Fighting over trickles on tragically beautiful winter days

Juan Guadian, 75, a Mendota rancher and former bracero, checks his almond crop.
Juan Guadian, 75, a Mendota rancher and former bracero, checks his almond crop. hamezcua@sacbee.com

In what passes for winter, the sun burned away the February fog and the thermometer reached 70 in Sacramento.

“Another tragically beautiful day,” Mark Cowin, the Department of Water Resources director, said at a hearing last week focused on the drought and its parched complexities.

With the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Cowin’s department is responsible for supplying water to many of California’s farms and cities. The two agencies submitted a “temporary urgency change petition” seeking greater flexibility in water project operations to better cope with the drought.

The Water Resources Control Board staff approved the bulk of the request, but balked at allowing an additional release next month of roughly 84,000 acre-feet, enough to cover 84,000 acres under a foot of water.

The board will decide the issue soon as it seeks to balance endangered species of Delta fish and the estuary’s health against the needs of farms and cities, as well as birds that depend on wetlands south of the Delta as they migrate up and down the Pacific Flyway.

Delta fisheries are crashing, and salt water threatens to intrude farther upstream. But if experts conclude endangered Delta fish can survive for another year, if laws that protect endangered species remain intact, and if people’s lives and livelihood truly do hang in the balance, the board could reasonably send the additional water south. Another caveat: Constant monitoring must continue to guard against greater degradation.

State and federal agencies responsible for protecting fish attest that the water could be pumped without driving Delta species and salmon runs closer to extinction, though the water board’s staff questions the findings.

The amount of water, 84,000 acre-feet, is a trickle, less than 2 percent of the water that would be funneled south of the Delta in wet times. The intensity of the fight over that trickle reflects the gravity of the crisis.

More than 300 people showed up for the hearing, occupying every seat in the 250-seat California Environmental Protection Agency auditorium, and a spillover room.

Sophisticated consultants bused in dozens of San Joaquin Valley farmworkers wearing T-shirts that read, “Stop the man-made drought,” as if any man could cause below-normal rainfall in eight of the last nine years.

A food bank director from Fresno testified that because of drought-related layoffs, there has been a fourfold increase in the number of families seeking food in Fresno, Kern and Tulare counties, the three richest farm counties in the richest farm state in America.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and five other California congressional members wrote to the board urging it to permit the additional transfer.

The issue involves much more than 84,000 acre-feet of water. Questions are much more basic.

Is the drought a stubborn but passing weather pattern, or have we entered into a new normal?

In a state of almost 40 million people, can California afford to spare water for the environment?

Can farmers continue to produce half of the nation’s fresh fruit and nuts, and ship much of their bounty to other nations?

Shall we say sorry to the Delta smelt and let the last of the lowly fish disappear?

We already rely on hatcheries to spawn salmon, and we truck fingerlings to Suisun Bay because rivers are too low or too warm to sustain wild runs. Should we give up on wild salmon runs and grow more almonds, California’s highest-value crop, worth $7.3 billion last year, up from $5.8 billion in 2013?

If the board overrules its staff, the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project would deliver roughly equal amounts of water to customers, 42,000 acre-feet next month at most.

Broken down further, a fourth of State Water Project water would go to the Kern County Water Agency. The agency, in turn, would deliver 10 percent of that share to residential customers, and 90 percent to farmers. Increasingly, that means almonds.

Almonds occupy 148,600 acres in Kern County, or 35 percent of the 420,000 acres devoted to that county’s top 20 crops. Kern County’s almond crop was worth $971 million in 2013, up from $435 million five years earlier. Given such numbers, almond growers will find a way to get water.

If farmers don’t get water from the State Water Project canals, they will get it from somewhere – from farmers who plant annual crops and could fallow their fields and sell water, or from ever deeper wells. That poses problems, too. The U.S. Geological Survey reported last week that California is depleting its groundwater faster than any other state in the country.

No one can tell farmers what to grow or not grow. The market decides that. We all eat what they produce. But water is a shared necessity. Even if California muddles through this drought, a most basic question lingers: How will it divide water on tragically beautiful winter days 20 and 30 years from now?