Delta, accustomed to water wars, prepares for battle

SUTTER ISLAND, Calif. — As a child, Brett Baker learned farming fundamentals from his grandfather, who taught him to drive a tractor and gave him some advice about water.

“There may come a time,” his grandfather said, “when you have to grab a shotgun and sit on the pump.”

The vast delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers east of San Francisco, where Baker’s family has lived and farmed since the 1850s, has long been the center of the state’s chronic water conflicts.

It is the switchyard of California water, the place where the north’s liquid riches are shipped to the irrigation ditches of the San Joaquin Valley and the sinks of Southland suburbs.

Now, as if heeding Baker’s grandfather, the delta has become the defiant seat of rebellion against the most ambitious water supply project proposed in California in decades, a multibillion-dollar plan that has the backing of the administrations of Gov. Jerry Brown and President Obama, as well as the state’s most powerful irrigation and urban water districts.

“Our secret plan is to fight them to build it,” said Baker. “If it’s built, fight them to operate it. And then fight them to tear it down. We’re not going anywhere.”

Delta landowners have refused to grant access to state crews doing preliminary soil testing for the project. They have demonstrated against the proposal in Sacramento, pitchforks in hand. They have organized a vocal coalition that has produced a documentary film — airing at public forums around the state — to drum up support for their cause.

The proposal, which is not final, calls for the construction of two 35-mile-long tunnels that would carry water underground from intakes on the Sacramento River a few miles north of here to the giant pumps that fill southbound aqueducts.

The government pumping operations currently suck supplies entirely from the south delta, a practice that plays havoc with the tidal estuary’s natural salinity and flow patterns, creating a hospitable environment for invasive plants and fish. So powerful are the pumps that they reverse the flow of some delta channels, confusing native fish and drawing them to their deaths.

Advocates say the tunnel project, which also calls for the restoration of more than 100,000 acres of delta habitat, would reduce the pumps’ harmful effects and help imperiled fish species rebound. They hope that in turn will allow the government to lift some of the endangered species protections that have restricted delta water exports.

But delta farmers want none of it. They fear the restoration efforts will cost them portions of their land. They worry that their irrigation water will grow saltier, hurting crops, as fresh Sacramento River water that has always flowed through the delta is instead diverted beneath it.

Opponents, including a number of conservation groups, warn that migrating salmon will run afoul of the massive river intakes. They argue that the big tunnels will inevitably be used to send more water south, robbing the delta ecosystem of needed flows.

“It’s really taking away from one place and giving to another,” said Baker, 28, a UC Davis graduate in fish and conservation biology who does related consulting work.

Recently married and expecting his first child, he is the sixth generation of his family to call a slice of Sutter Island home. The small north delta island has no towns. It is a neat grid of pear and cherry orchards, vineyards and scattered houses where about 150 people live, protected by earthen levees more than a century old. The Sacramento, California’s largest river, rolls by the island’s northeastern shoulder and two sloughs wash its flanks.

Baker isn’t sitting on the pump with a shotgun yet. But he and other delta residents are taking aim at the big agribusiness interests of the western San Joaquin Valley that would be among the prime beneficiaries of the tunnels — particularly the politically influential Westlands Water District that provides water to some of the largest and richest farm operations in California.

“It’s about providing cheap irrigation water for a select few constituents of California senators and congressmen,” Baker said.

Baker’s great-great-great-grandfather was Asbury Hustler, a stern looking, bearded Austrian who trekked by wagon train from Ohio to California during the Gold Rush and wound up on Sutter Island. In 1876, after draining and cultivating the land under reclamation law, Hustler took title to 50 acres on the island’s east side, next to Steamboat Slough.

In their early homesteading years, Hustler and his wife, Mary Jane, couldn’t afford fruit trees, so they planted vegetables in the sandy loam soil. When high water in the winter and spring flooded their fields before the levees were built, they would journey east to the Sierra foothills and pan gold, returning with enough money to start an orchard, a few trees at a time. They began with cherries and apricots, then found pears thrived under the cooling influence of the delta’s marine breezes.

Their labors are chronicled in worn ledgers that Baker and his parents, Chuck and Joy Baker, never tire of scanning, gleaning the details of 19th century delta life from the careful cursive script. In 1877, the Hustlers bought 250 feet of lumber for $4. In 1880, they paid $15 for a plow and $10 for 50 Bartlett pear trees.

After the levees were constructed, the family stacked packed fruit boxes atop them for pickup by schooners and steamboats bound for booming San Francisco.

The heyday of California pear production is long gone, and with 30 acres of Bartletts, the Bakers are among the smallest of the state’s 67 remaining pear growers. It’s not enough to make a living. So Chuck Baker, 59, who runs the operation, also manages fruit orchards for other delta landowners.

After a hot day among the fruit trees, Chuck Baker sat on his second-story deck, a few hundred yards from his son’s house, and gazed over rows of softly lit pear trees. In his hand was a glass of a favorite red wine made by Bogle Vineyards, a north delta winery whose president, Warren Bogle, was Brett Baker’s football coach at the 275-student local high school.

The previous night Chuck and Joy Baker had attended a fundraising showing of “Over Troubled Waters,” the documentary produced by Restore the Delta. Joy, 57, is president of the anti-tunnel group.

Used to be, you could catch 20- to 30-pound fish in the slough that flows by his property and irrigates his 4,300 pear trees, Chuck Baker said. Tons of salmon migrated through the delta. “As they increased the pumping, the fish population went like this,” he said, pointing downward.

He bristles at the notion that he might lose land along the slough to restoration efforts — intended to aid the recovery of imperiled fish — that would sustain or even increase water exports to the San Joaquin Valley. “I’m not willing to sacrifice my land for somebody growing cotton in the … desert,” he declared, referring to a major crop grown in the Westlands Water District.

Yet when it comes to the delta’s long ecological decline, virtually no part of California is blameless.

Central Valley farms and Bay Area cities take more water from the delta watershed upstream — before it can reach the delta — than is pumped south. Altogether, nearly half of the water that would naturally flow through the delta to San Francisco Bay is diverted — sipped by 25 million Californians and soaked up by several million acres of farm land.

It was Hustler and his fellow Gold Rush-era settlers who set in motion the most profound changes to what had been a great, freshwater tidal marsh, astonishingly rich in birds and wildlife. Drained and diked with nearly 1,100 miles of dirt levees by the early 1900s, the delta has lost all but 5% of its original tidal wetlands. It is now a quilt of water channels and 57 levee-ringed agricultural islands.

In the central and west delta, where marsh reeds decaying over thousands of years created thick peat soils, more than a century of farming has caused delta islands to sink 10 to 25 feet below sea level. Exposed to oxygen, the carbon in the peat vaporizes and the soil disintegrates, releasing greenhouse gases.

UC Davis geology professor Jeffrey Mount, one of Brett Baker’s former instructors who calls the delta “one of the world’s great holes in the ground,” warned in a much-publicized 2005 scientific paper that there was a 2 in 3 chance that by 2050, major flooding or an earthquake would cause widespread levee collapse. Numerous farm islands would be submerged and freshwater supplies would be tainted with salt water rushing in from San Francisco Bay. Rising sea levels associated with global warming will leave the levees all the more vulnerable.

Tunnel backers cite that disastrous scenario as another reason to build a new diversion system. But delta residents dismiss the gloomy prognosis. Strengthen the levee system, they argue, and develop more regional water supplies in the state to lessen Californians’ reliance on the delta and give its native fish what they most need: more water.

Though the delta has its share of wealthy, politically connected landowners, in the tunnel fight it is a comparative weakling, pitted against the state’s biggest irrigators and Southern California water agencies.

Still, that alignment could change, especially if water contractors who have committed to pay for the $14-billion tunnel system start pulling out because they can’t be assured of the deliveries they want, or if the state’s north-south water rivalries erupt — as they did three decades ago when state voters killed the Peripheral Canal project, an earlier attempt to divert water around the delta.

When Brett Baker’s delta neighbors ask, “Are we winning yet?” he tells them: “Everyday we’re here, we’re winning.”