Water pressure

The Sacramento River is running high and muddy now.

The snow in the Sierra Nevada is sticking in place, but the rainwater is sliding downhill in the northern section of the Central Valley and streaming past us in a brownish-green hue. Its power is pulling along branches, limbs and sediment—a winter cleansing of the environment.

After watching the Sacramento River at its winter high mark, it is hard to believe that other areas of the state are searching for and are willing to pay for the thousands of acre-feet of water that simply flow past here in this season. The winter runoff will flow into the Delta and run to the sea, while, just a few hundred miles away, political entities in Southern California fight for the rights to buy water.

The West always has been shaped by the availability—or lack of—this natural resource. Farmers have faced off against growing urban economies during the past century in a fight for the rights to water. Then, the enviros got involved to protect all that is affected by water: everything that lives. It’s been a contentious issue since the pioneers walked into California, and it continues to this day. Is dam building the answer, or will retiring agricultural land be the key?

In this week’s cover story (Liquid gold, page 16), we hope to shed some light on the struggle to resolve these water issues and what part the federal government is playing—or refusing to play—in working out an agreement over where the water goes. The CALFED project may be a key to the success of the region, but it may dry up because of federal neglect.