Dan Morain

Fighting for every drop in a thirsty state

A view of the receding waterline from the east end of Folsom lake last week. El Dorado Irrigation District hopes to get water from the lake, which is at a 23-year low.
A view of the receding waterline from the east end of Folsom lake last week. El Dorado Irrigation District hopes to get water from the lake, which is at a 23-year low. jvillegas@sacbee.com

For the mighty Westlands Water District, the notion that water is for fightin’ extends to the stuff you flush, as Jim Jasper learned.

Jasper has been farming on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley all his life, almonds mostly. In these thirsty times, however, the Jasper family way of life is threatened. Jasper received none of the Central Valley Project water allocated to him this year or last, and he expects none in 2016, even if El Niño arrives.

But the heavens seemed to open when the city of Modesto offered 30,600 acre-feet a year, a third of the water consumed by Jasper and his neighbors in the Del Puerto Water District, which parallels Interstate 5 from south of Tracy to north of San Luis Reservoir.

No matter that it would be recycled water from Modesto, Turlock and Ceres, or that Jasper and his neighbors would need to raise $100 million to help pay for the plumbing. The offer meant that Del Puerto farmers could remain in business.

“This was a godsend,” Jasper told me by phone the other day.

Legislators have encouraged water recycling many times over the years, and earmarked hundreds of millions for it in the $7.5 billion water bond approved last year. Clearly, Modesto and its partners were implementing sound, environmentally correct public policy, for which they would be rewarded.

Then came Westlands.

Westlands covers 600,000 acres in Fresno and Kings counties, making it the nation’s largest agricultural water district. It has attorneys and political clout to match. Del Puerto, by contrast, includes 45,000 acres.

Westlands’ farmers consume more than 1 million acre-feet of water annually, much of it for permanent crops, which must be irrigated, drought or not. Westlands’ almond and pistachio orchards covered 115,000 acres in 2014, up from fewer than 50,000 acres in 2004.

Westlands’ lawyers filed a protest in March with the State Water Resources Control Board, contending that Modesto’s sale of its residents’ treated wastewater to the Del Puerto farmers would be “contrary to the public interest and contrary to law.”

“I never dreamt that we’d be challenged like this,” Jasper said.

As part of its plan to upgrade its waste treatment, Modesto intends to cease dumping wastewater it now treats to a lesser standard into the San Joaquin River.

“The reality is that the proposed project is a good project,” said Tom Birmingham, Westlands executive director. “We just didn’t want it to come at our expense.”

Westlands asserted that anything that curtails flow into that river diminishes its ability to divert water from the San Joaquin. Thus, Modesto’s plan to reuse wastewater rather than dump it into the river would affect Westlands farmers.

Invoking the California Environmental Quality Act and Endangered Species Act, Westlands said the project “likely would have adverse environmental impacts in the form of effects to fish and wildlife, due to decreased flows in the San Joaquin River, and outflow through to the ocean.” Westlands, an advocate for the environment, is an interesting notion.

In the water world, Westlands’ protest was a shocker. After initially brushing off the claim, however, Modesto and Del Puerto faced reality.

“Westlands has been one of the big dogs. They could have made it very difficult to make progress,” Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh said.

Westlands, Del Puerto and Modesto quietly settled the dispute last month. Westlands agreed to drop its protest, and Del Puerto would pay tribute to Westlands in the form of 500 acre-feet a year once the recycling project is complete in 2018.

Westlands will pay about $240 per acre-foot for the Del Puerto water, double the cost of Central Valley Project water when it’s available. But that is far less than the $2,000 per acre-foot that some Westlands farmers paid this year as they struggled to keep orchards alive.

The 500 acre-feet is a fraction of the 1 million-plus acre-feet that Westlands uses. But Westlands saw it as a matter of a principle, one that will come into play as other jurisdictions, Sacramento included, upgrade their wastewater treatment.

If all this seems anomalous, it’s not. Tom Howard, executive director of the state board, told me the issue comes up regularly, most recently in the El Dorado Irrigation District, which serves 110,000 El Dorado County residents.

For years, El Dorado has been discharging 1 million gallons a day of treated sewer water into Deer Creek, a Cosumnes River tributary. Without the recycled water, the creek would run dry in the summer.

In this fourth year of the drought¸ El Dorado sought water board approval to use some of that recycled water for its customers. The board agreed. But after protests from downstream residents, who have grown accustomed to the creek’s beauty, the board last month rescinded the approval.

“We were shocked,” Jesse Saich, the irrigation district’s spokesman, said in an email. The district is appealing, but also plans to tap an alternate source: Folsom Lake, which is at a 23-year low.

As scarcity of and demand for water grows, competition will intensify, and not just for what goes down the drain.

Consider this: Hardware stores sell barrels to homeowners who capture rainwater for use on gardens. A few rain barrels won’t matter. But if we all buy rain barrels, there’d be less runoff and ultimately lower river flows.

“You can imagine the effect of hundreds of thousands of rain barrels and the effect on the flow in some river or stream,” Birmingham said.

He doesn’t go so far as to say you would need a permit for a rain barrel. Not necessarily. That’d be a stretch. But as any almond farmer in Fresno County knows, water is worth fighting for.