Farmers in California’s San Joaquin Valley say the question is simple do you want to save the wild salmon or do you want to eat?
“Certainly from the standpoint of putting the environment ahead of people, we’ve gone too far,” said Al Dingle, vice president of Woolf Enterprises, a large family farming group in the valley. “The pendulum has swung too far.”
The problem comes down to one basic commodity: water.
Most of the water in central and southern California comes from northern California through a system of reservoirs and canals, known as the Central Valley Project.
Until eight years ago, farmers in the wildly productive San Joaquin Valley shared the water with the booming cities to the south and west.
But a 1992 federal law, the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, put a third player into the mix: the environment. The 60-year-old water system now must support environmental restoration projects in the sensitive delta formed by the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, source of fresh water for 22 million people and nearly half of the fruits and vegetables produced in the United States.
The federally owned Central Valley Project now must allocate part of its water to efforts to restore wetlands, save the salmon and a series of endangered species native to the area.
As a result, agricultural water allocation has been cut by half, even with the recent rain-soaked weather. The cost of an acre-foot of water, 326,000 gallons, has soared from $21 in 1990 to more than $70 today.
“Our farmers in our district are having some severe financial difficulties,” said Mr. Dingle, who is also chairman of the sprawling Westlands Water District in Fresno County. With the high cost of water and the uncertainty over its supply, “it’s difficult to get financing.”
But environmentalists say farmers have had their way for too long, at the expense of some of the most beautiful and environmentally sensitive places on the West Coast. They say farmers have gorged themselves on federally subsidized water with wasteful irrigation methods and thirsty crops such as cotton, rice and alfalfa.
“Those guys are very effective from a lobbying point of view,” said Tom Graff, a lawyer for Environmental Defense and a longtime player in the battles over water. “Their P.R. people and lawyers and so forth make a very good case that they are being exploited by the poor river smelt or salmon or whatever it is.”
“The fact of the matter is, they are still getting their water, they’re getting a great deal” from the federally subsidized water project, he said. “They are not hurting.”
Almost half the water that flows through the delta, 11 million acre-feet annually, is diverted to water projects. Farmers take more than three-quarters of that water.
“A lot of water in California is still being used uneconomically,” Mr. Graff said.
After the latest round of dam-building in the late 1960s, damage became particularly severe, he said.
“All the salmon of the San Joaquin-Sacramento system are either extinct or have some kind of listing under the Endangered Species Act, state or federal,” Mr. Graff said. “A huge number of wetlands have been filled in, destroyed. Many of the resident species of the delta, the hub of the system, are endangered.”
Environmental restoration appears to enjoy broad support in California. Since 1996, voters have passed two bond issues, worth about $3 billion, which will go to fix damage caused in part by the massive water projects.
Farmers, however, say they are doing their part. They have adopted more conservative irrigation methods putting a slow drip on the plants rather than using a torrential flood on the field, for example but there is still not enough water.
To try to make up the shortage, farmers are tapping into underground water, but the water table already is falling, forcing wells deeper into the rock and threatening to wipe out the underground water entirely.
Farmers, however, are not the only ones competing for alternative sources of drinking water. The small cities that dot the district are growing rapidly, meaning new residents are driving up demand for water for showers, lawns and laundry.
Developers have taken to buying farmland just to get the federally supplied water for new subdivisions elsewhere. In September, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors sued to block a developer from transferring water from a huge farm to a sprawling subdivision in the city of Tracy, 80 miles away.
The battle over water is nothing new to California, dating back to the early decades of the 20th century as Los Angeles and other cities began to explode and frontier towns in the Central Valley settled into farming centers.
The fierce fight between farmers and developers, both struggling to bring life to a desert, was immortalized in the 1974 film “Chinatown.”
The Central Valley Project was built in the 1930s to bring some order to the water wars. The federal government spent $3.4 billion to create 22 dams and 450 miles of canals.
Though federal taxpayers are heavily invested in California’s water system, the rest of the country has treated the water wars as a local problem, primarily a battle between the farmers in Central California and homeowners in Los Angeles.
“It’s a very difficult issue to educate people on because the constituencies that have a vested interest in it are really in the state of California,” said Rep. Calvin Dooley, California Democrat, who represents the 20th Congressional District, which sprawls across much of the fertile valley, “and not even the entire state of California.”
But it is far from an academic point for Americans, even residents of the water-rich East Coast. The San Joaquin Valley produces most of the domestic nuts, a quarter of the tomatoes used for processed foods, a quarter of the cotton and most of the garlic grown in California. There are times of the year when almost all the lettuce available in the United States is grown in Mr. Dooley’s district.
If land goes out of production because of lack of water, consumers all over the country could feel the pinch at the grocery store.
Republican Rich Rodriguez hopes to turn that sort of worry to his electoral advantage in the fall.
Mr. Rodriguez, a former TV anchor, is challenging the veteran Mr. Dooley for the 20th District congressional seat. Republicans say they think he has the best chance ever of unseating the five-term Democratic incumbent in this overwhelmingly rural district.
Mr. Rodriguez argues that Mr. Dooley has been too complacent in the legislative water wars. He has not worked hard to preserve the farmer’s water allocation and to fight the soaring prices, he says.
“He’s done nothing to change it,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “You’ve got to be with the farmer.”
Mr. Dooley, however, says he has been an active advocate for agriculture. He opposed the changes in the 1992 law and has pushed for farm interests in a six-year effort to work out an equitable distribution of water in negotiations known as the “Cal-Fed Process.”
The negotiators hope to propose a plan in the next few months that, in theory, will restore some stability to the farm economy by guaranteeing farmers a certain amount of water every year.
Mr. Dooley also has supported efforts to develop state and local alternatives to the federal water supply and to increase the amount of water storage available.
Still, farmers in the valley worry.
Efforts to implement the 1992 act have been buffeted by lawsuits from all sides, and the Cal-Fed Process is dragging out unexpectedly long. Neither farmers nor environmentalists appear to be happy with negotiations so far over water, promising further battles when a Cal-Fed report is issued.
Farmers say time is running out for their water-dependent way of life.
“If we can’t find relief in the short term, we aren’t going to be here in the long term,” Mr. Dingle said.