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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 farmers who buy their water from the federal government were considerably less delighted. "We'll do anything and everything to keep from being harmed," Jason Peltier, then a point man for many of the irrigation districts, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "If that means obstructing implementation (of the 1992 law), so be it."

Those who sought a higher priority for the Delta's ecological needs chalked up another win two years later. With substantial nudging from the Democratic Clinton administration, California's main water players signed an agreement called the Bay-Delta Accord. Republican Gov. Pete Wilson compared it to the Oslo Peace Accords that Israel and Palestine had just signed, and declared, "Peace has broken out amid the water wars."

One of the major goals of the Bay-Delta Accord, which was to last three years, was to protect fish like the chinook that were already listed as threatened or endangered, and "to create conditions in the Bay-Delta Estuary that avoid the need for any additional listings." In signing the deal, the water agencies agreed to give up as much as 1.1 million acre-feet of water a year, just slightly less than a quarter of what they had received, on average, over the previous decade.

For them, the deal was a strategic compromise. They received a promise that the federal government would not take any more water than that, essentially shoring up the security of their remaining supplies. When Clinton's secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, signed the Accord, he said, in a quote carried in the San Jose Mercury News: "Basically, what we're saying is a deal's a deal. We've made a deal, and if it turns out there are additional requirements of any kind, it'll be up to the United States and the federal agencies to find the water."

But in spite of the optimism surrounding the Bay-Delta Accord in 1994, it merely led to yet more fights over the promises and commitments the Accord actually entailed. One that was particularly bitter still colors Delta politics to this day.

The biggest portion of the 1.1 million acre-feet per year for fish was the 800,000 acre-feet that Congress had reappropriated two years earlier, in the Central Valley Project Improvement Act. That water was explicitly intended to help double populations of salmon and steelhead, an ocean-going trout. The responsibility for managing it was assigned to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- an agency that, until then, had been "just basically tin-cupping, going out there with our hand out" for water, says Jim McKevitt, a Fish and Wildlife Service veteran who is now retired.

Practically overnight, the Service was transformed from the province of guys in hip-waders mucking around obscure Delta backwaters into one of the largest water agencies in California. No matter how you slice it, 800,000 acre-feet is a lot of water -- enough to fill 29 million semi-truck tankers. The agency's managers visualized that water as a flexible, quick-response cache -- reserved behind dams when necessary and used to "shape" flows in streams, rivers and the Delta to more closely approximate the yearly fluctuations the fish had evolved with. The more flow they could create at the crucial times, the less the fish would be affected by the pumps' draw.

But by then, the aggrieved farmers felt that the Clinton administration was acting in bad faith, determined to wrest that water from them in ways that would damage their enterprises as much as possible. "The views of the politicals" -- the political appointees -- "in the Clinton administration seemed to be, 'We're gonna right the wrongs of the past, and we're gonna put those people down where they belong,' " Peltier says. "It was like open season on the water users."

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