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California Can't Have it All: There's Not Enough Water to Support Farmers, Cities and the Environment

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. So what do we do?

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?

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