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Calif. Locked in Water Wars as Drought Worsens

July 4, 2008 at 6:35 PM EST
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As California faces one of the worst droughts in decades, Spencer Michels examines the growing struggle over water rights in the state.
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SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour correspondent: For the first time since the early 1990s, California is facing a summer of potential water shortages. The rains tapered off this spring, producing the second dry year in a row and causing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a statewide drought.

But the weather isn’t the only problem. In 2007, a federal judge ordered that less water be pumped from the northern to the southern part of the state, a decision that exacerbated concerns and forced some communities to put restrictions on outdoor water use.

The judge made his ruling because of what’s been happening in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, east of San Francisco, where most of California’s freshwater passes on its way either to the ocean or to farms and cities to the south.

Nearly every day, state fish and game biologists trawl here for fish.

DAVE CONTRERAS, California Department of Fish and Game: Yes, they all appear to be American shad.

SPENCER MICHELS: They were hoping to find one particular fish in their nets, the delta smelt, a tiny, short-lived fish that is a federally protected species.

DAVE CONTRERAS: … 53, 52…

SPENCER MICHELS: But after spending a whole day on the boat, not a single smelt was found.

DAVE CONTRERAS: Nowadays, delta smelt are pretty hard to catch. Like in the 1970s, they used to be one of the most abundant fish around, so it’s kind of scary now.

Fish populations signal problem

SPENCER MICHELS: Environmental groups cite the disappearance of the smelt as evidence that powerful pumps that suck up delta water and send it south via massive canals were chewing up and killing the fish. And not just the smelt is at risk, says Bill Bennett, a research ecologist at the University of California at Davis who studies the fish.

BILL BENNETT, University of California, Davis: This fish has clearly become, I would say, a lightning rod or poster child for an assemblage of species that live in the low salinity zone of the delta. And in the last few years, these populations have pretty much hit rock bottom.

SPENCER MICHELS: The woes of the smelt were eclipsed in April when the number of king salmon returning to spawn in the Sacramento River dropped by more than 90 percent. Federal officials canceled salmon fishing this year off the coasts of California and Oregon. Some scientists suspect that the low water levels and the deteriorating delta are the causes of the decline.

BARRY NELSON, Natural Resources Defense Council: And it's the hub of the entire bay delta ecosystem. It's the hub of California's water system.

SPENCER MICHELS: Barry Nelson, a policy analyst for the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, was active in the lawsuit against state and federal water officials.

BARRY NELSON: There's been an unstated policy in California for the last 50 years, and that is, "We can always take a little more water out of the delta next year." And we've hit the limits of that.

SPENCER MICHELS: For a century, cities and agriculture have vied for water, which has nurtured the state's spectacular agriculture and population growth.

You just have to follow the water to see the battle lines. The water starts here in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and flows along two rivers into the delta. Then it either goes west to San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean or heads to the south, which has little water of its own, through one of the world's largest and most complex water conveyance systems.

In Northern California, near Sacramento, tomatoes and other crops flourish on Spencer Bei's farm. And although he currently has enough water for his crops, he resents the power of the south, where two-thirds of the state's population live, to usurp water from the north.

SPENCER BEI, farmer: You look at the southern part of the state, they're in need of water, and they have the voting power. So us, as farmers in the north, we just kind of hold our own and hope for the best.

Water sent south not regulated

SPENCER MICHELS: This is a scene that has driven Northern Californians crazy for about half-a-century and fueled California's fabled water wars, a lush, green golf course in arid Southern California which gets much of its water from the north.

MAUREEN STAPLETON, San Diego County Water Authority: Yes, we do have golf courses. Yes, we do have swimming pools.

SPENCER MICHELS: Maureen Stapleton is general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority.

MAUREEN STAPLETON: It's part of the quality of life, but it doesn't mean that we're being inefficient or wasteful of water. Many of the golf courses you drove by today are using recycled water.

SPENCER MICHELS: In order to conserve water, agencies are recycling about 5 percent of sewer water for use on lawns and gardens, and they're experimenting with desalination plants.

MAUREEN STAPLETON: This is the 20-gallon challenge here.

SPENCER MICHELS: Which is what?

MAUREEN STAPLETON: And these are five-gallon buckets. And this represents the water that the average person uses per day.

SPENCER MICHELS: Stapleton is asking for voluntary, not mandatory, cutbacks. Such measures fall far short, says Steve Erie, a water expert at UC San Diego.

STEVE ERIE, University of California, San Diego: Mandatory rationing, mandatory conservation, whatever you call it in terms of drinking water, indoor water, et cetera, needs to be seriously discussed as the next step. It shouldn't be dismissed the way that it has; this is a crisis.

Not all in the South benefit

SPENCER MICHELS: The Metropolitan Water District, which distributes northern water throughout the south, says it hopes to avoid rationing water to its 18 million customers, though it is cutting back on water for agriculture.

JEFFREY KIGHTLINGER, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California: With this cutback order in place, we're going to be water short most years, not just a few years, but most years.

GEORGE MCMANIGLE, avocado grower: Right now, I have cut back probably 50 percent from previous years.

SPENCER MICHELS: George McManigle, who grows avocados in Fallbrook, north of San Diego, started reducing his watering because of high water costs even before the current crisis.

GEORGE MCMANIGLE: I'm getting smaller fruit and less fruit on a lot of trees.

SPENCER MICHELS: Despite his efforts to reduce water use with smaller sprinkler heads and shorter times, he's now faced with a big water cutback and a corresponding cut in production. Some growers in Fallbrook have already cut the tops off their trees -- so-called stumping -- which will reduce production dramatically.

McManigle worries that, if the water shortage continues, his orchard and his way of life will disappear.

Large-scale projects choice of some

SPENCER MICHELS: With the state's economy at stake, politicians are struggling, as they have for decades, to find statewide solutions to the shortage.

JOHN KENNEDY, former president of the United States: It is a pleasure for me to come out here and help blow up this valley in the cause of progress.

SPENCER MICHELS: Some current politicians think the answer is to build more.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R), Calif.: If we have another dry season like this, I would say that it will be catastrophic. It would be a disaster.

SPENCER MICHELS: The governor is now promoting a $11.9 billion plan to improve the water delivery system, restore the health of the delta, and to build two new dams and enlarge a third.

But earlier plans by Schwarzenegger stalled in the state legislature, as Democrats, joined by environmentalists, opposed the dams as unnecessary and too costly.

DON PERATA (D), California state senator: Dams are but one solution, and they're the ones that cost the most, take the longest to complete, and end up costing the consumer more money. The biggest priority right now is fixing the delta. If the delta breaks down, people don't have water all over the state of California.

SPENCER MICHELS: NRDC's Nelson says new dams and reservoirs won't generate much water, since 1,200 major dams already hold back most of California's rivers.

BARRY NELSON: The water for our future lies in things like water conservation, wastewater recycling, and better groundwater use.

SPENCER MICHELS: However California does deal with its water problems will have major implications, according to Steve Erie.

STEVE ERIE: The California water crisis is a preview of coming attractions, not only nationally, but globally. What you're seeing is huge metropolitan-area growth around the nation and around the globe fast outstripping water supplies. How we deal with things here in Southern California and California, right, in a sense, right, it's a test case. We're the canaries down in the mine.

SPENCER MICHELS: The California drought could have one benefit: It may spur politicians on to solve a problem that as the population grows will only get worse.