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California’s Water Wars

from the magazine

California’s Water Wars

Environmentalist efforts to save the delta smelt threaten to create a new dust bowl. Summer 2011
Technology and Innovation
Infrastructure and energy
The Golden State’s ambitious system of dams and aqueducts once transformed desert into verdant, profitable farmland.
Ron Chapple/Corbis
The Golden State’s ambitious system of dams and aqueducts once transformed desert into verdant, profitable farmland.

California’s water wars aren’t about scarcity. Even with 37 million people and the nation’s most irrigation-intensive agriculture, the state usually has enough water for both people and crops, thanks to the brilliant hydrological engineering of past generations of Californians. But now there is a new element in the century-old water calculus: a demand that the state’s inland waters flow as pristinely as they supposedly did before the age of dams, reservoirs, and canals. Only that way can California’s rivers, descending from their mountain origins, reach the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta year-round. Only that way, environmentalists say, can a three-inch delta fish be saved and salmon runs from the Pacific to the interior restored.

Such green dreams are not new to California politics. But their consequences, in this case, have been particularly dire: rich farmland idled, workers laid off, and massive tax revenues forfeited. Worse still, they coincide with a $25 billion annual state deficit, an overtaxed and fleeing elite populace, unsustainable pension obligations for public employees, a growing population of illegal aliens—and a world food shortage. This insolvent state is in far too much trouble to predicate its agricultural future on fish.

You can learn an important fact about the water wars simply by driving the width of California’s vast Central Valley, where most of the battles erupt. True, there is a rich agricultural economy of dairy, wine, row crops, and rice elsewhere in the state, both to the north and to the south. But the farming engine that drives California’s $14 billion export industry is centered in the hot flatlands of the 450-mile-long Central Valley, bounded by the mountains of the Sierra Nevada to the east and those of the Coast Range to the west.

I make that drive sometimes, starting from a cabin high in the snowy Sierra Nevada, near Huntington Lake. After descending the pass into the Central Valley, I reach my small raisin farm, homesteaded by my great-grandmother in 1875: 40 acres of Thompson seedless vines, part of what was once my family’s 135-acre property within the small-farming patchwork of Fresno County, full of lush orchards and vineyards. As I continue across the state toward the Pacific, I pass through the valley’s very different, sparsely settled western region, with its vast corporate latifundia. Finally, I reach the Coast Range and descend into the Bay Area sprawl, where much of contemporary California’s environmental policy gets made.

What the drive teaches you is that there is no single Central Valley agriculture. Rather, the state is divided longitudinally, right down its middle, into two farming landscapes. These regions—the East Side and the West Side of the Central Valley—differ not only in the nature of the crops grown there but also in the relative availability of water and, more specifically, in the origins of the water that their farms so desperately need. Start with the East Side, which looks like a verdant, well-tended park from the air, thanks to the Sierra Nevada watershed—a freakish development of nature. On their steeper western slopes, the mountains rise precipitously to jagged peaks ranging from 9,000 feet high to more than 14,000. The towering wall collects massive snowfalls from Pacific winter storms that often pass over the valley without producing much rain. In the spring, the snow melts and flows into such rivers as the Kings, Kaweah, and San Joaquin, which then descend into the Central Valley.

Proximity to this guaranteed runoff from the Sierra prompted early homesteaders to prefer the Central Valley’s East Side to its West. It explains why the area’s small towns thrived on permanent orchards and vineyards, which represented more than a single year’s investment, rather than on annual row crops, beef, and dairy. Originally, the East Side’s grape and tree-fruit growers dug their own ditches to tap river water. I grew up on water stories from my grandfather, who would tell me how the combination of hot, sunny weather, rich soil, and plentiful Sierra water created prosperous vineyards and orchards from the scrub and desert of his youth.

In the early twentieth century, power companies and the state improved on what nature had bestowed, tapping the massive snow runoff with an ingenious system of dams. Engineers built vast lakes that stored millions of acre-feet (a unit of volume measuring one acre wide by one foot deep) of snowmelt. In the most ambitious systems of exploitation—for example, Henry Huntington’s brilliant Big Creek Hydroelectric Project, begun in earnest in 1912—huge penstocks connected several reservoirs to produce abundant electricity, the water spinning turbines as it rushed down, step-fashion, from lake to lake. For farmers, though, the chief benefit was irrigation. The engineers linked the reservoirs and rivers with an intricate system of gravity-fed canals that channeled the stored water into millions of acres of farmland below. In July, the water that pours out of the ditch and into my vineyard remains ice-cold, despite the scorching outdoor temperatures. Mere hours earlier, it was roaring down from mountain canyons.

To this day, gravity-fed irrigation usually supplies the East Side with enough summer runoff for its crops. But in rare drought seasons, farmers have a second resource: an enormous, centuries-old aquifer, originally perhaps as large as a billion acre-feet, with a water table just 100 feet below the ground or even less. The water is good and the cost of pumping cheap. In some years, like the last two, the Sierra runoff is so massive that when it reaches the valley floor, it is channeled into a system of on-farm storage ponds that recharges this aquifer. The result is a bountiful underground reserve water bank from which farmers can make withdrawals during drier years.

Robert Pizzo

There isn’t much controversy over water on the East Side. That’s partly because of proximity to the generous Sierra, of course. Snowfalls and rainfalls during the last two seasons—2009 to 2011—were among the heaviest on record. This May, there were still eight feet of snow outside the front door of my mountain cabin, the irrigation ponds and ditches around my farm far below were still brimming, and the local ditch-tenders were begging farmers to draw on the surplus water so that the ditches wouldn’t overflow and back up the system. These wet years are about as unusual as drought years, the norm being something in between.

And the Sierra watershed isn’t going anywhere. Yes, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, shortly before his appointment, pontificated that he could envision global warming’s reducing the Sierra snowpack to just 10 percent of its current size. But Chu was drawing on politically correct supposition, not the evidence. Recent studies of the central Sierra by climatologist John Christy show that levels of snowfall have been almost unchanged over some 100 years of record-keeping.

There is another reason why water wars won’t break out on the East Side: suburbanization. Suburbanites enjoy living not on the arid West Side, even though it’s closer to the booming coastal economy, but on the picturesque, well-watered East. Over the last four decades, the region’s farming towns have metamorphosed into a 400-mile, multimillion-person sprawl, clustering along the lines of the 99 freeway and the Southern Pacific railroad, from south of Bakersfield to north of Sacramento. In just the last 20 years, more than 100,000 acres of the nation’s best farmland have been torn out to create housing developments with names like Vineyard Estates and Orchard Knolls. But the destruction of an acre of irrigated agriculture, along with its replacement by four to six suburban homes, means not less but more available water for the remaining—and often next-to-be-targeted—farms. A family of four or five often consumes less water per year than the irrigated peaches or grapes that once grew on their property.

Perpetually postmodern California is ambivalent about its legacy of development. But the East Side depends on the wealth created by the engineering marvels of the past—and not just agriculturally. Hydroelectricity supplies millions of homes between Bakersfield and Sacramento. Man-made alpine lakes are popular recreation spots. We may chide our ancestors for their audacity in altering nature and may dream of returning the Sierra to its pristine state, but we do not dare—not when millions below can live well where they otherwise would struggle to survive. So for now, the East Side has plenty of water and few political fights over irrigation.

The far larger, far more fragile West Side is a different story. It is too distant from the Sierra to tap easily much of the snow runoff through gravity-fed canals. In most years, moreover, the Sierra-sprung rivers run dry long before they near the Coast Range. And the water table can be more than 1,000 feet underground. On my East Side farm, the water table is reached at only 55 feet—and is rising; I can run a 15-horsepower electric pump for less than $3 per hour and get well over 1,000 gallons of pure water per minute. On the West Side, a mere 40 miles away, a 200-horsepower pump, struggling to bring up brackish water from deep below, might consume $30 per hour of electricity to deliver a fifth of the water per minute. In other words, pumping from the aquifer is as cheap and easy on the East Side as it is difficult—indeed, nearly prohibitive—on the arid West.

No wonder, then, that this vast interior land was once a desert outback—sparsely populated, mostly unfarmed, and owned by large ranching concerns. I remember driving out to the West Side with my father in the early 1960s to shoot squirrels and jackrabbits. There were desolate, seemingly limitless, tracts of range land, dotted by a few ramshackle hamlets, such as San Joaquin and Five Points, a world away from the East Side’s settled agrarian towns.

The government changed all that in the 1960s. California, though hot and dry in its interior, is wet and cool in its northern and eastern mountain ranges. So the federal and state governments, in a series of complex partnerships, built the Central Valley Project and the California State Water Project—sprawling networks of dams, pumping stations, and canals that tapped water from the water-rich north and sent it more than 400 miles south, including to the water-short West Side of the Central Valley. Once West Side farmland was brought into irrigated production, it proved to be some of the world’s most fertile and productive acreage, and a multibillion-dollar farming industry was born from desert.

That industry, however, was dominated by often expansive corporate and family-held operations, the largest between 20,000 and 40,000 acres in extent. The farms’ owners, with imagination and audacity, found ways to produce an ever-greater variety of crops. But in the process, they seemed to alienate almost everyone. The Left harped that taxpayers were subsidizing corporate farming—that the $130 and more that the federal government and irrigation districts charged farmers per acre-foot of water represented far less than it cost to build and maintain the irrigation system. Farmers on the East Side originally resented the fact that lateral components of the system diverted some of their precious Sierra water to the west and south; they worried, too, about the competition posed by millions of new acres of subsidized farmland. Millions of thirsty northern California suburbanites eyed the long supply lines and began dreaming about stopping the water as it flowed past them or sending it over the mountains for sale to Los Angeles. Most recently, environmentalists argued that the diversion of the northern rivers degraded the ecology of the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta—a picturesque area near affluent, environmentally sensitive San Francisco.

It didn’t help the West Side’s cause that its lightly populated society was pyramidal. Unlike their counterparts on the more prosperous East Side, West Side towns were composed mostly of farm laborers and lacked an agrarian middle class. In the 1960s, a series of university studies and critical books noted that the per-capita income of some of these communities was lower than the average in Mexico. It was hard to contemplate the poor workers and the vast corporate holdings where they labored without thinking of medieval peasants and barons. The consequence was that most Californians didn’t like what they heard about the West Side’s economy, despite the collective wealth and inexpensive food that the region produced. So it became easier for the Bay Area environmental lobby—which, by the start of the new century, had begun to dominate California politics—to fight an easily caricatured corporate agribusiness in the west than to meddle with the romantic notion of small family farmers in the east.

In late summer 2007, a federal judge in Fresno, Oliver Wanger, finally ruled in favor of an environmentalist lawsuit demanding that the federal government curtail its water deliveries to the West Side by 80 percent and more. The suit involved salmon and especially the three-inch delta smelt, a fragile, short-lived fish. The number of smelt in the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta had plummeted over the years, the environmentalists claimed, because the California water projects had diverted far too much northern freshwater away from the delta, leading to lower oxygen levels there and ruining the ecosystem; in addition, the huge pumps that sent the water around the delta supposedly destroyed young smelt populations. The solution was to shut down the irrigation pumps, allowing California rivers to flow year-round—not just in the wet season—to the delta and the sea.

So in 2008 and 2009, water deliveries to farmers were reduced to a fraction of their prior levels. Chaos followed. Thousands of acres of irrigated crops were idled. Farmworkers were laid off. Adding to the scarcity was that 2007 and 2008 proved drier than usual. In some cases, newly developed orchards and vineyards on the West Side died without summer irrigation—often near the frequently traveled north-south I-5 freeway, where thousands of passing motorists daily saw both dead trees and signs erected by angry landowners proclaiming man-made dust bowl. Yet despite the cutoffs, the delta smelt did not rebound much.

Exact figures for the economic damage were difficult to obtain, but the two most reliable studies were performed by the University of California at Davis and the University of the Pacific in Stockton. While differing in details, both analyses suggested figures of about 250,000 acres idled, 5,000 to 7,000 farmworkers laid off, and $350 million in annual agricultural revenue lost. Of course, those were only the more direct results of the cutoffs. One reason that Central Valley cities like Fresno and Bakersfield are currently suffering 18 percent unemployment rates is that West Side farms have been forced to cut back on the many purchases that help support those commercial centers, from equipment, material, and fuel to insurance, real estate, trucking, shipping, and consulting contracts.

Farmers are resourceful people. Some were able to switch to drought-resistant crops; others had cash reserves to pay the exorbitant costs of pumping some scarce groundwater. Still others purchased irrigation supplements from East Side canals. Also, the cutoffs came at a time of spiraling agricultural prices, meaning greater profits per acre and sometimes, counterintuitively, greater profitability on less land farmed. Another lucky break for the farmers came from China and India, where a newly affluent consumer class started importing California nuts, cotton, raisins, beef, and vegetables. But luckiest of all was that, by the winter of 2009, California entered the current wet cycle. The result is that, though the state certainly lost hundreds of millions of dollars in agricultural revenue, California will probably still export a record $14 billion in farm commodities in 2011.

The politics of the water cutoffs became bizarre. East Side farmers, worried about the shape of the state’s green politics to come—and also fearful that the well-connected corporate farming interests at the south of the valley might, at some date, make up some of their water losses with larger draws on the Sierra supply—mostly rallied to the side of their West Side rivals.

Conservative northern California farmers, by contrast, were happy that less of their water was being diverted south; many fishermen, too, backed court decisions and legislative compromises that seemed to increase the number of salmon in the rivers. Both joined their usual enemies, the environmentalists, in praising the shutting down of the pumps.

Weirder still, corporate farms charged liberal environmentalists with destroying the jobs of downtrodden Mexican workers—citizens, green-card holders, and illegal aliens alike. The Latino Water Coalition demanded that the government restore water to their employers—their old foes during nearly constant labor litigation. And liberal activists, portrayed as opposed to both “family farmers” and “illegal aliens,” sometimes confirmed that illiberal portrayal. After a contentious debate over water, a Fresno environmental icon, Lloyd Carter, blurted out to a local news reporter that Mexican farm laborers

bring a lot of social problems with them, the next generation. On any given day in Fresno, there’s 3,500 people in jail; 1,500 of those people are gang members, and a lot of those people are second-generation farm workers. . . . What parent raises their child to become a farm worker? These kids, they are the least educated people in America or in the southwest corner of this valley. They turn to lives of crime. They go on welfare. They get into drug trafficking, and they join gangs.

Some West Side farmers were also East Side farmers and had sizable operations not solely dependent on federal water from the far north. What is clear in this confused mess is that concerns for salmon and smelt now endanger a vast California agribusiness sector that provides thousands of jobs, earns the state billions in revenue, and ships produce worldwide at a time of global food crisis.

At the end of my frequent drives across the state, I descend into the environmentalists’ stronghold, the San Francisco Bay Area. Here—particularly at Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley—is where much of the environmental research and ideological advocacy took place that privileged the salmon and the smelt over the giants of agribusiness.

Ironies abound in the Bay Area. Few, for example, appreciate the fact that the region owes much of its enormous wealth to sophisticated waterworks. San Francisco gets 30 to 50 percent of its drinking water from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, whose water is transported from the distant Sierra. The city houses a wide variety of firms dependent on Central Valley irrigation—everything from Pacific Gas and Electric, which runs sizable hydroelectric projects, to legal offices for the largest corporate farms, to tour companies offering Sierra lake excursions. And San Francisco, of course, consumes much of the produce grown cheaply on the West Side.

Another irony: while biologists are mostly sure that there are fewer smelt in the estuaries and argue that at least one cause is the diversion of freshwater inflows, they don’t know whether that’s the only reason that the smelt are disappearing. According to many analyses sponsored by advocacy groups and confirmed by disinterested scientific studies, the hundreds of Bay Area municipalities that dump their treated wastewater into the delta and bay contaminate the estuaries, raise nitrogen levels, and also endanger the smelt. It may be that the reason a few thousand conservative southern farmers are being asked to surrender their precious freshwater is to neutralize the wastewater that millions of affluent and environmentally correct residents are dumping into their own bay.

Environmentalists are unsurprisingly reluctant to concede that the riches of California, which have allowed their own movement to flourish, are derived from the entrepreneurialism and vision that created the West Side out of desert. They likewise dispute the claim that their own communities contribute to rising nitrogen levels in the bay and estuaries. They do not appreciate that West Side corporate barons export produce to feed an increasingly hungry planet. They tend, too, to ignore a final fact: that back in the unspoiled nineteenth century, many of the tributary rivers that they now want to flow year-round to the sea sometimes didn’t, because in the absence of today’s vast system of mountain reservoirs, yesteryear’s snowmelt was largely gone by midsummer.

California lakes and canals are a testament to our fathers’ using nature to bring water, power, and prosperity to the Central Valley—often under the tutelage of a past generation of scientists, engineers, and researchers from the coastal universities. These visionaries saw the massive federal West Side irrigation projects as the logical twentieth-century successors to the smaller state and local enterprises that had irrigated the East Side in the nineteenth century. But today, coastal scientists have tired of such visions. They consider them destroyers of nature, not catalysts of wealth, and so they use their academic expertise to thwart them.

The smelt and the salmon are now back in court, thanks to the hypothesis that Bay Area wastewater, not just river diversions and massive delta pumps, is to blame for their still-diminished numbers. Judge Wanger has approved a temporary compromise that tries—in wet years like this one, when there is more than enough water for everyone—to grant farmers 80 to 85 percent of their contracted water deliveries. The deal has made environmentalists happy, since the rivers are still flowing into the delta and out to sea; indeed, if not for the diversions to farmers, the rivers would overflow their banks. The farmers are less happy, reasoning that if they’re getting little more than three-quarters of their deliveries during one of the wettest seasons on record, they’ll surely receive even less in drier years—and someday, they may not be able to count on supplementing their lost water through near-prohibitive pumping, purchases of East Side Sierra water, crop diversions, or more efficient irrigation technology.

In the wake of the 2010 midterm elections, some local Democratic congressmen, such as Jim Costa and Dennis Cardoza, are bucking their party leadership and the environmental lobby and joining with conservative representatives to try to exempt the Central Valley Project and elements of the California State Water Project from federal environmental law. If they succeed, the issue could, in the future, be decided by state and federal legislators rather than trial lawyers and federal judges.

But in today’s California—with vast Democratic majorities in the state legislature, statewide officeholders mostly Democratic, and a delegation to Congress that’s also mostly Democratic—there is almost no chance of restoration of the original 100 percent delivery contracts, no matter what weather the future brings. When the wet cycle passes, thousands of acres on the West Side of the Central Valley will once again become idle—until Californians accept that unused farmland is a luxury that a still growing but now bankrupt state can no longer afford.

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