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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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Even the Metropolitan Water District, which tends to play the staid, even-tempered gentleman in water politics, appears dismayed by the extraordinary recommendations to keep more water in the Delta. "It would obviously devastate water supplies," Metropolitan assistant general manager Roger Patterson told Bettina Boxall of the Los Angeles Times. "Nobody is proposing (that) this is what we're going to do -- because that clearly wouldn't work."

The hundreds of millions of dollars the farmers lost last year because of water cutbacks are just a tiny fraction of California's $1.74 trillion economy, but they hit hard locally. If the farmers lose more water and money, the flow of crops and processed farm products to consumers nationwide will be affected. Further cutbacks would eat deeper into the state economy and ultimately reach urban areas like Los Angeles. And if that happens, the Endangered Species Act, and environmental-protection goals in general, will start to feel like an ever-heavier millstone around California's neck.

That threat has already spurred an effort to get Congress to loosen the Endangered Species Act. Last February, at the behest of Westlands and other farm and urban water agencies, California's senior senator, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, prepared a rider that would have relaxed endangered-species pumping restrictions in the Delta. Public outrage caused her to abandon it. But with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives set to take office in D.C. next month and an apparent rise in anti-government sentiment, there is widespread speculation that a similar push may soon occur. It would certainly win support from the rural Western proponents of other recent efforts to weaken the Endangered Species Act, including Montana's Democratic senators, Wyoming's and Idaho's Republican senators, who think the law is too protective of wolves, and Doc Hastings, the Washington Republican who will likely head the House Natural Resources Committee. But this time the effort would have the promoters of the biggest regional economy in the nation behind it.

Underneath all of this, though, lies another grim reality. 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. There's simply not enough water to go around anymore: Either the Delta slowly turns into nothing more than a water hole -- as is already happening -- or California's sunbeam-and-salad, fruit-crate-label ideal dries up and blows away -- which is already happening, too. Schwarzeneggerian fantasies to the contrary, it is no longer possible to have it all in California -- or anywhere else in the West, soon enough.

That point has not been lost on Westlands. "We're not going to defy physics in reality," says Jason Peltier. "You can defy physics in planning -- you can say, 'Everybody's going to get better together, and the world's going to be a happy place.' But in reality, there are choices, right? And the choices mean that somebody's not going to get what they want."

Matt Jenkins, a High Country News contributing editor based in the Bay Area, has been covering Western water politics for nearly a decade. He has also written for a range of publications including The New York Times,Smithsonian and Men's Journal. This feature story originally appeared in the Dec. 20, 2010 issue of High Country News .

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