California’s Tangled Water Politics

  • Sacramento and San Joaquin Delta, looking south from above Black Tract, November 2006.

    Adrian Mendoza
  • Duck-hunting wetland in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Delta.

    Adrian Mendoza
  • Salinity control gate in Suisun Marsh at the mouth of the Delta that leads out to the San Francisco Bay.

    Adrian Mendoza
  • Sources: Bureau of Reclamation, California Division of Water Resources
  • Asparagus harvesting on Roberts Island, west of Stockton, California, on the Rudi Mussi Farms property. (Mussi moved his operation to Roberts Island after a levee break in 2004 flooded his Jones Tract property.)

    Adrian Mendoza
  • Discovery Bay in the Delta.

    Adrian Mendoza
  • Red algae in a stagnant waterway behind the Snug Harbor Resort on Ryer Island in the Delta. (The waterway has been cleaned up since this photo was taken in December 2008.)

    Adrian Mendoza

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."