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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?

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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."

The environmentalists and state and federal biologists fighting to save the Delta ecosystem seemed to gain ground in 1989, when the National Marine Fisheries Service determined that populations of winter-run chinook salmon -- the radiant, blushing creatures that were once the mainstay of the San Francisco fishing fleet -- were so low that it classified them as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.

Against that backdrop, in 1992, the Democrat-controlled Congress passed the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, the brainchild of California Rep. George Miller, who was determined to give environmental concerns an explicit place in water politics, and New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. The law, which was the first attempt to create a balance between economic and ecological needs for water, pried a big chunk of water away from the Central Valley Project's irrigation districts and re-dedicated it to the environment. "This statute was like a little mini revolution," says Cynthia Koehler, a senior attorney and the California water legislative director for the Environmental Defense Fund. "There was nothing like it before or since that really seriously tried to reform how a federal (water) project worked."

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