[env-trinity] High Country News 1 11 10

Byron Leydecker bwl3 at comcast.net
Wed Jan 13 13:24:23 PST 2010


This is lengthy, but valuable background in understanding Westlands Water
District, recipient of Trinity River water.  It was composed largely of
small groundwater irrigated farms and otherwise was largely a desert
wasteland before Trinity water was provided.  As Floyd Dominy, Commissioner
of the Bureau of Reclamation when the Westlands' water contract was signed
has said in recent years, the biggest mistake he made as Commissioner was
allowing that contract to be signed before the contaminated irrigation
drainage problem was solved.  The article also provides interesting
information on recent legislative activities on California's developed water
allocation issues. 

 

Byron

 

Breakdown: 'The Cadillac of California irrigation districts' has more than a
tiny fish to blame for its troubles 

High Country News-1/11/10

By Matt Jenkins 

 

On Sept. 17 of last year, the famously hypertensive right-wing Fox News
commentator Sean Hannity rolled into the West Side of the San Joaquin
Valley, satellite truck in tow. Months earlier, when it became clear that a
2-year-old drought would grind on for another year, the federal government
announced plans to slash water deliveries to local farmers. Hannity smelled
blood. 

 

He, and many others, quickly blamed the whole crisis on a two-inch-long fish
called the Delta smelt, which is protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The bright yellow CONGRESS CREATED DUST BOWL signs that began popping up all
over the valley were prime-time stuff. And, at least in Hannity's telling,
the farmers' fight against the water cutoff was swathed in the populist
bunting of a peasant revolt against heavy-handed government.

 

These farms are muscular emblems of American-style production agriculture,
and odds are better than even that something inside your fridge right now
was grown on the West Side. One of Heinz's biggest suppliers grows and
processes tomatoes here, and the green-produce giant Tanimura & Antle sends
armies of workers into the fields to harvest lettuce. The relatives of one
of the district's founders raise the organic spinach that goes into
Amy's-brand pizzas and vegetable pot pies.

 

The farmers are confederated as the Westlands Water District. The largest
irrigation district in the United States, it has a reputation for
bare-knuckled combativeness. But Westlands has fared badly in the face of
the drought, complicated by the Endangered Species Act, which has stringent
protections for the smelt and several other fish that are affected by
pumping operations. Because farmers received only 10 percent of the water
they held federal contracts for, they were forced to leave roughly 156,000
acres -- about a quarter of the district -- unplanted this year.

 

And so Hannity arrived to check out the damage for himself. His retinue set
up camp on a fallowed field, clipped microphones to the area's congressional
delegation, and began beaming the farmers' plight to the world. As a boom
cam floated over the sign-toting, flag-waving throng, Hannity said, "The
government has put the interests of a two-inch minnow before all of the
great people that you see out here tonight." He brandished a blown-up photo
of a smelt and said: "This is what this comes down to: No water for farmers,
because of this fish."

 

The crowd gave a hearty boo. Then the cameras turned to the darling of the
hour: Rep. Devin Nunes, the hot-headed 37-year-old Republican who represents
the neighboring congressional district. "The liberals and the radical
environmental groups have been working on this for decades: They've been
trying to turn this into a desert," Nunes fumed. "And what's important about
you being here tonight -- and the rest of your viewers need to understand --
is this could happen to you. They're on their way. Nancy Pelosi's the
speaker of the house. George Miller's her lieutenant. They're on their way
to the rest of America."

 

But there was more to the story than the drama that Fox News beamed out of
Westlands that day. Congressman Nunes had been hard at work in Washington,
D.C., introducing a series of amendments that would force the federal
government to ignore the Endangered Species Act when it determined how much
water to deliver to farmers this year. His efforts were repeatedly turned
back. Then, five days after Hannity's broadcast, Jim DeMint, a conservative
Republican from South Carolina, introduced a similar amendment in the
Senate, with Westlands' endorsement. That's when the needle skipped off the
record.

 

California's warhorse Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, has been a longtime
champion of Westlands, but she has also tried to negotiate common ground in
the state's complicated water politics. And back home, the California
Legislature -- after years of ignoring the problem -- was working feverishly
to hammer out a sweeping package of bills to relieve the crisis in the
Delta. When Feinstein learned of the DeMint amendment, she denounced it as
"a kind of Pearl Harbor on everything that we're trying to do."

 

The amendment failed. Several days later, before a press conference at the
U.S. Department of the Interior, Feinstein approached Tom Birmingham, the
man who runs Westlands, and pulled him aside. The senior senator from
California managed a tight smile, and then shook her fist at Birmingham, who
has contributed to her campaigns. "Tom, I'm angry," she said. "I'm so angry
that I want to punch you."

 

Chastened, Birmingham later made a rare admission that Westlands had gone
too far. "We just made a terrible, terrible mistake," he said in early
November. "We made a mistake, and we need to acknowledge that."

 

With scant naturally available water, the West Side was an unlikely place
for an agricultural empire to begin rising roughly a century ago. Yet the
farmers in Westlands have shown a rare knack for overcoming adversity and
actually turning a profit in sometimes seemingly hopeless circumstances. 

 

Westlands has never been afraid to aggressively seek advantage wherever it
could, and the district has played its cards well. But the foundation
beneath the entire enterprise has always been unstable. And if the drought
is revealing anything, it is not government regulation run amok but an
empire that may have seriously over-extended itself.

 

In the 1980s, veteran reporter Eric Brazil dubbed Westlands "the Cadillac of
American irrigation districts." Westlands has a defiant air of
invincibility, and its leaders have never blinked when trouble materialized
-- including at the very start.

 

Farmers first tried to make a go of it on the West Side in the late 1800s.
They found themselves blessed with deep, rich, Panoche sandy loams that had
eroded out of the nearby hills –– and cursed with scanty local water. That,
in turn, inspired a number of creative efforts to correct the problem. In
1924, for instance, the city of Coalinga paid $8,000 to Charles Mallory
Hatfield to make it rain. He set fire to a secret recipe of chemicals, and
induced the heavens to pour forth.

 

By that time, though, most farmers were looking not to the skies but to the
ground beneath their feet for water. The invention of deep-well pumps
allowed them to reach the groundwater beneath the dry scrub, and farms began
spreading across the West Side. But by the 1940s, trouble was on the
horizon. As the pumps furiously sucked water from beneath the valley, the
ground beneath them sank like a collapsing soufflé, leaving some pumps
stranded 10 feet in the air.

 

This time, the farmers turned to the government. In 1952, several prominent
landowners on the West Side organized the Westlands Water District and began
lobbying for water from the delta formed where the Sacramento and San
Joaquin rivers meet, a hundred-odd miles to the north, before flowing to the
Pacific. In 1960, Congress agreed to finance construction of San Luis
Reservoir and a canal to the water district, as part of the massive Central
Valley Project. On Aug. 18, 1962, President John F. Kennedy helicoptered
into the valley to join Gov. Pat Brown. "It is a pleasure for me to come out
here and help blow up this valley in the name of progress," Kennedy said,
before setting off an explosive blast that broke ground for the reservoir.

 

Today, Westlands sprawls across 605,000 acres. Tomatoes and almonds are the
two most-widely grown crops, but farmers grow everything from alfalfa to
garbanzos to pomegranates –– more than a billion dollars' worth of crops in
a normal year. Westlands is famously secretive about how many farm
operations actually do business in the district. The official line is that
Westlands is home to "more than 600 family farmers," but many of those are,
in fact, parts of large family partnerships. Farms run from couple-hundred
acre operations to Woolf Farming's roughly 25,000-acre spread.

 

When Westlands lobbied for the construction of the San Luis Reservoir, the
district's farmers hitched their star to the fate of the Sacramento-San
Joaquin Delta. For most Californians, the Delta is a world far from mind,
but it is the heart of California's complex water-supply system. Two
enormous batteries of pumps on the edge of the Delta feed the federal
Central Valley Project and its sister, the State Water Project. 

 

Those two projects, in turn, push water south to over 1.2 million acres of
farmland and more than 25 million people, primarily in Los Angeles and San
Diego. It's a complex system, but the Delta's ecosystem is even more
complicated -- and fragile. It is a critical link in California salmon's
annual spawning runs, and is home to more than 120 species of fish,
including the smelt.

 

By the late 1980s, it was becoming clear that competing demands for the
Delta's water could unravel everything. Barry Nelson, a water policy analyst
with the Natural Resources Defense Council, has called the Central Valley
Project "the biggest single environmental disaster ever to strike
California."

 

The meltdown that drew Sean Hannity to the West Side last summer had been
brewing since at least 1989. That year, the winter run of chinook salmon in
the Sacramento River fell so low that the federal government added the fish
to the endangered species list. Then, in 1993, the Delta smelt was
classified as threatened.

 

For a time, there was a promising shift. In 1992, after a long, hard fight,
Congress passed the Central Valley Project Improvement Act; then, in 1994,
water users, environmentalists and the federal government reached an
agreement called the Bay Delta Accords. Together, the two offered hope for a
more balanced approach to juggling the water demands of farms and cities
with protection for the Delta's fisheries. 

 

For roughly the next decade, California went through a series of gyrations,
centered around a joint state-and-federal effort called CALFED, that marked
a new period of collaborative management.

 

Yet the Delta fisheries only got worse, and the Delta smelt provided the
clearest signal that something was wrong. Bruce Herbold, an Environmental
Protection Agency scientist involved in an ongoing investigation into the
collective fish decline in the Delta, says that the smelt, unlike other
fish, spends its entire one-year life span in the Delta, "so it's a really
good animal to tell you what's happening."

 

By 2004, smelt populations had fallen to record lows, even as pumping
intensified. Water "exports" to farms and Southern California's cities had
topped 6 million acre-feet for the first time in 1989, and then tapered off
to a low of about half that during a drought in the early 1990s. Then, fast
on the heels of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act and the Bay-Delta
Accord, exports began climbing. In 1996, they hit 6 million acre-feet again.
And by 2005 they had reached a new record high.

 

"We have been steadily ramping up diversions from that system, year after
year, for a long time. And we've just hit limits. We haven't yet seen
extinctions, but we're on the razor's edge," says Nelson. "And right now,
(the Delta smelt protections are) the tool that has prevented the projects
from driving the system completely over the edge."

 

Those protections are determined by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
analysis called a biological opinion, which is meant to ensure that the
pumping plants do not violate the Endangered Species Act. While the pumps
themselves kill fish, they have also dramatically reshaped the hydrology of
the Delta: they have broken a natural cycle in which salty water from San
Francisco Bay would wash through parts of the Delta each winter, and they
have re-oriented flows from east-to-west to north-to-south.

 

The biological opinion, which was first issued in 2005, asserted that
pumping could be increased without harming the smelt. The Natural Resources
Defense Council sued to force the feds to redo the opinion, and in 2007, won
a favorable ruling from federal District Judge Oliver Wanger. To protect
smelt and other species during key stages in their life cycles, a
court-ordered revised opinion limits the times that pumps can be used --
and, by extension, the amount of water that they can send south.

 

With the onset of the current drought in 2007, and with Judge Wanger's
ruling, water exports plummeted and have continued to fall. The fish -- and
the communities that depend on fish -- haven't done any better. Last year,
salmon runs collapsed so badly that federal regulators shut down the state's
commercial salmon fishery for the second year in a row, throwing fishermen
from San Francisco to the North Coast out of work.

 

Many farmers echo Hannity in blaming the restrictions solely on the
fish-protection measures. But Lester Snow, California's top water regulator,
and David Hayes, the deputy secretary of the Interior, both point out that
fish-related pumping restrictions accounted for only a quarter of the
reduced exports from the Delta this year. (A recent report by the Public
Policy Institute of California put the number even lower, at 15-20 percent.)
The real culprit behind the low deliveries is the drought.

 

In the meantime, the collaborative-management efforts have been crumbling;
CALFED collapsed in 2006 in part due to a lack of funding. As a result, the
Delta crisis was, for the most part, being immediately addressed only in the
courts.

 

Last year, however, even as Feinstein was shaking her fist in Birmingham's
face in Washington, California state legislators were hammering out a
package of bills that promised to breathe new life into the ideal of
balancing water extraction and environmental protection. The package would
require the state to establish standards for how much water would be allowed
to flow from the Delta out to the Pacific, a critical element for protecting
fish populations. It would also create an oversight council and legal
backstops to prevent an outright run on the Delta for more water.

 

More controversially, however, the package lays the groundwork for what is
most often referred to as the Peripheral Canal, a 25-year-old idea that has
generated plenty of contention before. The canal would allow water users to
directly tap the Sacramento River -- the major contributor of water to the
Delta -- and route water straight to the pumps that push it to the southern
half of the state. That could protect the freshwater from a large
earthquake- or climate-driven sea level rise that would cause a massive
infusion of salt water into the Delta.

 

A canal might also help untangle the snarl formed by competing demands. It
would essentially separate the water in the Delta, shunting the water
allocated to farmers and cities around the estuary rather than through it,
and allowing environmental flows to be used to mimic the Delta's more
natural, variable self. 

 

The proposal has divided environmental groups. "There's this notion that the
best way to restore the Bay-Delta is to separate the fish from the water,"
says Jonas Minton, the water policy advisor for the Planning and
Conservation League. "That's as biologically unsound as it sounds. This is
an attempt by large agribusinesses and Southern California developers to
take even more water."

 

Other groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources
Defense Council, have endorsed the package. "Five or 10 years ago, NRDC
would have said no way, no how" to a Peripheral Canal, says Doug Obegi, a
Natural Resources Defense Council attorney. The realities of the collapsing
Delta have caused the group to shift its stance. But, he adds, "how it's
operated -- whether it's good for the environment -- really does make or
break the project."

 

On Sept. 11 last year, the clock ran out on an intense round of negotiations
over the water package during the regular legislative session.
Schwarzenegger, threatening to veto hundreds of bills, forced lawmakers back
for a special session. Finally, on Nov. 4, the Legislature passed the
package.

 

All told, the projects in the package could ring in at more than $40
billion. This November, California voters will be asked to approve the
publicly financed portion of the plan, an $11 billion bond. It is not at all
clear that Californians will have the appetite for new debt when the state
is already teetering under a $21 billion budget deficit.

 

And even if voters approve the package, relief could still be far off for
Westlands. The canal wouldn't carry any water until 2018 at the earliest.
And that raises the question of how far water districts like Westlands will
go to protect themselves in the meantime.

 

How are we going to survive between now and the time that these long-term
solutions can be implemented?" says Westlands boss Tom Birmingham. "If we
have to live with the existing biological opinions until 2018, there are a
lot of farmers in Westlands Water District that simply will not survive."

 

As of November, Westlands' fighting spirit was still much in evidence. In a
barren field on the west side of the district, a yellow sign screamed,
"CHANGE the LAWS or we'll CHANGE CONGRESS!" A passing semi tooted its air
horn in approval.

 

Westlands is, somewhat paradoxically, in the most vulnerable class of water
users that receive water from the Central Valley Project. During droughts,
the project delivers water first to wildlife refuges and to irrigation
districts that were formed before the first portions of the project were
built in the 1930s. Cities come next, and finally more recently created
agricultural districts, such as Westlands. In a wet year, Westlands receives
40 percent of all the water delivered through the Central Valley Project.
But in a dry year that percentage can be much less -- in 2008, for example,
Westlands' share was only 18 percent.

 

That vulnerability has shaped the district's dealings with the outside
world. "We've had to be more aggressive, politically and legally, than water
districts with a firmer supply of water," says Frank Coelho, a farmer who
has been on the district's board of directors since 1991. "It's just the
nature of trying to survive."

 

Tom Birmingham is the man charged with defending the district's interests,
and pretty much everyone involved in the state's water politics keeps a
close eye on his every move. Water bosses like those at the Metropolitan
Water District of Southern California, which supplies water to 19 million
people in Los Angeles and San Diego, have gradually reached out to
environmental groups. But Birmingham is not the type to hold up an olive
branch, even though Westlands was careful to keep its name out of Hannity's
environmentalist-bashing broadcast.

 

"Birmingham is devout. He's a believer," says one Westlands farmer. "He's a
believer in the idea that farmers on the West Side should be allowed to
farm. And a lot of people on the other side of that proposition" -- a
reference to critics who say Westlands is a water-guzzling, fish-killing
monster -- "would like to see the end of the district."

 

Birmingham began working as an outside attorney for the district in 1986,
after a short stint with the pro-property-rights Pacific Legal Foundation.
Fourteen years later he became Westlands' general manager. Birmingham tends
not to mince words, and few people are as critical as he is of the effort to
save the Delta. "The pumping restrictions have done absolutely no good for
the fish," he says. "We've dedicated millions of acre-feet of water per year
to protect those species, and they're still declining."

 

Even though, overall, Delta pumping increased between 1990 and 2005,
Westlands has seen the reliability of its water supply erode, thanks to a
complicated mix of federal and state pumping and priorities. Before 1993,
the pumps could run all year long. Then the smelt was listed, and the window
during which Westlands could pump water grew smaller and smaller.

 

Because that window now limits pumping to only the second half of each year,
water users can't take advantage of the extra water available in the Delta
at other, wetter times of the year like the winter. "What we want to do,"
says Birmingham, "is restore the ability of those pumps to operate at
capacity year-round."

 

The quest to re-open the pumping window lies at the heart of Westlands'
survival strategy. In search of relief, the district turned to Congressman
Nunes and Sen. DeMint for Endangered Species Act waivers last year. Last
March, Westlands -- through a broader group of local irrigation districts --
also sued the federal government to overturn the smelt biological opinion.
Birmingham is particularly critical of the science behind the opinion, and
says that a host of other problems, including pesticide runoff, invasive
fish and high levels of ammonia from urban waste-treatment plants, are
responsible for the Delta fisheries collapse. That case is still working its
way through court, but in December, Westlands and the Water Authority asked
Judge Wanger for an injunction to prohibit the pumping restrictions this
year -- a motion that the judge will consider this month.

 

Yet even as Westlands aggressively challenges the biological opinions, it is
one of the main participants in the quiet, ongoing series of negotiations to
create a Bay-Delta Conservation Plan. The plan, which emerged in the wake of
CALFED's collapse, seems likely to provide at least the raw DNA for the new
governance entity mandated by the water package the California Legislature
passed in November.

 

Some environmental groups view that process skeptically. "The
environmentalists can sit in the back seat and offer suggestions," says the
Planning and Conservation League's Minton, "but they don't have the grip on
the steering wheel."  

 

But Ann Hayden, a senior water resource analyst with the Environmental
Defense Council, who represents environmental groups in the process, says
that the conservation plan has kept the water users' quest for better water
reliability yoked to a meaningful effort to protect the Delta. In "this
world of constant litigation, we've actually been able to make quite a bit
of progress in the BDCP," she says. "I think we have a promising foundation
to work from."

 

Still, the DeMint amendment and the political wrangling over Endangered
Species Act waivers "has created a lot of tension in the BDCP process," she
says.

The state's environmental groups are watching to see what happens when
Congress returns this month. 

 

Sen. Feinstein has been working on several fronts to help Westlands and
other water users. Last fall, she requested a review of the smelt biological
opinion by the National Academy of Sciences; a preliminary report should be
out this spring. The Senate will also consider a bill she introduced that
would streamline the federal government's review and approval of water
transfers.

 

Birmingham says that Westlands has not ruled out asking Congress for help in
getting a waiver from the Endangered Species Act. "We will pursue every
potential remedy," he says. But "not," he is careful to add, "without the
express consent of Sen. Dianne Feinstein."

 

There is an uneasy sense of déjà vu in Westlands these days. Because its
Delta water supply is so unreliable, Westlands, unlike most of the rest of
California, has been fairly proactive in managing its groundwater, which is
its farmers' insurance policy for dry times. But over the past three years,
farmers have been drilling many new groundwater wells, and they have fired
up many previously idle ones, too. As its Delta supplies have plummeted,
Westlands' groundwater use has dramatically increased. The district
estimates that its farmers pumped half a million acre-feet this year.

 

At the edge of an almond orchard on his farm, 41-year-old Shawn Coburn shows
off a new well with a mixture of pride and chagrin. "This is a
million-dollar hole," Coburn says. It goes 1,800 feet down, and taps into a
nasty realm. "Say a prayer, because there is a hell. When this water comes
out of the ground, it's 97 degrees."

 

It's also heavily laden with salt and boron, so it has to be used sparingly
and mixed with scarce canal water. It is hell on pumps: Many are rotting out
from the inside because the chemical concentrations are so strong. And the
groundwater has an equally diabolical effect on crops. Farmers who had to
rely solely on well water to grow lettuce saw their crops yield stunted,
disease-prone heads fit only for shredded salad mix.

 

The drought is already beginning to reshape the district. "A small farmer
can't afford to go out and punch a million-dollar hole in his dirt," says
Coburn. As smaller growers go bust, one of the district's largest landowners
says he is considering whether to buy their ground.

 

District insiders also say that the drought and water restrictions are
taking a toll on the finances of the water district itself. Last year,
Westlands had to cover a $93 million operating budget with shrinking
revenues. Because irrigation districts have to maintain their full pipeline
system to deliver even much-reduced supplies of water, they're ill-equipped
to trim operating expenses in dry times. 

 

"You have a minimum operating budget divided by a smaller and smaller
supply, so prices have gone up considerably," says Dan Errotabere, who sits
on Westlands' board and whose family partnership farms about 5,500 acres.
"We have a little bit of reserve that we try to use to smooth prices out,
but you quickly burn that up."

 

Contrary to popular perception, Westlands is relatively water efficient. The
district's entire distribution system is underground pipe, instead of open
canals that lose water through evaporation. And its farmers have gone in for
drip irrigation -- widely recognized as the most efficient form of
irrigation -- in a big way.

 

Frank Coelho, the Westlands board member, is the grandson of a Portuguese
immigrant who came to the West Side from the Azore Islands in 1917. Coelho's
family partnership farms about 8,000 acres, primarily growing tomatoes. "Our
first drip went in in 2000, and we'll be 100 percent drip on our ranch
(this) year," Coelho says. "Nobody stretches a gallon of water in
agriculture like Westlands does."

 

Last year, fully half of the district's farmed acreage was drip-irrigated.
Yet the adoption of this method has been driven less by a desire to save
water than by the fact that drip increases crop yields by as much as 50
percent. And while farmers have made a major shift away from cotton, a
fairly heavy water user, the replacement crops don't necessarily use any
less. Almonds, for instance, which now cover more than 68,000 acres, use
just as much water as cotton does.

 

Indeed, in spite of the recent irrigation and crop shifts, Westlands' total
water demand has not gone down. Birmingham says that the district's annual
demand for water is 1.4 million acre-feet per year. That's 210,000 acre-feet
more than Westlands holds contracts for from the Central Valley Project. In
a year with full deliveries from the project, Westlands could almost make
the math work. The amount of water that can be pumped reliably over the long
term without depleting the aquifer is roughly 200,000 acre-feet, about what
it would take to cover the difference.

 

But in any year with a less than 100 percent supply from the Central Valley
Project, the district runs a deficit that it must cover by buying water in
the open market (at rates that, this year, were four times what Westlands
paid for its own water), or by pumping groundwater at unsustainable levels. 

 

Over the past 22 years, a period that extends back beyond the first
restrictions in the 1990s, Westlands -- even after buying water and relying
on wells -- has only once managed to pull together a full 1.4 million
acre-feet. And even as the district's water supply has become less reliable,
many of Westlands' farmers have made themselves more vulnerable to water
shortages. Today, as much as a third of the district's cultivated acreage is
planted to permanent crops like grapes and almonds -- crops that farmers
can't fallow in a dry year.

 

Once already, the district has been forced to confront the fact that it is
over-extended. In 2002, it settled a lawsuit filed by a group of Westlands
farmers because there wasn't enough water to ensure equal deliveries to
everyone, by permanently retiring about 90,000 acres. That reduced the
farmed acreage in the district by about 15 percent, and increased the amount
of water available to the remaining landowners.

 

That may be about to happen again. As the Coast Range eroded to form the
Panoche sandy loams that thrill the farmers here, its rocks infused those
loams with the toxic element selenium. In 1983, the selenium-poisoned runoff
led to an outbreak of gruesome deformities in birds at the Kesterson
Wildlife Refuge, which, despite its name, was little more than a sump for
the selenium-contaminated water that trickled out of Westlands. 

 

For years, Westlands has been negotiating with the federal government to
retire as many as 200,000 acres that have selenium and drainage problems.
That would shrink the farmed area in Westlands to about half of its former
size, in exchange for a firmer, though somewhat smaller, supply of water. 

 

Taken together, Westlands' water and drainage problems suggest that, in the
future, the district will look quite different than it did in its heyday.
And as the entire state grapples with drier times, irrigation districts like
Westlands are assuming new importance as a potential source of water
transfers for the agencies, like the Metropolitan Water District of Southern
California, responsible for keeping cities supplied through good years and
bad. 

 

Birmingham, and many Westlands landowners, remain adamant that the district
won't sell its water off to outsiders. "It hasn't happened, and it isn't
going to happen," says Birmingham.

 

Still, the prospect of selling water does quietly figure into the farmers'
calculus. "It's gotten a lot of talk," says Errotabere. "It's the
realization that we've been squeezed so hard that now people are giving up
water supply to survive. If you're a financial steward of whatever operation
you've got, you have to consider whether it's better to park the ground and
sell the water next year."

 

Back in November 2003, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was sworn in as governor
of California, his predecessor, Gray Davis, left him with a piece of parting
advice. "Pray for a good economy," he said, "and rain."

 

Six years later, it appears that Schwarzenegger has not prayed hard enough
on either count. For the first time in a long time, however, the state seems
ready to confront the Delta crisis. Last year was just the first step in
what is sure to be an exhausting process that will go on for years. Over the
next decade, the state's water system and its water politics could be
dramatically transformed. But peril lurks at every turn. And every winter
brings a new roll of the dice that could either push things to the breaking
point, or buy the state a year's reprieve.

 

John Diener is the nephew of one of Westland's founding fathers. Although he
seems happiest dispensing folk wisdom from behind the wheel of his GMC
pickup, he is known as one of the most progressive farmers in Westlands.

 

In November, Diener wheeled the truck through his fields, checking on next
spring's crop of organic spinach. It had been an extremely frustrating year:
Diener had fallowed about 750 acres, and he hoped that this year would be
better. "Just having dirt for the joy of having dirt is great," Diener said.
"But our business is about growing things."

 

When I asked what needed to happen next, Diener thought for a moment before
saying, "We pray a lot!" He burst out laughing, and then thought some more.
"We would like to see some biological opinions reviewed. And, God willing,
it rains.

"I mean, honest to God," he said, "we do need it to rain."

 

 

Byron Leydecker, JcT

Chair, Friends of Trinity River

PO Box 2327

Mill Valley, CA 94942-2327

415 383 4810 land/fax (call first to fax)

415 519 4810 mobile

bwl3 at comcast.net

bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org (secondary)

http://www.fotr.org <http://fotr.org/>  

 

 

 

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