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Water Wars

Southern California farmer Chris Hurd is worried. As it is, the tomato crops on his family farm are struggling because of a dwindling water supply. Farmers in Southern California receive only two-thirds of the water promised the state, according to the California Farm Water Coalition, a statewide organization representing the agriculture industry. Now their water supply could be cut back even more. The state Dept. of Water Resources announced last week that water contractors must reduce pumping to the central and southern parts of the state by 11 to 30 percent. This was decided after a December 2007 court order to reduce pumping in order to protect the endangered delta smelt.

This could be bad news for the country’s food supply. With more than half of America’s fruits, vegetables and nuts coming from California — and nearly all the nation’s tomatoes, garlic, avocados, lemons, strawberries, grapes, almonds, as well as other crops — water battles in California may leave the rest of the country a little hungrier.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta could be part of the answer to California’s water woes — if it wasn’t such a big part of the problem. A world of debate surrounds the delta and its potential to supply California with water. Last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger created the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force, made of state legislators and stakeholders. The group was supposed to balance water needs against the problems of a deteriorating ecosystem. The current debate over the delta involves a controversial plan to build a peripheral canal around it. The canal would bring water to the central and southern parts of the state. But it would further degrade the delta’s ecosystem, harming not only the environment but also the water supply for farms and residents in the delta region. Farmers in the delta region worry a canal could end their livelihood. Farmers south of the delta say a canal could send much needed water their way.

Northern California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is an estuary formed by the merging of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, just east of where they flow into the San Francisco Bay. The delta’s ecosystem has long been deteriorating. Decades of agricultural, industrial and urban use has degraded water quality. Invasive, non-native species have threatened the delta as a habitat for native and migrating fish. These problems have depleted the populations of the endangered smelt and of migrating salmon. In December 2007, Judge Oliver Wanger of the U.S. District Court in Fresno imposed limits on water exports to protect the smelt. Additional concerns involve potential levee failures in the event of an earthquake.

The trouble is, safeguarding the delta’s ecosystem means shrinking the water supply for irrigation and drinking water. Which, of course, means shrinking the food supply for the rest of the country.

California is now trying to figure out how to get water from the delta to southern and central parts of the state, big producers of the nation’s nut, fruit and vegetable crops. Farmers inside the delta—also major producers of the nation’s fruits and vegetables—have reason to fear plans to tap the delta. Farmers in the area say a canal taking freshwater from the delta could harm water quality. Mike Wade, the executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, said that farmers fear that building the canal would leave little incentive to maintain the levee system that protects local farmland.

you put the farmers out of business, because they can’t farm with salty water

Alex Hidlebrand, a delta farmer and engineer for the South Delta Water Agency, says a canal could potentially put farmers like himself out of business. “The fact is, there’s no way you can put in a peripheral canal without destroying the freshwater delta,” he said. “A canal would convert it to a saltwater bay.”

A canal, Hidlebrand says, would divert freshwater away from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, increasing its salinity. Already, the delta has high levels of saltwater because, over the years, freshwater has largely been eliminated because water was exported to other parts of the state. The only freshwater currently in the delta — which flows in from the Sacramento River — enters in the northeast corner and gets dispersed throughout the delta. Today, that freshwater is undisturbed by exports, which take water from the southern part of the delta.

If a canal is built, though, two things will happen, says Hildebrand. First, when river flow is low, most of that freshwater will be intercepted and shipped to the canal, with only a small portion flowing to the delta. Second, freshwater will no longer be exported from the southern part, so the freshwater spread throughout the delta will be interrupted. All that is exacerbated by continued salt water flowing into the delta with the tides from the bay. That means a canal could destroy delta agriculture.

“When you do that," said Hildebrand, "you put the farmers out of business, because they can’t farm with salty water. You also destroy the freshwater fishery.”

If delta farms struggle, the country’s vegetable, fruit and even meat production — which relies on water and crops to feed livestock — will take a hit. Not to mention domestic wine made with California grapes. And, if farmers are at risk, Hildebrand says, no one will be left to maintain the levees. So, when the levees flood, even more saltwater will flow in.

Hildebrand and his colleagues propose an alternate method of getting freshwater to people and farms south of the delta. Right now, he says, exporters take more water out during dry years than wet years, so much water is lost. He supports a plan that would export less during dry years and more during wet years, storing excess water in offshore storage for future use. He also advocates a “delta corridor,” reconnecting the San Joaquin River to the bay through an old river channel. This would both reroute saltwater into the bay and keep fish isolated from water exports, protecting smelt and salmon. Such alternatives have been submitted to the Dept. of Water Resources for consideration, but nothing has come of them yet.

"What we need," said Hildebrand, "is an independent qualified analysis so the public can begin to understand the consequences of a canal."

Farmers south of the delta, said Wade of the Farm Water Coalition, have received only 65 percent of the water they’re entitled to through the Central Valley Project, the federal water project charged with devising a long-term plan for central and southern California’s water. “The people who have really suffered the most are the farms and rural communities south of delta,” he said. “They’re the ones first on the list to have water supply reductions when we have a dry year…They’re looking for a fix to maintain their economic stability.”

Hurd, the south of delta farmer, can attest to that. “We as family farmers are literally on the brink of total uncertainty and no leadership, so we are greatly impacted,” said Hurd. “A canal would really mean a great deal to us.” Not building the canal, he says, could threaten 2 million acres of high production agriculture for the country. Hurd is confident that canal construction would not ignore ecological concerns.

“We can turn our backs on agriculture or turn our backs on the environment—and we don’t want to do either of those things,” said Hurd. “Or, we can work together to fix this thing—to fix the delta.”

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