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.