The Only California Farmers Surrounded by Water Agree to Use Less

Senior riparian rights holders in the delta will reduce usage by 25 percent this growing season.

(Photo: Forcechange/Twitter)

May 26, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

The California Delta shouldn’t exist as it is.

The intricate series of waterways that sluices the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers into the Pacific Ocean would be one vast, brackish swamp if it weren’t for the levees and canals that have been built over the past century and a half. Today, instead of wetlands, the region is home to nearly 10 percent of California’s farmland and around a half million residents too. While that’s a small slice of the state’s people and farms, the delta is outsize in California’s complex relationship with water—and the food and cities it helps to grow. Its rivers, streams, aqueducts, channels, and other conveyances supply half of the state’s irrigation water, and more than half of California’s population depends on water from it.

Consider, too, the some 500 species of plants and animals that depend on the habitat—including the nearly extinct delta smelt—and you see why the delta is constantly being tugged at by seemingly every political interest in California: agriculture, environmentalists, cities, and businesses. Everyone wants water, and even in a wet year there's never enough to go around.

So when the State Water Resources Control Board announced last Friday that a deal had been reached with delta farmers to voluntarily cut their water use in the coming year, there’s more at play than how much irrigation the region’s asparagus will get. Some 4,000 farmers with senior riparian water rights—meaning they farm land that directly borders a river or stream and claimed that water for irrigation purposes before 1914—signed the deal and will either reduce their usage by 25 percent or let a quarter of their land go fallow. In return, the state agreed to not curtail their senior rights—something that hasn’t been done since the 1970s but is expected to happen at some point this year, as California struggles with a fourth consecutive year of drought (and nine in the last 10). The deal puts delta farmers in line with California's cities, which are subject to the mandatory 25 percent reduction in water use that Gov. Jerry Brown announced in April.

So, Why Should You Care? Of the top five farming counties in California, which supplies half the country's domestic fruits and vegetables, only one, San Joaquin, includes part of the delta. The ag giants Tulare, Fresno, and Merced counties lie farther south (coastal Monterey rounds out the list), as does Kern County, which leads the state in almond production. In those places, average annual rainfall is around eight inches—about what Phoenix, Arizona, gets. To keep the crops growing in those arid places—which happen to be home to some of the best farming soil in the world—farmers rely heavily on the water the delta sends south every year (enough for about 5 million typical households). Drastically reduced deliveries of subsidized water—the State Water Project will deliver 20 percent of what has been requested, up from just 5 percent last year—have sparked a boom in groundwater pumping, which is barely regulated. So while delta farmers have been the first to volunteer to help out, they aren't really the source of the problem. And because the delta is no good for high-value crops like fruit trees, whose roots would be drowned in its high water table, they aren't the ones making the most profit out of the water that sits right next to their property.

The future of farming in the delta is under threat, drought or no drought: An inevitable earthquake is likely to destroy the aging levees, flooding the region with saltwater from San Francisco Bay. So delta farmers have more than their share of problems. But you can understand why a farmer who grows crops next to a stream that generations of the same family have used for watering the fields would rather see the water applied there than hundreds of miles south. Of all of California’s farmers, the 5 percent of growers who have signed on to the deal by no means have the most out-of-balance relationship with water. I have even heard from some sustainability-minded chefs who are turning increasingly to coastal and delta farmers, who rely more on local water resources for their crops, to source fruits and vegetables from—it’s an environmental statement, which in these times in California makes it a political one. With hopes of an expansive delta restoration program dashed by Gov. Brown’s less visionary plan for new wetland and other wildlife areas, the flooded rice fields that have doubled as ersatz habitat for delta fish and bird species on an experimental basis may become a new, necessary normal.

RELATED: California Has a New Plan to Beat the Drought, One Glass of Water at a Time

The question is whether the new water deal can become the same for farmers all over California, which only manages to feed demand for lettuce and almonds and artichokes and more by irrigating more acres than any other state in the country.

“Overall, if agriculture in California reduces its use by 25 percent, the state will weather this bad weather,” Jonas Minton, a former deputy director of the California Department of Water Resources, told The Associated Press. “It’s heartening to see that some agricultural water users are willing to do their share.”

The delta shouldn’t exist as such, but perhaps that knowledge makes residents more intimately aware of how volatile their relationship with water is. After all, senior water rights holders in the delta surely have family stories of when less contained rivers would run wild, unleashing devastating floods on the region.

Joan Didion experienced such floods growing up in Sacramento—an experience she wrote about in the essay “Holy Water.” Written in 1979, during a prior period of drought, the piece examines her relationship and fascination with water as a native Californian.

“When it became generally known a year or so ago that California was suffering severe drought, many people in water-rich parts of the country seemed obscurely gratified and made frequent reference to Californians having to brick up their swimming pools,” she wrote of the era's chosen symbol of California waste, the almond of the 1970s. But once filled, she explains, a pool uses “virtually no water.”

“Actually a pool is, for many of us in the West, a symbol not of affluence but of order, of control over the uncontrollable,” she continues. “A pool is water, made available and useful, and is, as such, infinitely soothing to the western eye.”

In 2015, the fourth year of a drought worse than the 1970s dry spell—the worst, indeed, in 1,200 years—Didion might not look at an irrigation channel as making water "available and useful" to a wealthy farmer while wells for drinking water go dry in the town where the farmworkers live. But the delta is, for better or for worse, an unavoidable reality of modern California—for fish, farmers, and urban dwellers alike. Its levees and channels are a grand attempt at exercising control over the state’s water, in dry and wet years, and if the farmers who live and work alongside this 750,000-acre symbol are reorienting their relationship with it, then surely the rest of us can too.