From the Los Angeles Times
ON CALIFORNIA: Essays from the Golden State
Dry times revive an old debate
In the delta that is the state's water well, ecology vs. usage rises to the fore.
By Peter H. King
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
July 21, 2008
BYRON, CALIF. — Here is where the straws tap into the common pool of California water, where consequence begins. Here, on the backside of the Diablo Mountains, amid a landscape of bleached-out pastures, wind farms and transmission lines, the two-lane Byron Highway crosses the concrete headwaters of two canals.
The first is the California Aqueduct, main artery of the State Water Project, which propels delta water on a 444-mile beeline to Southern California. Two miles down the road the Delta-Mendota Canal also has its fountainhead, feeding the federal Central Valley Project -- an audacious rewrite of nature designed, as the boosters sang, to "make a desert bloom."
They're easy to miss from the road, announced only by minimal signage, tangles of barbed wire and posted warnings, in English and Spanish, "Stay Out: You May Drown" and "Danger: Swift Current." Yet these are critical pieces of connective tissue, binding together the watery north with an arid south.
Not that everyone's sanguine about the arrangement. Grumblings about plugging Sierra rivers to fill Los Angeles swimming pools and supplying farmers subsidized water to grow subsidized cotton have been staples of the state's political rhetoric for decades.
Of more pressing concern at present is the environmental cost -- an escalating collapse of the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the West Coast's largest estuary. It is a crisis marked by creeping saltwater, toxins and, most visibly, the disappearance of fish.
"It all looks pretty innocuous, doesn't it?" said Bill Jennings, peering down into the rippling aqueduct at a point south of the pump house. "Just looking at it, you wouldn't know what this is doing to the delta, would you?"
Jennings is a water person, a member of that insular society of experts and activists sometimes described as the Hydraulic Brotherhood. He happens to be an environmentalist.
There are many other classifications of water people -- engineers, irrigators, biologists, bureaucrats, lobbyists and lawyers, many, many lawyers. If California water litigation were rainfall, we'd all be building arks.
Their ceaseless wrangling has gone on for decades, since the Gold Rush really, but typically without much notice. Only in dry years do Californians on the faucet end of the plumbing begin to pay attention. Only in dry years do low-flow toilets and San Joaquin Valley crop patterns and delta fish counts become part of the public discourse.
This has been a dry year, the second in a row. It has not been, at least not yet, bleached-bones-in-the-lake-bed dry -- "a marginal call," is how one veteran hydrologist politely described Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's decision last month to declare a drought.
Still, it's been dry enough to infuse the water debate with a jolt of heightened urgency and to generate interest beyond the ranks of its perpetual participants. In this particular form of trench warfare, dry spells present an ideal climate for advancement. Whether the objective is to build more dams or provide more cool, fresh water for salmon runs, it's better to push during a dry time than in a season of downpours.
More than 15 years have passed since California last sweated out a drought. That arid epoch gave rise to a raft of measures: legislation to protect fisheries, conservation initiatives, water banks and water trading, collaborative processes to forge consensus among competing "stakeholders."
Somewhere along the way, though, that happy train careened off the rails. Today, in federal courtrooms and before blue ribbon commissions, in farm-town coffee shops and newspaper opinion pages, the brotherhood is slugging it out, same as ever. Farm versus fish. North versus South. Concrete versus conservation. Once again, farmers on the valley's west side are grousing loudly about water cutbacks. Once again, environmentalists are fighting in court to keep fish from being driven toward extinction.
"Sometimes I wonder," mused Thomas Graff, an environmental lawyer and longtime key water person, "if we all just disappeared, would anything be all that different?"
To make the deja vu complete, there even have been fresh calls to resurrect the Peripheral Canal, the 42-mile waterway that Californians rejected with vigor in 1982. Instead of pumping from the delta -- a practice that contributes to the demise of fish and that has caught the stern attention of a federal judge -- river water would be shuttled around the estuary.
This end run would ensure a more reliable flow of water for Southern California's Metropolitan Water District and several San Francisco Bay Area cities, and also for San Joaquin Valley farmers hooked into the federal waterworks. What it would do for, or to, the delta -- well, that will be quite a discussion.
There are, in fact, some differences between the water world today and where it was when we left it after the last drought. For starters, the delta, while always important, has moved to the center of the debate. The fight was once about which rivers to dam, which valleys to flood. Now it's about how to save the delta -- and still quench the great California thirst.
Also, suburbs have been spreading across the Central Valley floor. Often they are built on flood plains. This means that in wet years more and more water must be shunted around these new neighborhoods in flood canals and dispatched to San Francisco Bay. "Wet-year capture" is now a frequently heard term in the water world.
Conservation, once seen condescendingly as a noble gesture on the way to throwing up ever-bigger dams, has gone mainstream, embraced by a Republican governor, the state Department of Water Resources and the MWD alike as a main source of "new" water.
There also seems to be some rethinking of basic rules. Not all farmers are short of water this year. Not all cities have been compelled to mandate conservation. In fact, for much of California, farm and city alike, the drought is little more than a word in a newscast. It all depends on where they stand on the hierarchical ladder of water rights.
This leads to some contradictory images. On one day there's a front-page photo in the Sacramento Bee of a state worker spraying down a Capitol Avenue sidewalk with a pressure hose. On the next, the San Francisco Chronicle runs a picture of unwatered almond orchards, wilting in the summer sun on the valley's west side. And so some water people have begun to ask, quietly: Historic "rights" aside, what do Californians on top of the water entitlement ladder owe the rest of the state in dry times?
One fundamental remains unaltered: Everybody wants more water than the system can deliver. Said former Assemblyman Phil Isenberg, who heads a state task force exploring the water dilemma: "We are, as they say in the water world, oversubscribed." What the competing factions want the water for, by and large, are noble endeavors. But at some point, choices must be made.
"If it comes down to water for Los Angeles children or water for delta fish," Jennings said, playing out the poster-child game as he drove a couple of visitors through the delta, "delta fish are going to lose every time. No doubt about it."
What if it comes down to farms versus fish?
"Well," he said, "Let's separate farms into food crops and nonfood crops. Rice grows great in Arkansas. Cotton grows great in Mississippi. Kansas is good for growing alfalfa. The issue isn't between people and fish. It's whether you are going to use subsidized water to grow subsidized crops on drainage-impaired, arid land."
That's one viewpoint. There are many. For every call to fallow the valley's west side, there are others to check suburban sprawl, or to build a Peripheral Canal, or even to let the delta go. What all corners can agree on is this: Year by year, the squeeze is getting tighter, and another dry year would be a killer. They'd be wise to get something done before the rains return.
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