‘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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The meltdown that drew Sean Hannity to the West Side last summer had been brewing since at least 1989. That year, the winter run of chinook salmon in the Sacramento River fell so low that the federal government added the fish to the endangered species list. Then, in 1993, the Delta smelt was classified as threatened.

For a time, there was a promising shift. In 1992, after a long, hard fight, Congress passed the Central Valley Project Improvement Act; then, in 1994, water users, environmentalists and the federal government reached an agreement called the Bay Delta Accords. Together, the two offered hope for a more balanced approach to juggling the water demands of farms and cities with protection for the Delta's fisheries. For roughly the next decade, California went through a series of gyrations, centered around a joint state-and-federal effort called CALFED, that marked a new period of collaborative management.

Yet the Delta fisheries only got worse, and the Delta smelt provided the clearest signal that something was wrong. Bruce Herbold, an Environmental Protection Agency scientist involved in an ongoing investigation into the collective fish decline in the Delta, says that the smelt, unlike other fish, spends its entire one-year life span in the Delta, "so it's a really good animal to tell you what's happening."

By 2004, smelt populations had fallen to record lows, even as pumping intensified. Water "exports" to farms and Southern California's cities had topped 6 million acre-feet for the first time in 1989, and then tapered off to a low of about half that during a drought in the early 1990s. Then, fast on the heels of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act and the Bay-Delta Accord, exports began climbing. In 1996, they hit 6 million acre-feet again. And by 2005 they had reached a new record high.

"We have been steadily ramping up diversions from that system, year after year, for a long time. And we've just hit limits. We haven't yet seen extinctions, but we're on the razor's edge," says Nelson. "And right now, (the Delta smelt protections are) the tool that has prevented the projects from driving the system completely over the edge."

Those protections are determined by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service analysis called a biological opinion, which is meant to ensure that the pumping plants do not violate the Endangered Species Act. While the pumps themselves kill fish, they have also dramatically reshaped the hydrology of the Delta: they have broken a natural cycle in which salty water from San Francisco Bay would wash through parts of the Delta each winter, and they have re-oriented flows from east-to-west to north-to-south.

The biological opinion, which was first issued in 2005, asserted that pumping could be increased without harming the smelt. The Natural Resources Defense Council sued to force the feds to redo the opinion, and in 2007, won a favorable ruling from federal District Judge Oliver Wanger. To protect smelt and other species during key stages in their life cycles, a court-ordered revised opinion limits the times that pumps can be used -- and, by extension, the amount of water that they can send south.

With the onset of the current drought in 2007, and with Judge Wanger's ruling, water exports plummeted and have continued to fall. The fish -- and the communities that depend on fish -- haven't done any better. Last year, salmon runs collapsed so badly that federal regulators shut down the state's commercial salmon fishery for the second year in a row, throwing fishermen from San Francisco to the North Coast out of work.

Many farmers echo Hannity in blaming the restrictions solely on the fish-protection measures. But Lester Snow, California's top water regulator, and David Hayes, the deputy secretary of the Interior, both point out that fish-related pumping restrictions accounted for only a quarter of the reduced exports from the Delta this year. (A recent report by the Public Policy Institute of California put the number even lower, at 15-20 percent.) The real culprit behind the low deliveries is the drought.

In the meantime, the collaborative-management efforts have been crumbling; CALFED collapsed in 2006 in part due to a lack of funding. As a result, the Delta crisis was, for the most part, being immediately addressed only in the courts.

Last year, however, even as Feinstein was shaking her fist in Birmingham's face in Washington, California state legislators were hammering out a package of bills that promised to breathe new life into the ideal of balancing water extraction and environmental protection. The package would require the state to establish standards for how much water would be allowed to flow from the Delta out to the Pacific, a critical element for protecting fish populations. It would also create an oversight council and legal backstops to prevent an outright run on the Delta for more water.

More controversially, however, the package lays the groundwork for what is most often referred to as the Peripheral Canal, a decades-old idea that has generated plenty of contention before. The canal would allow water users to directly tap the Sacramento River -- the major contributor of water to the Delta -- and route water straight to the pumps that push it to the southern half of the state. That could protect the freshwater from a large earthquake- or climate-driven sea level rise that would cause a massive infusion of salt water into the Delta.

A canal might also help untangle the snarl formed by competing demands. It would essentially separate the water in the Delta, shunting the water allocated to farmers and cities around the estuary rather than through it, and allowing environmental flows to be used to mimic the Delta's more natural, variable self.

The proposal has divided environmental groups. "There's this notion that the best way to restore the Bay-Delta is to separate the fish from the water," says Jonas Minton, the water policy advisor for the Planning and Conservation League. "That's as biologically unsound as it sounds. This is an attempt by large agribusinesses and Southern California developers to take even more water."

Other groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council, have endorsed the package. "Five or 10 years ago, NRDC would have said no way, no how" to a Peripheral Canal, says Doug Obegi, a Natural Resources Defense Council attorney. The realities of the collapsing Delta have caused the group to shift its stance. But, he adds, "how it's operated -- whether it's good for the environment -- really does make or break the project."

On Sept. 11 last year, the clock ran out on an intense round of negotiations over the water package during the regular legislative session. Schwarzenegger, threatening to veto hundreds of bills, forced lawmakers back for a special session. Finally, on Nov. 4, the Legislature passed the package.

All told, the projects in the package could ring in at more than $40 billion. This November, California voters will be asked to approve the publicly financed portion of the plan, an $11 billion bond. It is not at all clear that Californians will have the appetite for new debt when the state is already teetering under a $21 billion budget deficit.

And even if voters approve the package, relief could still be far off for Westlands. The canal wouldn't carry any water until 2018 at the earliest. And that raises the question of how far water districts like Westlands will go to protect themselves in the meantime.

How are we going to survive between now and the time that these long-term solutions can be implemented?" says Westlands boss Tom Birmingham. "If we have to live with the existing biological opinions until 2018, there are a lot of farmers in Westlands Water District that simply will not survive."

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