state of thirst
When it comes to Delta water, balancing the needs of cities, agriculture, and the environment is no easy task
On the surface, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta looks a lot like paradise. One thousand miles of navigable sloughs and waterways provide the perfect diversion for boaters and anglers, rich Delta peat on the more than 50 man-made islands grows a cornucopia of crops, and historic Delta towns provide visitors with a rural escape. But Delta waters are also at the heart of a three-decade conflict that has pitted environmental, agricultural, and urban water needs against each other.
The Delta is the terminus of an enormous watershed that stretches from the Cascades to the Tehachapi and from the Sierra to the sea. Historically, 40 percent of the state’s fresh water has converged at this ecological crossroads to mix with seawater from San Francisco Bay. This estuary, the largest on the West Coast, is home to 130 species of fish, including 80 percent of the state’s commercial fish species, and is an important resting place for migratory waterfowl.
But Delta water is also the lifeblood of the California economy. It irrigates more than 4 million acres of vibrantly productive farmland and contributes to the drinking water supplies of two-thirds of the state’s residents. A complex system of reservoirs, pumps, pipes, and aqueducts store and divert more than 60 percent of Delta water from its natural seaward journey to cities and farms miles away.
On nine of the 10 major tributaries in the Delta watershed, huge storage dams block about 80 percent of the fish’s historic spawning habitat.
Many diverse groups have a stake in how Delta waters are allocated, from fishermen and farmers to environmentalists and urban consumers. The resource is managed by a maze of regional, state, and federal regulatory agencies, all consolidated under the California Bay-Delta Authority, or CALFED. All of the players hope to find some way to balance the competing water needs of cities, agriculture, and the environment
“It’s hard to say what would happen if CALFED wasn’t here,” says David Sunding, professor of agricultural and resource economics and a nationally recognized authority on water allocation. “The optimists among us believe that a rising tide of cooperation can lift all boats. Let’s hope that’s true, because if we can’t strike a balance we’ll be warring over water for years to come.”
On a perfect day in late May, Ben Ewing, a young scientific aide from the California Department of Fish and Game, scoops up a tiny fish in a small green net and holds the specimen next to a ruler. It is a juvenile fall-run Chinook salmon. He calls out its length, weight, and age to a colleague, who jots down the information; then Ewing scoops up another fish to repeat the procedure. It’s an ongoing process that is crucial to determining the timing and size of four distinct salmon runs as juvenile fish emigrate through the Delta.
Often, 2,000 to 3,000 young salmon are counted as they pass through giant funnels that rotate with the river current. But this late in the season, the crew catches just 19 fish. The number may not sound like much, but even fewer than this can have a dramatic impact on water resources across the state. The giant pumps that send water to Southern California can be shut down if they take in more than 2 percent of an endangered run. Sometimes, that 2 percent can mean as few as a dozen fish.
At one time, it would have been almost impossible to count the number of juvenile salmon migrating through the Delta. Historically, both the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers supported four healthy runs of Chinook, comprising hundreds of thousands of fish. The adults traveled far upstream into the mountains to spawn in the dense gravel beds.
But as large water projects began encroaching on these rivers in the mid-1900s, the salmon habitat started to shrink. Today, on nine of the 10 major tributaries in the Delta watershed, huge storage dams block about 80 percent of the fish’s historic spawning habitat. Downstream diversions are also dangerous, sucking eggs and emigrating juveniles into giant pumps. As a result of these pressures, both the winter-run and spring-run Chinook salmon, as well as the endemic Delta smelt, are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Steps are being taken to help restore these threatened and endangered fish populations, many of them funded by CALFED. “The program has improved a lot in the last five years,” says Matt Kondolf, associate professor of landscape architecture and geography at UC Berkeley and a member of the CALFED’s Scientific Advisory Board. “They are doing a good job integrating science into their decisions and monitoring.” He cites several restoration projects on Delta tributaries like Butte Creek and Clear Creek, where dams have been removed or fish ladders installed, allowing salmon access to previously blocked spawning grounds.
More water has also been set aside for conservation needs. Fish screens have been installed on the big water project pumps, and the 1992 federal Central Valley Project Improvement Act allocated an extra 800,000 acre-feet of water each year to the environment. CALFED also set up the Environmental Water Account, a system to better manage stream flows to protect fish without affecting pumping operations. Research like the Department of Fish and Game’s salmon surveys lets water managers know when the endangered fish are passing the south-Delta pumps, allowing them to try to divert the fish or, as a last resort, shut down the pumps while the fish make their way.
But the ecosystem is complex, and it can be difficult to determine how each action affects the endangered fish. “The agricultural and urban communities want us to tell them, with engineering precision, how much water we need [for environmental conservation], and we do our best,” says Peter Vorster, a hydrologist with the nonprofit Bay Institute. “But we don’t have a full understanding of how the ecosystem works. We’ve so changed the physical infrastructure that we can’t go back to how it was. Our real challenge is, given the big changes we’ve imposed on the system, how can we restore and preserve some of the ecosystem’s original functionality?”
Salmon populations do seem to be improving, but it’s hard to know exactly why. “It’s a little bit like comparing apples and oranges,” says Rob Titus, senior environmental scientist with Fish and Game. He says that it’s hard to know if the improvements to the fish stock are due to changes in restoration and water management or simply part of a natural cycle. And even though the salmon stocks are improving, they are hardly out of jeopardy. “Even the levels we’re seeing now are much lower than what we’ve seen historically,” he says. “While we’re encouraged by increases in recent years, we’re not overly optimistic that the fish population is recovering.”
More water for environmental needs, however, means less water flowing through the Tracy Pumping Plant and southward down the Delta-Mendota Canal to San Joaquin farmers like Stuart Woolf. Woolf has a large family farm nestled against the Coalinga Foothills in Fresno County, where he grows acres of nut trees, cotton, wine grapes, canning tomatoes, and wheat.
Central Valley farms like Woolf’s are some of the most productive in the world, accounting for about 45 percent of the fruits and vegetables grown in the United States. The region boasts deep, sandy loam soils that are incredibly productive, and a natural greenhouse effect provides a warm, stable climate for crops. It is far enough north for nut trees to go dormant during the winter, but the long, hot, dry summers are ideally suited for a long processing season. In short, farmers like Woolf have every natural advantage they could possibly desire, except for one critical resource: water.
The region around Woolf’s farm was once known as the uninhabitable Great California Desert. But in 1963, the Westlands Water District negotiated its first contract with the federal government to receive water from the Delta, and by 1968 Delta water was flowing to thirsty crops on hundreds of Westlands farms. Today, Westlands has a contract for 1.15 million acre-feet of water per year. (One acre-foot equals nearly 326,000 gallons, or enough water to meet the needs of an average California family for two years.)
The largest federal water district in the United States, Westlands encompasses more than 600,000 acres of farmland and supports a community of more than 50,000 people. The federal contract promises plenty of water for these family farms, but drought conditions and environmental regulations north in the Delta have restricted supply. These days, farmers can only expect to receive 60 to 70 percent of their contracted water.
All Central Valley farmers that get water from the Delta are suffering, but farmers in Westlands have been hit especially hard, says Blake Sanden, an irrigation and agronomy farm advisor with UC Cooperative Extension. Unlike many other Central Valley regions, Westlands does not have much groundwater to turn to as an alternate water source. “In terms of impact on valley farmers, Westlands is the poster child for bad news,” Sanden says. “The price of water has gone up the most, while the dependability of supply has gone down the most.”
For Woolf, that puts water resource management at the top of his agenda. Although the district tries to let the farmers know how much water they can expect, it’s usually too late in the season to do much good. “You don’t usually know what you have until you’ve planted most of your crops,” says Woolf. “As a grower trying to figure out what to plant and how much, it’s difficult to manage that risk.”
That’s partly because some of the most water-intensive crops are also the most lucrative. For example, almond trees use about 70 percent more water, but with a red-hot almond market, Woolf says that the return per acre-foot of water is higher for almonds than for tomatoes. But orchards of almond trees are a long-term investment. Woolf needs to have enough water to keep those thirsty trees alive for their 20 to 30 years of productive life. Woolf also has invested capital in several processing plants for his almonds, tomatoes, and cotton. If these plants aren’t running at capacity, he is losing money. “By virtue of not having better information on the reliability and cost of water,” he explains, “we don’t maximize our decisions.”
“Our limiting factor is not land or capital, it’s the water supply. We run our farm budgets based on water availability.”
Like many farmers in the Westlands Water District, Woolf has invested in technology to use his water more efficiently, like laser-leveling his fields and installing more than 10,000 acres of drip irrigation. He uses GPS-guided equipment to make fewer and more accurate passes through fields, and soil moisture technology that allows him to manage water resources as efficiently as possible. During dry years, he also uses the marketplace to buy supplemental water, which has become a hot commodity as supplies from the Delta plummet. “We’ve changed our farming practices so we can get by with fewer drops of water,” says Woolf. “Our limiting factor is not land or capital, it’s the water supply. We run our farm budgets based on water availability.”
So far, Woolf has been able to get by. “For most of the valley, people on prime farmland are still getting the water they need by hook or by crook,” says UC Extension’s Sanden. “What Delta issues mean to farmers down here is an increased cost of doing business, but if we get back into a multi-year drought, we’ll be hurting.”
Woolf is doing what he can with limited water supplies, and there may be a trace of bitterness in his voice. “I just think we should be holding all users to the same level of accountability as agriculture,” says Woolf. “I’m very pro-environment—I work with the environment every day. But there’s no endangered species act for growers. We keep losing our most valuable resource. I just want to know that our voice is heard and that we’re seen as equal stakeholders.”
Farmers aren’t the only people who depend on Delta water. More than 22 million Californians get their water from the Delta, from Bay Area cities to more than 16 million Southern California residents. Like farmers, urban water districts are also concerned about a reliable water supply. But while farmers south of the Delta are mainly concerned about getting enough water for their crops, urban districts have another, equally important concern: water quality.
“From an urban perspective, this is about drinking water,” says Steve Macaulay, president of the California Urban Water Association, a non-profit devoted to urban water needs. He says that, even with California’s rapidly growing population, statistics from the state Department of Water Resources indicate that urban water use hasn’t increased much over the last 20 years, mostly due to conservation. “Quantity has been the big factor for decades, but quality is becoming an increasing factor.” That’s because more freshwater diversions mean more saltwater intrusion. “For many urban water agencies, quality is the first thing they think of, and the quality in the Delta is not getting better,” says Macaulay.
This is especially true for the Contra Costa Water District. One of the largest urban districts in the state, CCWD serves around 500,000 customers. And while most other California water districts have multiple water sources such as the Colorado River, groundwater, and local surface water, CCWD is completely dependent on the Delta. Until 1998, the district had no way to store their water, so whatever the quality of the water in the Delta at any given moment was also the quality of the water in customers’ pipes.
“Call it the gag rule. You can start tasting salt at about 100 mg of chloride per liter; at 250 mg per liter, people just stop drinking it.”
Quality standards for raw Delta water are extremely low because they are based on the needs of fish, farmers, and industry— for example, how salty the water can be before corn won’t grow. If the quality in the Delta drops below these low thresholds, water managers are required to release fresh water from the upstream reservoirs to dilute the salt. But standards don’t really exist for drinking water.
“You can call it the gag rule,” says Greg Gartrell, assistant manager at CCWD. “The water can’t be worse than 250 mg of chloride per liter. You can start tasting salt at about 100 mg of chloride per liter; at 250 mg per liter, people just stop drinking it.”
Low quality raw water also requires more chemicals to process at the treatment plant, and bromide from the ocean can react with water treatment chemicals to form dangerous compounds like bromate, a suspected carcinogen. Instead of using the federal pumping plant in Tracy, CCWD diverts Delta water through its own intake pipes farther west, closer to the San Francisco Bay. Today, water from the district’s original pipe in Mallard Slough on the coast of Suisun Bay is almost always too salty to drink. The district has built two additional pipes further upstream, but even there, the water quality is often poor. They needed a solution that would let them capture high-quality winter and spring water and store it for the summer months when saltwater intrusion became an issue. They found the answer in a valley, a dam, and a reservoir.
Los Vaqueros Reservoir sits high in the golden slopes south of Brentwood. Completed in 1998, earthen dam holds back 100,000 acre-feet of enough to provide for 200,000 families for an year. On a clear May day, the lake is slowly filling water sucked from the Delta’s spring current, high water that will flow from district faucets in the summer months ahead.
Los Vaqueros shows how important the water quality issue is becoming to urban districts. It took about 10 years and $450 million to purchase the 20,000 acres protecting the Los Vaqueros watershed and construct the dam, yet the district does not get a single additional drop of water from the project. “That project, which has a zero increase in water supply for Contra Costa, was financed by voters strictly for water quality,” says Macaulay. It’s a trend he expects to see more of in the future. “You cannot talk about water supply reliability without thinking about how quality fits in.”
Rising water-quality standards add another layer of complexity to the competing demands for Delta water. “It’s going to increase the conflict,” says Gartrell. “It’s really a three way conflict: water for the environment, water for human use, and water quality for both. It’s not just cleaner water. We’re talking about the amount of water that’s available for everybody.”