business, california, Central Valley, Ceres, education, Environment, Hughson, Lathrop, Manteca, Modesto, Newman, Oakdale, Patterson, Politics, Ripon, Riverbank, San Joaquin, Stanislaus County, Stockton, Stockton, Tracy, Turlock, Waterford

The Delta Water Wars Heat Up

Photo by Bilingual Weekly

Photo by Bilingual Weekly of the Delta | By Deanna Lynn Wulff

(bw news) STOCKTON, CA – Stockton is ground zero for the nation’s biggest and most troubling water war – nearly 25 million Californians get their water from the Delta, which surrounds the city in an intricate pattern of rivers, farms and levees. But the Delta faces multifaceted environmental and political problems, which have led to the decline of fisheries, wildlife and water quality, and special interests are directing the dialogue away from resolution and restoration.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Lloyd G. Carter, former Fresno Bee reporter and President of the Save Our Streams Council. “I have watched this for 30 years. They’ve been searching for a solution to the Delta’s problems for decades. It’s what I call the phenomena of endless studies no results. We know what we have to do. Put water back into the Delta.”

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) has spent more than $100 million advocating some form of peripheral canal or tunnel conveyance system, which would route water around the Delta rather than restoring it. In reaction, Stockton’s Restore the Delta, an environmental group, is teaming up with the founder of the nation’s largest construction company, A.G. Spanos to sustain Delta water rights. “The Spanos company understands what’s at stake for water quality and quantity for the region,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, the Campaign Director for Restore the Delta. “We are against the outside threat to take water away. Our business, farmers and environmental community are all on the same page.”

English: Map of the San Joaquin River watershe...

Image via Wikipedia

On the federal level, legislators are pushing Bill House Resolution (H.R.) 1837, which proposes to take water away from Delta wildlife and give it to state water contractors. The State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) also recently voted to spend $1.75 million to study a new reservoir in Colusa County.

But none of these projects directly address flow requirements for salmon and other Delta endangered species. According to a SWRCB report, to restore habitat and water quality, southern Delta pumping will have to be reduced approximately 50 to 75 percent and Delta inflow will have to increase. Ultimately, that means most Californians will have to reduce water use.

And that’s because the two main Delta waterways, the San Joaquin River and the Sacramento River, are heavily diverted. For example, San Francisco draws water from the Tuolumne River, a tributary to the San Joaquin River, and Los Angeles draws water from the Feather River, a tributary to the Sacramento River. Both rivers are drained by irrigation districts and agriculture. In addition, levees disrupt natural water distribution, and pumping in the south Delta kills thousands of fish and creates a north to south flow across an estuary, which is tidal and should have an east to west flow.

“We have a system that is deteriorating in many ways, and an abundance of prolonged and often circular arguments. This is not sustainable,” said Dr. Jay Lund, Director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. “We need more effective and better organized leadership.”

According to Dr. Robert Pyke, a civil engineer and an expert on earthquake preparedness for levees, one of the cheapest ways to preserve the Delta’s human communities is to reinforce about half of the Delta levees. “The cost of making them seismically resistant is inexpensive, compared to that of building a tunnel or conveyance system around the Delta,” Pyke said. He estimates reinforcement will cost $1-2 billion, while costs for a canal or conveyance system are estimated to be near $15 billion.

For ecosystem restoration, one of the cheapest ways to increase Delta flows is through conservation, a concept not entirely ignored. Long Beach achieved a 17 percent reduction in per capita water use with a $250,000 a year advertising program urging people to save water, and a California Senate Bill enacted in 2009, set an overall goal of reducing urban water use by 20 percent by December 31, 2020.

However, the bill set no conservation goals for agriculture, and agriculture accounts for approximately 75 percent of all human water use in California. Of that, 60 percent is used for irrigation of field crops such as alfalfa, corn, rice and cotton, which generate only 14 percent of crop revenues. However, conservation for agriculture requires changing to crops that use less water or fallowing farmland. Both of which can reduce farm profits, said Dr. Ellen Hanak, Senior Policy Fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.

Some farmers have shifted to almonds, a high value crop that benefits from drip irrigation. “I went from fruit to nuts,” said Jim McLeod, a San Joaquin farmer who sits on Banta-Carbona Irrigation District board of directors. “You ask those people what they mean by restore,” McLeod said. “Restore means put farmers out of business.” California now has 810,000 acres planted in almonds and produces 80 percent of the world’s supply.

But almonds require a consistent supply of water, and some larger farms including those in the Westlands Water District have an inconsistent water supply. “They gambled and planted permanent crops on an erratic water supply. They made a poor business decision,” said John Bass, associate professor at the University of British Columbia School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. “And now they want to change state and federal law.”

By 2012, the Delta Stewardship Council is mandated to produce a plan with co-equal goals of a reliable water supply and ecosystem restoration, but its recommendations currently do not establish conservation rules beyond the existing 2020 state law. However, its fifth draft states, “It is clear that additional targets for urban conservation and agricultural water use efficiency will be necessary, but these will be addressed in future updates to the Delta Plan.”

About Deanna Lynn Wulff

Deanna is an activist, an editor and a writer. She is the Director of the Sierra National Monument Project ( and the author of the award-winning book, "The Girl's Guide to Getting Lost: Hard Hikes for Wild Women." Follow her blog, Minerva's Moxie, at


13 thoughts on “The Delta Water Wars Heat Up

  1. Thanks for the comment, Mr. Johnson. I’ll call to get your view for my next story. I do think we have to stay focused on the primary issue at hand – water flows in and out of the Delta. There is an excellent report put out by the Bay Institute that goes into greater detail on this subject and in plain language. If you have time, it’s definitely worth reading:
    Thanks again.

    Posted by Deanna Lynn Wulff | September 23, 2011, 10:08 am
  2. Another piece of the puzzle that is missing is the habitat benefit of ag lands especially rice. In addition to supporting 60 percent of the wintering ducks and geese along the PAcific Flyway, rice provides critical habitat for dozens of other species. Will this be lost, if water is reduced to rice and other crops? Many conservation groups think so. The birds certainly do.

    Tim Johnson
    California Rice Commission

    Posted by Tim Johnson | September 21, 2011, 6:51 am
  3. More politics as usual, let’s be honest about our water issues!

    Posted by citizen's voice | September 17, 2011, 4:54 pm
  4. I don’t like this at all. Fewer agriculture jobs means throngs of illegal aliens swarming LA and competing with me for work.

    Posted by Matthew Horns | September 14, 2011, 7:16 pm
  5. Starts with banning rice, cotton, and alfalfa production in California. That alone will save billions of gallons of OUR water.

    Posted by Matthew Horns | September 14, 2011, 7:10 pm
  6. Our comments have always centered on farm job losses resulting from reductions in water deliveries caused by environmental regulations and the drought. We have NEVER compared farm job losses with the decline in the housing industry. Regarding UOP/UCD joint study on job losses, the westside farm job losses were finally acknowledged as being greater than other agricultural areas. Revenues are a result of market conditions and not whether water is delivered. As an example, lettuce acreage went unplanted along the valley’s westside; those individuals who normally lease land from westside farmers for planting lettuce turned to other areas of the state with a greater water reliability.

    Mike Wade
    California Farm Water Coalition

    Posted by Farm Water (@farmwater) | September 14, 2011, 5:31 pm
  7. Mr. Wade and Mr. Barkley – Thank you for your comments. I appreciate them. The online forum provides a wonderful opportunity to easily express an alternate view or to add another point. I think the quote by Mr. Carter may have distracted from the rest of the article, which is an explanatory piece.
    I can assure you that every fact was checked more than twice and every quote verified. And yes, you are right, agriculture efficiency is growing. On another note, as far as I understand it, in the drought years of 2007, 2008 and 2009, California agriculture generated the highest revenues on record, and agricultural work increased by 2 percent, while construction work decreased by 44 percent and trade work decreased by 46 percent. This implies that the housing crisis led to the decline in jobs, not the water shortage. (
    That said, this is a challenging subject, and it can lead to circular arguments, rather than resolution.
    At some point, we will have to come to terms with the limits of the Delta and find an equitable way to share water, to foster healthy communities, farming, fish, flowing rivers and an intact ecosystem. That means diverse groups will have to work together to come up with a solution that is fair to everyone in the state. And that includes the California Farm Water Coalition and Delta communities.

    Deanna Wulff

    Posted by Deanna Lynn Wulff | September 14, 2011, 2:43 pm
  8. This mish-mash of claims is rife with inaccuracies and false claims. Carter has publicly demonstrated a disdain for the farmworker community and his rush to “put water back into the Delta” ignores the lives that have been built on water delivered to public water agencies. Thousands of farmworkers lost their jobs in recent years as deliveries were reduced due to drought and environmental regulations lacking in science.

    Further citing a SWRCB report by claiming that more water needs to remain in the Delta leaves out an important disclaimer made by the authors. The authors emphasized that their report required further study and should not be the basis for policy development.

    Farmers have not needed legislative guidelines to achieve increases in water use efficiency. From 1967 to 2000, the per acre application of water has experienced only a 2 percent increase while crop production has skyrocketed 89 percent. Benefiting from this improved use of water has been consumers across the globe.

    This diatribe serves no purpose in resolving the issues that surround California water.

    Mike Wade
    California Farm Water Coalition

    Posted by Farm Water (@farmwater) | September 13, 2011, 11:24 am
    • Dear Mike,

      A balanced approach is necessary for the survival of the California Delta and the California Farm Worker. I have been following this situation for over 30 years and have yet to read a practical solution from either side of this crisis.

      Unfortunately, proponents for the California Delta, agriculture, developers and the exploding California population will never find common ground on this issue.

      I support California Agriculture and as a supporter, I am as concerned about the Delta Region agricultural community as I am for Central Valley agricultural community. What happens to agriculture on the Delta when the water eventually turns brackish from over use? I have seen the brackish water creep up the Delta for the last thirty years. It stands to reason that the Delta will turn into a salt water marsh if we don’t come up with long-term answer.

      Mike Brunn

      Posted by Mike Brunn | September 14, 2011, 3:45 pm
  9. One more piece of the puzzle omitted from your article is to define what is
    necessary to prevent a repeat of the floods of 1861-1862 , assuming of course
    that nobody wants a repeat of such an event.

    Best wishes,

    –Mike Barkley, Candidate for Congress new CA-10 District,

    Posted by Michael Barkley | September 12, 2011, 5:26 pm


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