California’s water wars

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 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 3-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.

You can learn an important fact about the water wars simply by driving the width of California’s vast Central Valley, home to a large chunk of the state’s $14-billion farm export business. 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 and west sides of the Central Valley — differ not only in the crops they grow but also in the availability of water.

Start with the east side, which looks like a verdant, well-tended park from the air, thanks to the Sierra Nevada, which each spring sends copious snowmelt into the rivers that flow into the Central Valley.

Proximity to this guaranteed runoff from the Sierra explains why the east side’s small towns favored permanent orchards and vineyards, which represented more than a single year’s investment, rather than annual row crops, beef and dairy. In the early 20th century, power companies and the state improved on what nature had bestowed, tapping the massive snow runoff with an ingenious system of dams and gravity-fed canals that channeled the stored water to farmland below.


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 aquifer, originally perhaps as large as a billion acre-feet, with a water table close to the surface. The water is good and the cost of pumping cheap.

The far larger, far more fragile west side of the valley is a different story. It is too distant from the Sierra to easily tap much of the snow runoff. And the water table can be more than 1,000 feet underground.

Until the 1960s, this vast interior land was sparsely populated, mostly unfarmed and owned by large ranching concerns. But then 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 sending water from the north more than 400 miles south. Once west side farmland was brought into irrigated production, it proved to be some of the world’s most fertile, and a multibillion-dollar farming industry was born from desert.

That industry, however, was dominated by massive corporate and family-held operations. Even as they found ways to produce an ever-greater variety of crops, they came under attack, particularly from California’s vocal left, which harped that taxpayers were subsidizing corporate farming — that the $130 and more that farmers were charged per acre-foot of water represented far less than it cost to build and maintain the irrigation system. More recently, environmentalists have argued that diversion of the northern rivers degraded the ecology of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

In late summer 2007, a federal judge in Fresno ruled in favor of an environmentalist lawsuit demanding that the government curtail water deliveries to the west side 80% and more. The suit involved salmon and the 3-inch delta smelt. The number of smelt in the delta had plummeted over the years, the environmentalists claimed, because water projects had diverted too much northern water. The solution, they argued, was to shut down the irrigation pumps.

So, in 2008 and 2009, water deliveries to farmers were drastically reduced. Chaos followed. Thousands of acres of crops were idled. Farmworkers were laid off. In some cases, newly developed orchards and vineyards on the west side died — often near the frequently traveled I-5, where thousands of passing motorists daily saw dead trees and signs erected by angry landowners proclaiming a man-made dust bowl.

Farmers are resourceful people. Some were able to switch to drought-resistant crops; others had reserves to pay the exorbitant costs of pumping scarce groundwater. Still others purchased irrigation supplements from east side canals. A variety of factors, including spiraling agricultural prices, helped them hang on, and in the winter of 2009 they got a lucky break: California entered one of its periodic wet cycles. 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.

At the end of my frequent drives across the state, I generally descend into the environmentalists’ stronghold, the San Francisco Bay Area. Here, particularly at Stanford University and UC Berkeley, much of the environmental research and ideological advocacy took place that put the salmon and the smelt ahead of agribusiness.

California lakes and canals are a testament to our fathers’ using nature to bring water, power and prosperity to the Central Valley. The state’s visionary engineers and politicians saw the massive federal west side irrigation projects as the logical 20th century successors to smaller state and local enterprises that had irrigated the east side in the 19th century. But today, coastal scientists have tired of such visions. They consider them destroyers of nature, not catalysts of wealth, so they use their academic expertise to thwart them.

The smelt and the salmon are now back in court, thanks to a hypothesis that Bay Area wastewater, not just river diversions and massive delta pumps, is also to blame for their still diminished numbers. U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger has approved a temporary compromise that tries, in wet years like this one, to grant farmers up to 85% of their contracted water deliveries. The deal has made environmentalists happy, since it keeps the rivers flowing to the sea. 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 the inevitable drier years to come.

But in today’s California — with vast Democratic majorities in the Legislature, statewide officeholders mostly Democratic, and a delegation to Congress that’s also largely Democratic — there is almost no chance of restoration of the original 100% 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 again become idle until Californians accept that unused farmland is a luxury that a struggling state can no longer afford.

Victor Davis Hanson is a contributing editor of City Journal. He is the author of the forthcoming novel “The End of Sparta.” Adapted from the summer issue of City Journal.