Liquid gold

The state’s ambitious plan to rescue its long-term water supply is causing some serious short-term fighting between farmers, environmentalists and city dwellers.

Public Advisory Committee chair Gary Hunt, CALFED Director Patrick Wright and State Secretary of Resources Mary Nichols discuss budgets, federal authorization and governance of the CALFED Bay-Delta Program at one of the full-day Bay-Delta Public Advisory Committee meetings held at the Sacramento Convention Center in 2002.<p></p>

Public Advisory Committee chair Gary Hunt, CALFED Director Patrick Wright and State Secretary of Resources Mary Nichols discuss budgets, federal authorization and governance of the CALFED Bay-Delta Program at one of the full-day Bay-Delta Public Advisory Committee meetings held at the Sacramento Convention Center in 2002.

Courtesy Of CALFED

There was nothing out there on the water—no towns, no light, no signs of civilization at all. Fog rose from the Delta; it covered the sky and inhabited every corner of cold distance.

Twenty years ago, Marc Reisner wrote words similar to these, describing the Western landscape he saw from a cramped airline seat. Reisner’s landmark book, Cadillac Desert, changed the way Westerners thought about water. Westerners learned that water is not merely fuel for their ambitions, but also a fragile and finite resource.

California is the Valhalla of the Western obsession with water. The superlatives are familiar: the world’s sixth-largest economy, a population bigger than Canada’s, the richest agricultural state in the country. California is the ultimate example of the American West’s trillion-dollar, century-long effort to, as Reisner put it, “maintain a civilization in a semidesert with a desert heart.”

Ten years ago, people in California began the most ambitious effort in the history of the American West to make peace between warring water interests. The result is a massive restoration and replumbing effort that is called CALFED because it will allow California to meet the requirements of state and federal environmental and water laws. The painstakingly negotiated $8.7 billion program is the only major environmental restoration project that not only tries to bring back a natural ecosystem, but also must serve the water needs of 35 million people, the population of Southern California.

Now, CALFED is faltering, as the Bush administration turns its back on environmental initiatives undertaken during the Clinton years. The administration’s hostility toward environmental reform is not shared by the state of California or, apparently, by voters. In last November’s election, California voters approved a bond issue that could funnel almost $2 billion into solving the state’s water dilemma via CALFED. The state Legislature gave CALFED official status, making the program a permanent part of the California bureaucracy—which most observers say it needs to be to achieve its ambitious, long-term goals.

But partisan bickering in Congress has stalled crucial legislation that would authorize the program and bring in federal dollars. CALFED also suffered a blow in December, when the Bush administration shut down pumps at Lake Havasu City, Ariz., and thereby put a stop to Southern California’s historic overuse of the Colorado River. The powerful Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles had until December 31 to come up with a plan to convince federal officials that it could meet requirements for a phaseout negotiated two years ago. At the last minute, a deal to purchase water from agricultural interests in the Central Valley fell apart, and the MWD was forced to look north to make up the shortfall. As Southern California hustles to meet its ever-increasing demand for water in the wake of this cutback, it now seems inevitable that other parts of the state—and other species, such as endangered spring-run chinook salmon—could pay the price.

At the same time, the Bush administration has withdrawn support from CALFED, as the administration has from virtually every major environmental initiative undertaken in the Clinton years. What Bush officials don’t seem to realize is that water doesn’t just run uphill to money in California, as the Western saying goes. In California, water is money. If California can’t solve its water problems, the state’s economy will suffer. And, as the bursting of the dot-com bubble taught us, California’s economic ills reverberate through the rest of the country.

On the other hand, they say that if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. Perhaps if California can solve its water problems, the other Western states can, too.

A ghost town
The California Delta destroyed every sun-drenched, hedonistic, surfer-dude fantasy I ever had about California. I was trapped on a boat in the most unrelenting cold I had experienced in years. The Delta, 550 square miles of lake-still water, marshes and wetlands, lies at the heart of this enormous state. Half of California’s rain and snowmelt funnels down from the Sierra Nevada into the Delta, through the Feather River, the Yuba, the American, the Mokelumne, the Stanislaus, the Tuolumne and the Merced rivers. These tributaries feed the Sacramento and the San Joaquin rivers, which meet the Pacific Ocean in the Delta, just northeast of San Francisco Bay.

The Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, two enormous systems of dams and water diversions, send water south from the Delta. They supply drinking water for the rapidly increasing population of Southern California and irrigation water for Central Valley farms that grow an estimated one-third of the country’s fruit and vegetables.

The Delta itself is now like a ghost town, virtually invisible to most people in California. In winter, the party boats are long gone, and a chilly fog penetrates to the bone. “I grew so cold and numb, finally, that I ceased to shiver,” wrote Jack London in The Fish Patrol, a 1905 collection of maritime adventures in the San Francisco Bay Area. California may have changed since then, but the weather hasn’t. If the Delta is the heart of the state’s circulatory system, it is chilled.

I was spending the day with Fish and Game biologist Derek Stein and Delta native Bob Buker. We cruised past bare trees that loomed like apparitions out of the fog. Buker slowed the boat for snowy egrets and great blue herons. Some people have speculated that the Pacific Flyway—the route followed by millions of migratory birds—came into being thousands of years ago because of the Delta and enormous Tulare Lake, near Bakersfield, which provided stopping points and feeding grounds. Even during our cruise, birds were everywhere. Along the shore, black-crowned night herons roosted in a tree; I counted 60 before they frightened and flew. Hawks were everywhere. The birds were old bones of larger migrations, the still water a ghost of the old Delta.

Before European settlement, the Delta’s marshlands “stretched from Willows to Bakersfield in a continuous swath of green,” according to a history published by The Bay Institute, a San Francisco-based environmental group. The institute estimates that there once were 900,000 acres of tule marsh—tules are sedges that lend their name both to a native species of elk and to the region’s blinding winter fog—and 415,000 acres of vernal pools in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river watersheds.

In her 1903 book The Land of Little Rain, Mary Austin described the southern San Joaquin Valley as “ghostly pale in winter; in summer, deep, poisonous-looking green … full of mystery and malaria.”

After a century of engineering, less than 5 percent of those wetlands remain. The Delta has been reduced to “a quilt of disconnected patches too small to sustain dependent species” such as chinook salmon, the California clapper rail and the salt-marsh harvest mouse, according to the report from The Bay Institute.

The Delta’s farms are struggling, too. This is where agriculture started in California, on drained marshland, before massive water projects made it possible to farm the desert. But these relatively small-scale operations are finding it difficult to compete with agribusiness. A rambling network of dikes and levees protecting farmers’ fields from the Delta’s ebbs and flows is wearing out, and so is the Delta itself. The peat soil oxidizes when it is exposed to the air. In other words, it changes chemical composition, dries up and blows away.

Many of the man-made islands that once held farmhouses and fields have subsided. Some have gone as much as 15 feet below sea level. Others simply have disappeared, swallowed by winter storms.

After a century of hard use, it was inevitable that the Delta would lose its resilience. In the 1930s, the federally funded Central Valley Project, a system of dams and water diversions, was built to rescue drought-stricken farmers in Southern California. After the completion of the State Water Project in the 1960s, which helped spur the growth of the city of Los Angeles, the natural world showed signs of being overtaxed. By the 1990s, the Delta’s tributaries had been so altered that more than 90 percent of Central Valley salmon’s spawning habitat had been destroyed. Winter-run chinook salmon were placed on the endangered-species list in 1990, after the population declined to only 533 fish.

The problems plaguing the Delta are as complex as the ecosystem itself. In 1993, a coalition of environmental groups sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to establish water-quality standards. The lawsuit did not concern industrial pollution, but salt water; too much of the freshwater that flowed down from the Sierra was being siphoned off to farms and cities, pulling the line of Pacific Ocean saltwater farther into the Delta.

In 1994, the tiny Delta smelt, once prolific enough to be caught and grilled for lunch by Stein’s predecessors at the Fish and Game Department, was listed as endangered. The 3-inch-long, translucent smelt is a resident here. Unlike the migratory salmon, the loitering smelt is “susceptible to being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” in the words of one U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist. Protecting the smelt meant taking actions that could affect the whole Delta. Because the smelt, like the region’s salmon, got caught and killed in the pumps of the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project, both water diversions faced crippling shutdowns.

For the first time, cities and farms in Southern California confronted the possibility that the days of Chinatown were numbered: Long-term water shortages could end a century of empire building. Someone had to give up water, or so it seemed.

Environmentalists said it was time to retire inefficient farms. Farmers said the food supply couldn’t be compromised. Cities knew they represented the state’s future; surely, they couldn’t be expected to give up any water.

Several months earlier, former Governor Pete Wilson had abandoned water reform to gain support from traditional agricultural interests. The Clinton administration realized that Wilson, a Republican, would use this perennially divisive issue in a presidential bid.

In early December 1994, Betsy Rieke, then the assistant secretary for water and science at the U.S. Department of the Interior, headed to California to defuse the crisis. Rieke soon realized that the various interests—agriculture, urban and environmental—were aligning in a way that might make an agreement possible.

With a 48-hour deadline looming—a federal judge had set a December 15 ultimatum for a resolution of the water-quality lawsuit—she got the water warriors into a room and told them they couldn’t come out until they had agreed to agree.

Rieke’s formidable personality may have had something to do with it. Or, perhaps the Republican takeover of Congress made environmentalists eager, even desperate, to make a deal. Maybe someone just had to go to the bathroom.

In any case, environmentalists said they would stop suing, at least for a while. Government officials promised agricultural and urban interests that water needed for endangered species would be purchased only from willing sellers. Everyone agreed to spend several years figuring out a way to manage California’s enormous plumbing system so it fulfilled the needs of fish as well as farmers and city-dwellers.

On December 15, Wilson announced, “Peace has broken out.” Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and EPA chief Carol Browner stood with California’s traditional water foes—people from the agricultural, urban and environmental communities—as he unveiled the agreement, called the Bay-Delta Accord. “It was one of those hair-stand-on-end moments,” said Rieke.

Over the next six years, Californians spent thousands of hours in intensely public “stakeholder” meetings. When it was all over, a small group retreated behind closed doors to come up with a final plan. It wasn’t a popular way to do it, but officials believed it was the only way to sift through the cacophony of interests, ideas and ultimatums.

When they emerged in August 2000, they had a 1,199-page plan to restore the Delta, while inflicting minimal pain on agriculture and cities. CALFED is not the largest ecological restoration effort ever attempted; that dubious honor probably falls to the Florida Everglades. But it is the only such undertaking that balances restoration with the need to supply water to one of the world’s most heavily irrigated agricultural regions and enough urbanites to overpopulate a medium-sized European country. In that way, CALFED is a test case—a chance to discover if we can live in an age of limits.

During the next three decades, CALFED—a program involving 23 state and federal agencies—will install fish screens, replant marshes, tinker with the operation of dams, improve levees, conduct millions of dollars’ worth of scientific studies, defend itself from lawsuits, fund water-conservation programs, buy land, set up regional water councils, buy water for fish and maybe even build a few new dams or reservoirs. The cost of the 20-year program’s first seven years is $8.7 billion, to be split evenly among federal, state and local authorities.

This enormous win-win scenario also will vindicate the Clinton-era approach to resolving environmental conflict—the “let’s all hold hands and agree or at least agree to disagree,” touchy-feely alternative to the region’s more familiar dig-in-your-heels Western warfare.

Unless, of course, there isn’t enough money.

Or enough water.

Water wasted to the sea
With all the sturm und drang over California water—Mark Twain famously said that in California, “whisky is for drinking; water is for fighting over”—the great irony is this: There is no shortage of water in California. The average freshwater runoff to the Delta is about 23 million acre-feet. Between one-third and two-thirds of this amount is used by cities and farms every year.

But that average is misleading because California’s rain and snowfall gyrate wildly. In the record-breaking storms of 1982 and 1983, more than 60 million acre-feet barreled down from the Sierra into the Delta. In 1979, by contrast, only 6 million acre-feet flowed into the Delta. (An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough to fill an acre to a depth of 1 foot.)

The solution to California’s water problems always has been to stockpile water during wet years for use during dry ones. But the state doesn’t have enough dams and reservoirs to hold the runoff in wet years, inspiring an old California phrase that drives environmentalists crazy: People talk about water that is not used as being “wasted to the sea.”

It all seems so simple. If California could hold back more of those winter-storm bonanzas, the state’s farms could be irrigated and lawns could stay green when the inevitable punishing drought arrives.

But the age of dam building is officially over. For one thing, the federal government is not inclined to spend money on major public-works projects. Even if the political will and the money were there, there are no prime dam-building sites left in the state. And most people agree that the big water projects caused many of the environmental problems that forced everyone to the table in the first place.

So, once CALFED got under way, state officials and even some environmentalists were surprised to find themselves considering water-storage projects—not big dams per se, but a range of options that would allow more water to be stored. There didn’t seem to be any other way to avoid splintering the fragile sense of community that could make CALFED a reality.

The final CALFED plan recommended studying the feasibility of water-storage projects but did not call for any action until the project’s second phase, which begins in 2010. The most controversial proposal is raising Shasta Dam near the headwaters of the Sacramento River. Raising the dam would flood a portion of the McCloud River, a world-class trout river that has lost 15 miles to the dam already. Other possibilities include dramatically increasing the storage capacity of the Los Vaqueros Reservoir in suburban Walnut Creek; building an offstream water-storage facility north of the Delta called SITES, which would divert 1.9 million acre-feet of the Sacramento River during wet years; and constructing a reservoir south of the Delta.

Officials even have revived the idea of a peripheral canal, an aqueduct that would haul water around the Delta instead of letting water flow through it. In the 1970s, a similar plan caused one of the epic battles of California environmental history.

Some members of the environmental community, like Gary Bobker, program director of The Bay Institute, seemed willing to consider some of these projects at least. Others, like Tom Graff of Environmental Defense and Steve Evans of Friends of the River, criticized CALFED for considering raising dams when the rest of the country was tearing them down. “There is a finite amount of water,” said Graff. “If you want to deliver more, the environment is going to suffer.”

But Graff’s words may be lost in the sound of rushing water, as CALFED officials feel pressure to serve Southern California’s needs, especially now that the federal government has reduced California’s take of the Colorado River by more than 400,000 acre-feet, enough to serve the needs of about 800,000 households.

The first change may be increased pumping through the State Water Project. One of the major achievements of the Bay-Delta Accord was an agreement to lower pumping rates at both state and federal water projects, especially at key migration times, to stop fish from being sliced and diced by the pumps. Even before the Colorado River crisis hit, officials were floating a proposal to raise the level of pumping, almost to historic levels. Tina Swanson, a fish biologist at The Bay Institute, said that her organization is opposing this move.

“That’s one of the things the Colorado deal is going to do—increase the pressure to pump more. That increases numbers of fish that are killed,” said Swanson. “The long-term implication, because you’re increasing pressure on the Delta and the Northern California water supply, is that you’re going to look more seriously at increasing storage north of the Delta, to raise Shasta Dam and go forward with some of the other storage facilities, which are controversial and may have negative implications for the environment.”

In a recent article published in California Journal, Jock O’Connell reported that, ironically, many experts predict a water surplus in California. California’s heavily irrigated agriculture, which uses 80 percent of the state’s developed water, can’t compete in the global marketplace. During the next few decades, many of the state’s farms will shut down operations, freeing water for cities, experts say.

Because cities use far less water than farms do, the sum of the equation could be that today’s deal making, dam building, negotiating and stockpiling will be tomorrow’s water surplus. “In the not-too-distant future,” O’Connell wrote, “the Golden State could wind up with much more water than its 21st-century population and industry could ever use.”

Dead fish
Meanwhile, on the ground, CALFED is moving ahead in fits and starts. So far, its record is marked by successes ranging from the subtle to the dramatic, as well as one disturbing glitch that received a lot of press.

In its first year of operation and in the years leading up to its creation, the focus was on restoration. In 1999, four dams were removed from Butte Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento River south of Mount Lassen, and fish ladders were installed on five other Sacramento River dams. Spring-run salmon numbers shot up to 6,000, from a low of 10 a few years earlier.

This happy story was followed by an apparent disaster. One of CALFED’s cornerstones is something called the Environmental Water Account, which allows CALFED to buy water to hold in reserve for emergencies that threaten fish. The Environmental Water Account is one of the program’s biggest selling points. But during winter storms in early 2001, officials held back water while winter-run chinook salmon, the most endangered fish in the Delta, died in droves because of the state and federal water projects. In the end, 18,503 juvenile fish died, far exceeding the 7,404 permitted under the Endangered Species Act rules set by the National Marine Fisheries Service. After the fact, state Fish and Game officials convinced the feds that their methods had not taken into account changes in the operation of water diversions in the Delta that had resulted in higher numbers of winter-run chinook. State officials convinced the feds to raise the acceptable take, or kill, limit. But, at the time, officials were roundly criticized for failing to cut back pumping in time to save the fish.

After the 2001 debacle, CALFED scientists publicly admitted that changes were necessary. This year, around New Year’s Eve, a large number of Delta smelt showed up at State Water Project pumps. Officials stepped in quickly and slashed pumping rates. The smelt stopped dying. Officials did not resume higher pumping rates until the fish had passed through the Delta safely.

Transparency and accountability are the saving graces of this ambitious but often cumbersome endeavor. The most surprising achievement of the CALFED program may be the fact that officials have managed to keep everyone on board through its sometimes rocky first years. While farmers were practically rioting in the Klamath Basin about water, environmentalists and agricultural interests in California kept coming to meetings, even when they were suing each other.

The program’s director, Patrick Wright, a former EPA official, isn’t deluding himself about his job. California’s water system is a Persian rug that must be carefully picked apart and painstakingly rewoven. “Around the West, people have been saying the era of big dams is over,” said Wright. “But in California, the fight is very, very real.”

History takes its course
It is getting easier to predict how California’s water wars will end. Clearly, cities will be taking more of the water currently used by agriculture. But nobody knows how that will come about or who the winners and losers will be. Nobody knows if it will be the CALFED program that solves the problem, or simply the forces of history and economics.

Graff, of Environmental Defense, thinks he knows the future of CALFED: It doesn’t have one, especially with Bush in office. The Bush administration recommended spending only $15 million for all environmental work in the Bay-Delta region next year, including CALFED.

“The plan doesn’t have any coherence. It’s just sort of a big, muddled mess, so nobody can get too mad at it,” Graff said. “The good thing, from my point of view, is that the Bush administration has come along and de-funded it.”

Bennett Raley, assistant secretary of water and science at the Department of the Interior, chafes at the suggestion that he hasn’t supported the program. “There’s enormous good in CALFED,” he said. “But it’s one thing to negotiate a deal for the future with the assumption that money is no object. It’s another thing to implement that deal when you have limitations.”

Even with budget cuts, longtime CALFED participants say that the Department of the Interior could make an enormous difference by reviewing plans to find a way to meet CALFED goals within the new constraints. So far, they say, Raley has not taken up that leadership role.

Even before the current recession hit, Bobker, of The Bay Institute, predicted that the water-storage projects envisioned in the CALFED plan would be too expensive to build. He foresees the program turning into what he calls “CALFED Lite,” a massive ecosystem-restoration project.

But planting willows along rivers won’t solve the problem of ensuring a water supply for California industry. This is no small matter. Without water, the California dream fades, like the Delta, from boomtown to ghost town.

To free up more water, Bobker is willing to talk about the great CALFED taboo: retiring farmland. “There are parts of the Central Valley that are a thriving economy that everyone’s interested in keeping viable,” Bobker said. “But then there are parts of the valley that should never have been farmed.”

In particular, Bobker points to the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, where pollution problems prohibit food crops and where farmers grow subsidized cotton that costs 70 cents a pound to produce but sells for only 35 to 40 cents a pound on the world market. “The question is not whether this land will be retired, but when,” he said. “Should we really be turning cartwheels and doing things that cause environmental harm to prolong a terminal patient?”

In the last days of the Clinton administration, officials came close to making a deal to buy out San Joaquin Valley farmers most affected by pollution. The clock ran out on that attempt, but many view a buyout, which would free up water for other uses, as inevitable.

CALFED’s architects wisely sidestepped the question of retiring farmland. Confronting the volatile question might have threatened the coalition on which CALFED depends. By delaying construction of water projects until at least 2010, CALFED officials may have chosen to let history take its course.

But history isn’t moving fast enough for Central Valley farmer Paul Betancourt. “A lot of nothing has happened,” said Betancourt, a local Farm Bureau official. “Under a Gore administration, it probably would have gone much faster.”

Shrewd observers believe the administration simply won’t hand out largess to California, where voters overwhelmingly supported Al Gore. But California is just one case among many. Most major Clinton-era environmental initiatives—from the Columbia River to the Sonoran Desert—are withering because of inertia or outright hostility from the Bush administration. Often, these initiatives involved hundreds of people, from government officials to farmers like Betancourt.

Whether or not one believes, like Babbitt, Clinton’s Interior secretary, that “compromise is the answer all the time,” one wonders how all the “stakeholders” who spent months sitting in meetings feel, now that their efforts are being discarded in this de facto fashion.

For CALFED, though, the Bush administration’s neglect may not be fatal. Without federal funding, no new dams will be built. A massive restoration project washing across the California Delta could create a version of the future that looks at least a little like the past.

In the Delta, that past is still visible. Historic towns like Locke look frozen in time, the homes and businesses of Chinese workers abandoned. Giant gates hold back the arms of rivers that once alternately meandered and rushed through this giant riverine estuary.

On the day we cruised through the cold to find the heart of California’s water empire, we ran across a true ghost: Liberty Island, a gray sheen beyond a broken levee made of rock and earth. In the 1970s, a storm burst the levee surrounding the island and let the Delta’s waters rush in. The once-fertile farming island became a lake of lost possibilities.

At the center of Liberty Island, a line of half-submerged power poles stretched into infinity, or what appeared to be infinity in the white haze. The poles rising from the water like spindly trees were a surreal reminder that water is the baseline of existence, not just there but everywhere.

Buker, who recently retired from Pacific Gas and Electric, speculated that the wires strung between the poles still provided electricity to a ramshackle farmhouse on the lake’s edge. “If it falls, it just shorts out,” he said. “There are a lot of places in the Delta like this.”