barry Nelson, a water policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, has called the Central Valley Project "the biggest single environmental disaster ever to strike California."

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