california, Central Valley, Environment, Investigative Report, San Joaquin, State Politics, Stockton

In the Trenches of California’s Water War: A Farmer, an Environmentalist and a Republican Envision the Future

What’s really happening, and will Gov. Brown listen?

Water lazily rolls by, acres of pear trees blanket the horizon, and tiny communities dot the landscape. Walnut Grove is a Delta town with 1,500 residents, just one ice cream shop and a mom-and-pop grocery store. It feels sleepy, humid and slow—like the Sacramento River. Brett Baker, a sixth-generation pear farmer who lives nearby, on Sutter Island, describes the area nostalgically:

The Sacramento River is the largest river in the state. It carries nearly one-third of the total annual runoff of all California streams.

“I enjoy the peace and quiet, the landscape and scenery,” he said. “I have a personal relationship with almost everyone in my town. I have known them all my life, played sports with them, was coached by them growing up. Out here, there is a real sense of community. When tragedy strikes, your neighbors pick you up and help support you.”

Tragedy might be striking.  Just 10 minutes away is the roar of Interstate 5, one of California’s major freeways. Twenty minutes farther is Sacramento and the buzzing State Capitol, where the fate of this farming community, the Delta, the state’s river system, and the largest estuary on the West Coast will be determined.

The Delta is the heart of the state’s water resources. Most rivers flow into it, the ocean meets it, key species migrate in and out of it, 25 million people draw water from it, and a large portion of agriculture relies on it to irrigate crops.  And now, Gov. Jerry Brown wants to forge ahead with a $23 billion plan to build two massive tunnels underneath or around the Delta.

The Tunnel Options – Photo courtesy of PPIC

The stakes are enormous.

The governor’s proposed Bay-Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), also known as the tunnel conveyance system or peripheral canal, would carry part of the Sacramento River underneath the Delta in two 35-mile long tunnels to the California Aqueduct. There, the water would be pumped uphill to cities and farms in more parched regions of the state, including the southern Central Valley, Los Angeles and Santa Clara.

The canal plan has been kicking around for decades. Brown’s original peripheral canal project was voted down in a referendum in 1982, but he is back in the saddle again. “We’re going to take into account the opposition,” Brown vowed, “but we’re not going to sit here and twiddle our thumbs and stare at our navel. We’re going to make decisions and get it done.”

But it’s unclear what Brown is trying to get done. The project would continue to move water from one part of the state to another, with questionable benefits for citizens, farmers, fish, fishermen and even state and federal water contractors, who have funded the project thus far. The differing perspectives of a Delta farmer, a seasoned environmentalist and a Republican supervisor show the complexities and contentiousness of what lies ahead.

Brett Baker—Delta Farmer

Delta Farmer Brett Baker and his wife Meredith stand near their 40-acre farm in Courtland, CA. The couple is expecting their first child in October.

“The Delta is the largest contiguous acreage of prime farmland in California,” said Baker. “It has a naturally reliable supply of high quality water and sufficient drainage. Basically, you are taking water from land that has proven to be sustainably productive for over 150 years and moving it to lands with toxic drainage impairments.”

Acre to acre, Delta land is one the most productive farm areas in the state.

The toxic land that Baker refers to is on the west side of San Joaquin River in the Central Valley. The area has long had problems with salinity and selenium, and it’s also a primary importer of Delta water. Salinity on the west side can be flushed out with water, provided there is drainage. But there isn’t excess water or drainage, and there may never be. The taxpayer cost of fixing the drainage problem is $2.6 to $7 billion. Only $346 million in funds are currently allocated.

Selenium presents a more significant problem for the west side. It cannot be safely dispersed into the environment. It bio-accumulates and in large quantities is toxic to wildlife, livestock and humans. In the 1980s, Kesterson Reservoir had to be closed, because of the mass bird and livestock deformities that were discovered there due to selenium build-up. The area has since been cleaned up, but pollutants are still flowing into the San Joaquin River, and more water will not fix the problem.

So why construct a canal or tunnel conveyance system and route water there?

The West Side of the San Joaquin River. Graphic courtesy of the EPA.

A portion of that water flows elsewhere, to the Metropolitan Water District and the Kern County Water Agency, for example. The giant pumps that sit in the southern part of the estuary entrap and kill thousands of fish annually. The pumps also alter the habitat of the estuary by creating a north to south flow across a tidal ecosystem, which would naturally flow east to west. The proposed tunnels would move the intake upstream to locations that might be less harmful to smelt, salmon and other endangered species. They also might avoid delivery disruptions associated with salt water intrusion and climate change.

But under the microscopes of science and regulation, even those benefits begin to look dubious. And that’s because moving intakes upstream will affect water quality for fish and farmers downstream. “If we allow the canal to be built it will ultimately result in the salting up and ruination of one of our state’s most valuable assets,” Baker said. “Research has continued to reveal that shunting more water from the system stands to condemn the canary in the coal mine.”

And Baker is right. The birds are in trouble too. Although endangered fish species get more attention because of their effect on water exports, the Delta is a primary habitat and migratory stop for millions of birds, like tundra swans and sandhill cranes. Nearly 50 percent of the Pacific Flyway’s migrating or wintering waterfowl depend on it.

Altogether, the Delta is home to more than 750 species of plants and animals, 33 of which are endangered, and likely to go extinct within the next 25 to 50 years, if not sooner. Those species includes chinook salmon, smelt, steelhead, splittail, sturgeon and river lamprey, all of which are supposed to be protected by state and federal agencies.

And California hasn’t left much breathing room for its once abundant wildlife, particularly in the Central Valley and the Delta, where most of the land is privately held and about 95 percent of natural wetlands are gone.  And water, the other primary habitat, has been over-allocated to such a high degree that little is left for plants and animals. All total, water rights exist for 531 million acre-feet, which is nearly 10 times as much as is annually available (63 million acre-feet).

The EnvironmentalistLeo Winternitz

Staten Island with sandhill cranes. The area works as a habitat and a farm. Photo courtesy of Leo Winternitz.

Leo Winternitz, associate director of Delta Restoration and Policy for the Nature Conservancy, has been living amidst these water wars for the past 30 years. He has worked for CALFED, the Sacramento Water Forum, the Department of Water Resources, and the State Water Resources Control Board—all major players in water management.

As to how things are going – he says simply, “The situation is more acute. The environment is really suffering from the overuse. We need to think in terms of migratory corridors,” he continues. “If you acquire any piece of property, without a strategic plan then you have postage stamp approach and that doesn’t work. You need to have a corridor of different habitats interconnected.”

But putting that into action is no easy task. The Delta region has more than 500,000 acres of agricultural land, most of which was formerly wetland habitat. About five percent of the original environment is left.

To restore a portion, the Nature Conservancy acquired a 9200-acre tract in the Delta, called Staten Island. The area provides prime habitat for sandhill cranes and other migratory waterfowl. But the $35 million land purchase has been criticized. Half of the money for the acquisition came from the state funds for flood protection, and today, it’s managed primarily as a farmland and wetland—not as a flood plain. The island is below sea level, and it isn’t ideally located for tidal marsh restoration. Still, 15 percent of the Sacramento Valley sandhill crane population and thousands of birds use the area as a winter habitat.

Sandhill cranes and tundra swans fly thousands of miles in the fall to spend their winter in the Delta. Photo courtesy of Leo Winternitz.

The BDCP, at least, has a cohesive plan for restoration. It may include 80,000 acres of tidal marsh habitat and up to 45,000 acres of agricultural and grasslands habitat. But that makes Delta farmers nervous, as does changing the position of the water intake system and increasing exports, which was originally part of the plan.

And that’s where the project starts to hit serious trouble.

The BDCP sets off a series of agency interactions between the Department of Water Resources (DWR), the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), the California Department State Fish and Game (DFG), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Delta Stewardship Council (DSC). Each agency is tasked with a particular aspect of protecting and managing the state’s natural resources. And there is a lot to protect:—California is one of the most bio-diverse places in the world.

Among these water agencies, there is a confusing array of regulations and interactions. But there are clear guidelines. “It is now state policy that we have co-equal goals of ecosystem restoration and water reliability,” Winternitz said, regarding the Delta Reform Act of 2009. “Any solution has to include environmental consideration. That is a big positive. We just have to communicate better about what this means and how to implement it.”

But what’s being communicated is tough medicine for everyone.

The public trust recommendations for the Delta are the hub of public policy, and the agencies are circling around it. To resuscitate the system, scientific research indicates the need to increase river flows and decrease Delta water consumption by nearly 50 percent, or 13.7 to 14.6 million-acre feet. Those recommendations are supposed to play a primary role in water planning and policy—and to some extent they have.

In July, when Brown made his public announcement, he endorsed a 55-page joint set of agency recommendations for the BDCP. The latest version includes a smaller intake system and no guaranteed export amount; instead, continued scientific studies over the 15-year construction period will determine whether exports are higher or lower than they are today. But notably, the joint recommendations also state: “Only a small percentage of research in the Bay Delta is controversial.”

Right now, what keeps the Delta ecosystem intact are court-ordered flow criteria. The current rulings limit south of Delta exports to an average of 4.9 million acre-feet. If you applied the public trust recommendations exports would drop to 3.7 to 3.9 million acre-feet, about 25 percent. That also means that the rest of the state, including cities, irrigation districts and farms, would have to reduce use and put water back into the system.

What would we gain?

Winternitz explains, “The species we are concerned about evolved in the habitats we need to restore. Those ecosystem processes, which provide for water quality and other important benefits, are the same ones that we humans need.  And that’s why there is this whole effort to get these species turned around. If we can repair their world, we can repair our world. We’ll have better air, better places to swim and play, better places to live. It’s really our own system that we are trying to clean up.”

But can California clean up? The quick and easy answer is yes. With water recycling, conservation, efficient technology and better water management, California can meet the needs of the environment, agriculture and a growing population. There is a mountain of data, coming from nearly every water agency, suggesting that improvements can be made. Conservation is the cheapest and easiest way to create to a new supply. There is more new potential water from these investments than California regularly exports from the Delta, and they come without the damage to fish or farmers.

But the long hard truth is that change is difficult.

The Republican SupervisorJim DeMartini

DeMartini spends his mornings on his farm and the afternoons in the county supervisor’s office in downtown Modesto.

Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini knows first-hand just how difficult. In his office in Modesto, just south of the Delta, pictures of George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger hang from the walls. DeMartini is a Republican farmer pushing to preserve prime farmland from sprawling development.

“There is no other place in the world like this; we can grow 200 types of crops here,” he said. “We have good access to water, and right now, there is no permanent protection of agriculture.”

California agriculture produces half of U.S. grown nuts, fruits and vegetables. It is also home to nine of nation’s most productive counties, and Stanislaus County is one of them.

DeMartini owns 1200 acres between Ceres and Patterson and grows a mixture of almonds, walnuts, peaches and grapes on the east side of the Central Valley. Three miles of his land borders the Tuolumne River, a primary tributary to the San Joaquin River, which flows into the Bay-Delta. He has voluntarily remediated about 120 acres and turned it back into wetlands. “Wilderness and agriculture can co-exist; there is no reason we can’t work it out,” he said, “We have 43 species of birds out there, and I want to keep it that way. It’s beautiful.”

Stanislaus County has adopted a land use plan for agriculture, but the cities within the county haven’t come up with their own plans and agreed to control sprawl. “They just want to keep growing out,” DeMartini said. “You can’t keep eroding the farmland and stay self-sufficient. The building association doesn’t want any policy adopted at all. They don’t want any restrictions.”

DeMartini planned a workshop with the Mayor’s Association to create a land use policy for each of the nine cities. “Everyone had a scheduling problem, and I never did hear from them again,” he said. “It’s been more than a year now.”  It’s surprising, since sprawl has never worked for the region. Stanislaus County has double-digit unemployment and high foreclosures—all remnants of the housing crisis.

Still, the area is on the forefront of innovation. The Oakdale Irrigation District is improving its water delivery system, and the Patterson Irrigation District is building a cross-valley channel, which could transport water east to west without going through the Delta. More recently, Modesto farmer Bill Lyons sold 1,603 acres along the Tuolumne River, to be used for wildlife and wetland restoration.

In general, what DeMartini is advocating has little to do with the peripheral canal or the tunnels. But his plans aren’t far from what’s likely to become state law. His proposals mirror the legally-mandated policies set forth by the state’s overarching water plan. California’s  88-year Delta Plan focuses on wetland preservation, habitat restoration, farmland protection and reduced reliance on Delta water. The agency putting the plan together, the Delta Stewardship Council (DSC), has an appellate role regarding the canal and conveyance system. If the BDCP is approved, it will automatically be folded into the Delta Plan without review, unless someone makes an appeal.

Regarding the peripheral canal, DeMartini remains skeptical.  “I don’t think the plan is going to make it past environmental review,” he added. “I don’t know how they will pay for it either. It seems like it’s come out of nowhere.”

The question remains: Where will it go?

Note: This South of Delta Exports chart was updated on August 30, 2012 for clarity. The tunnel intake capacity is 6.5 million acre-feet. The total physical capacity to export water is 11 million acre-feet. A detailed explanation will follow in a forthcoming article.

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


14 thoughts on “In the Trenches of California’s Water War: A Farmer, an Environmentalist and a Republican Envision the Future

  1. This “Water War” started back in the 1930’s partially from a result of the large corporations that came in and bought up desert land in the south State for twenty five cents on the dollar to Mega-Farm, it was known at that time water would be limited to the south around the 2010’s-2030’s, it was then deemed a 100 year plan. I believe that the Peripheral Canal is not the correct thing to do, it’s the same instance as if someone doesn’t have a car and wants one so they decide they want to take their neighbors car because they feel they are entitled to have a car so they can drive even if it means the other person that they are taking the car from won’t have one and can’t drive…it isn’t fair and sorry for making my statement a childish parable but that is how this whole situation is being handled. Looking at it from a political side I can see why this may become a reality, the money is down south, there is more land down south that can be farmed if there is water there and by taking water from the Delta more land can be farmed, for a while…….there are more people and businesses, ie more $$$’$…cough, cough Resnick. I am surprised, well not really, that when it was brought to light that Stewart Resnick was backing Feinstein’s Save the Delta Program more wasn’t done about it or even questioned also when it was discovered that Pelosi’s Husband was buying thousands of acres of waste land in the Westlands district which has no water it was not questioned as well and again nothing was done about it, it was all just brushed under the rug and not brought up again…….we only have 18 years to the 2030’s.

    Posted by A tired of fighting Native Californian | August 23, 2012, 6:38 pm
  2. Mr. Wade: It’s true – a lot of progress has be made on the west side, and there is still more to come. As you know, I spent some time writing on the subject. It took me a lot of effort, as with this story, to unwind the rhetoric and get down to the essentials. Some farmers, like John Diener, are really doing some interesting things out there. It’s admirable.
    But we need to take a step back and ask the bigger question: What is the best use of our resources? Does it make make sense to pump water out of a beleaguered estuary (that desperately needs more water) and move it uphill a hundred miles to an area that has significant unaddressed problems… salinity, selenium and drainage? All of which are extremely expensive to fix, alone. Should we then spend an additional enormous amount of money to move water there by building two massive tunnels underneath the Delta, and harm farming (and wildlife) in an area that doesn’t have these problems? Probably not. When we think about the health of California as a whole, we might find better ways to manage our resources.

    Posted by Deanna Lynn Wulff | August 23, 2012, 1:48 pm
  3. It is unfortunate when individuals and reporters reference selenium along the San Joaquin Valley westside that they do not acknowledge the ongoing efforts by the Grasslands Bypass Project (GBP) to reduce the amount of selenium flowing into the San Joaquin River. The map of the westside that accompanies this article was provided by the Environmental Protection Agency, the same agency that described the GBP as a “success story.” From 1995 to 2010, the amount of selenium entering the river from the GBP was reduced by 87%, thanks to the cooperative effort of farmers, local water districts, environmental groups and State/federal agencies. While solutions continue to be sought for California’s overall water problems, the Grassland Bypass Project is already finding answers.

    Mike Wade
    California Farm Water Coalition

    Posted by CA Farm Water (@farmwater) | August 23, 2012, 1:10 pm
  4. A fair collection of commentators. I have worked with Leo Winternitz while an employee of Fish and Game, while representing the Department of Boating and Waterways, as a colleague dealing with Kesterson at the State Board, and at Department of Water Resources. I’ve also gone fishing with him. I was disappointed that the Staten Island flood-prone land retirement agreement didn’t contribute as much to Delta wetland restoration as I had expected, and I’m cautious about dealing with TNC as a result. There might be an equally broad-based opinion to be found elsewhere in a single person, but you chose well.

    Posted by Earle Cummings | August 23, 2012, 12:57 pm
  5. Two more great comments. I appreciate the notes in regards to habitat for chinook salmon. Each species prefers something slightly different within the ecosystem, and hence the difficulty in trying to meet all their needs. But it’s a good idea to concentrate on salmon health, and perhaps, in the future, I will write a story specifically focusing on that. Thanks for speaking up.

    Posted by Deanna Lynn Wulff | August 22, 2012, 4:25 pm
  6. When discussing habitat are we including chinook salmon? If not, it would be important to single out this iconic species because as the salmon goes the delta goes, and thus the peripheral canal. It took court orders and some favorable conditions with weather and the ocean to get the salmon population back this year. These aren’t guaranteed. This canal project would squander the whole recovery.

    Posted by Michael Coats | August 22, 2012, 1:24 pm
    • Thanks for bringing the issue of salmon up, Michael. The alleged “restoration” proposed under the Bay Delta Conservation Plan to build the peripheral canal will only result in hastening the extinction of Sacramento River winter chinook salmon and other species.

      Posted by Dan Bacher | August 22, 2012, 4:17 pm
  7. That’s a great comment, and I did consider reaching out for more views. But I’m most interested in focusing on how we might resolve our problems, and Mr. DeMartini’s vision so nicely looks forward. It is also resembles the primary policies in the state’s Delta Plan.

    Posted by Deanna Lynn Wulff | August 22, 2012, 10:42 am
    • Deanna – you claim that you considered “reaching out for more views.” I’m very glad that you interviewed Brett Baker, a Delta farmer. However, I was stunned that of all of the representatives of environmental groups that you could have interviewed, you decided to interview a representative of the pro-tunnel Nature Conservancy, a corporate “environmental” NGO that receives millions of dollars every year from the Walton Family Foundation. This is a real disservice to the vast majority of grassroots environmental activists, who oppose “saving” the Delta by draining it. This article gives a very false perspective of the environmental community’s perspectives on Jerry Brown’s plan to build the twin tunnels. The Nature Conservancy has been criticized over the years by many grassroots conservationists, tribal members, fishermen and environmental justice advocates for its top-down, corporate approach to addressing environmental problems that doesn’t listen to those communities most impacted by environmental degradation. For a much different perspective, you should interview folks such as Carolee Krieger, President of the California Water Impact Network, Bill Jennings, Executive Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Caleen Sisk, Chief and Spiritual Leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Executive Director of Restore the Delta, or Victor Gonella of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.

      Posted by Dan Bacher | August 22, 2012, 4:32 pm
      • Another good comment. Well, you’re right, there are a lot of good people I could have interviewed, and that I did interview, many more than are quoted in the story. But Leo Winternitz eloquently captured the essence of the environmental view. I don’t think his views can be said to be entirely representative of the Nature Conservancy or all environmentalists, just as Supervisor DeMartini doesn’t represent all Republicans. If we try to represent all views, in every story, there would be no end to the story, and we’d lose our perspective. But you make a good point, thanks for note.

        Posted by Deanna Lynn Wulff | August 22, 2012, 4:46 pm
      • For the record, The Nature Conservancy does not propose saving the Delta by draining it. We are working with the administration, local interests and other stakeholders to ensure that if there is a BDCP, that it is a “good” BDCP. Our definition of a “good” BDCP is found at:

        (Please paste this link into your browser if clicking on it does not bring up the document).

        To underscore our position: The status quo in the Delta is unacceptable and unsustainable from environmental, water supply and public safety perspectives.

        Achieving the co-equal goals of Delta environmental restoration and water supply reliability while protecting the Delta as a vibrant community for agriculture, recreation and its people is critical.

        Posted by Leo Winternitz | August 23, 2012, 12:25 pm
  8. It is good to read narrative-based reporting on the subject. I do wish to suggest however that given his laudable advocacy of agricultural land use preservation and urban growth zoning restrictions in the SJ Valley, Mr. Martini may not be entirely representative of water contractors’ interests south of the Delta. Not that any one figure would be, of course…

    Posted by John Bass | August 22, 2012, 9:39 am


  1. Pingback: The BDCP Circus Continues –Toilets, Tunnels, Exports & Scientific Data Ignored « Bilingual Weekly - September 5, 2012

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