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California Water Wars: Will Thirsty Interests Divert More Water?

August 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The San Joaquin delta is a merging spot of rivers, sloughs, and canals, where water and snow from the Sierra Nevada Mountains flows to the Pacific Ocean. But there are some residents, especially farmers, who worry that thirsty interests will divert more of their water and ruin their livelihoods. Spencer Michels reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: California’s water wars are back, as the state struggles to transfer a vital resource from where it falls to where it’s needed.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the area south of Sacramento where most of the state’s water converges and an area that’s crucial to new plans.

SPENCER MICHELS: At the center of a century-long debate over California water is the delta, a jumble of rivers, sloughs, canals and islands surrounded by levees.

It’s the spot where the water and snow that falls on the Sierra Nevada Mountains ends up, on its way to San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. It’s a beautiful area for fishing, boating and farming. The land is fertile. The water is plentiful. Farmers can pump right out of the Sacramento River for free, and the crops are robust.

Much of this water is pumped across the delta and sent to where the people are, in the arid and populous southern part of the state and to some parts of the San Francisco Bay area. But residents of this half-a-million-acre watery landscape in northern California are concerned that the state and federal governments, along with powerful, thirsty interests further south, some of them corporate farming operations, will divert more of their water and ruin their land and their livelihoods.

Rogene Reynolds’ family has farmed the delta for two generations. She’s active in a group called Restore the Delta.

ROGENE REYNOLDS, Restore the Delta: Water is gold. Wherever you take it, you prosper. People with more money than some of us out here are interested in transferring the water away from us. And the state policy seems to be favoring them over our region.

SPENCER MICHELS: What worries Reynolds is a plan proposed by Governor Jerry Brown and U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to build two wide 35-mile-long tunnels under the delta, so that much of the water from the Sacramento River will bypass the delta, and will flow by gravity directly to massive pumps, and then will be sent south.

It will be used to irrigate crops, as well as to supply cities in southern California. Those pumps have existed for decades, making some rivers flow backwards, killing millions of fish and degrading the habitat by allowing salt to intrude from the bay.

Those environmental problems have prompted courts to restrict the flow of water. And that has caused southern water users to complain that their supplies have become unreliable and erratic. Salazar says fixing the system with tunnels is a major reason the federal government is involved.

INTERIOR SECRETARY KEN SALAZAR: Each year has brought more uncertainty, uncertainty for the farmers and for the fisherman and for the families across the state who rely on the water to sustain their lives and their livelihoods.

SPENCER MICHELS: The governor says the new plan, the biggest tunnel in the country, longer and wider than the Chunnel between England and France, would be a great improvement, even if all the details haven’t been worked out yet.  

GOV. JERRY BROWN (D-Calif.): The proposal that we’re unveiling today is a big idea for a big state, for an ambitious people that since the gold rush have been setting the trends and the tone for the entire United States.

SPENCER MICHELS: Besides improving reliability of water deliveries, the plan envisions fixing the delta by improving the dangerously declining fisheries and by restoring floodplains and tidal marshes.

GOV. JERRY BROWN: The proposal balances the concerns of those who live and work on the delta, those who rely on it for water, and those who appreciate its beauty, its fish, waterfowl and wildlife.

SPENCER MICHELS: But a coalition of delta residents, environmentalists, sports fishermen, Native Americans and politicians say it’s a bad deal.

California Congressman John Garamendi represents part of the delta.

REP. JOHN GARAMENDI (D-Calif.): This is plumbing before policy. This proposal doesn’t develop one gallon of new water. But it delivers precious water that the delta needs, the fish need, the farmers need, the cities in the delta need, delivers that water to the pumps so that it can go south.

SPENCER MICHELS: This is not the first, and it certainly won’t be the last time that Californians are engaged in a major, nasty battle over water. In 1982, voters in this state rejected a plan to put a canal around the periphery of the delta. It would have made it easier to take northern California south.

Doug Hemly has been in the trenches of the water wars. His family has lived and farmed along the Sacramento River since 1850.

DOUG HEMLY, delta farmer: The proposed volume that they’re saying they want to take theoretically would suck this dry, and you would have — be able to walk across it.

SPENCER MICHELS: Are you kidding, I mean, suck the Sacramento River dry?

DOUG HEMLY: There’s 14,000 cubic feet per second flowing by here. And they want to put in pumps that will suck out 15,000 cubic feet per second.

SPENCER MICHELS: Of course, they’re not saying they’re going to suck this dry.

DOUG HEMLY: Well, I think, if they don’t want to suck it dry, why build it so they could suck it dry? It doesn’t make sense.

SPENCER MICHELS: State officials say facilities are always built to convey more water than needed for years when there’s a surplus. But they say there will be hard limits on how much is exported, and that the capacity may be less than first announced.

Still, the Delta people regard the plan as a giveaway. Rogene Reynolds, along with Congressman Garamendi, sees the major culprit as the Westlands Water District, a large farming area on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, whose farmers irrigate with diverted water.

ROGENE REYNOLDS: Follow the money. And that’s all I can really say about it. There are powerful moneyed interests in taking the water out of here. It’s a transfer of wealth, pure and simple. And the excuse of revitalizing this delta is just that, an excuse.

SPENCER MICHELS: Not so, says Tom Birmingham, the general manager of Westlands.

TOM BIRMINGHAM, Westlands Water District: This is not about Westlands Water District. It’s portrayed that way by a lot of people because they think that’s the easiest way to defeat it.

But it’s a program that is intended to benefit the entire state of California. The people who farm in Westlands Water District are family farmers in every sense of the word. I cannot name a single corporate agribusiness that operates in Westlands Water District. At one time, there were — they were there. Today, they’re gone.

SPENCER MICHELS: No one knows exactly how much the whole plan will cost — $14 billion is just for building the tunnels. But opponents say operating the system, financing it, and making improvements in the delta could bring the price tag to $50 billion over the next decade, some paid for by water users, some by taxpayers.

The problem, says Jeff Michael, an economist at University of the Pacific, is that the state has refused to do a cost-benefit analysis. So he did one on his own.

JEFF MICHAEL, University of the Pacific: So, they haven’t produced a financial plan that makes sense, that passes any kind of scrutiny or has any detail in it.

SPENCER MICHELS: What did you conclude?

JEFF MICHAEL: I found that the project had an average of $2.50 in cost for every $1 in economic benefits to the state of California. It’s a terrible investment. It has to be one of the worst investments every considered for a major infrastructure project in the state.

GOV. JERRY BROWN: Any plan of this magnitude is going to draw many levels of criticism, concern and question. So we’re taking them all. And no one can ever say we haven’t studied enough. And I find it impressive that, despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars studying this damn thing, people will say, well, you haven’t studied it enough. Well, we will study, but we will take action.

SPENCER MICHELS: The governor’s plan — some say he wants it to be his legacy — will be studied and fleshed out, with construction due to start in two years and completion in 2026.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On our website, we have more from Spencer Michels and our partners at KQED on how the California Delta shaped a state’s history and its landscape.