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California and the West

Water War Divides San Joaquin Valley Farmers

Agriculture: Chronically parched large growers on the west side are moving to tap the river traditionally used by small growers on the east side.


FRESNO — No other landscape in America--not the cotton South nor the grain belt of the Midwest nor the sugar fields of Florida--has been more altered by the hand of agriculture than this sweeping valley in the middle of the state.

What hills and knolls existed back in Miwok and Tachi days have been flattened by a hunk of metal called the Fresno Scraper. Every river bursting out of the Sierra has been bent sideways, if not backward, by a bulwark of dams, canals and levees. It is this corralled snowmelt, the highway banners proudly shout, that feeds and clothes a nation.

But America's most productive farm region, with a never-ending harvest of 250 crops, is no monolith. There is an east side and a west side, and they grow different crops and draw water from different spigots and, until a few weeks ago, they took care not to tread on one another.

Now a nasty water war, which once pitted San Joaquin Valley farmers against Bay Area environmentalists, has broken out among the hydraulic brotherhood of the west and east sides, big farmers taking on smaller farmers over a river that cannot give any more.

The industrial-sized farms of the west side--large growers of cotton, wheat, garlic, tomatoes, almonds and lettuce--are making a bold grab for irrigation water from the tired San Joaquin River. For more than half a century, this water, by dint of contracts and a huge canal, has been shunted to mostly small farmers raising grapes, citrus and stone fruit along the east side.

Three east side communities at the foot of the Sierra--Orange Cove, Lindsay and Terra Bella--also draw their drinking water from the same Friant-Kern Canal.

No one, at least no one beyond the directors of the Westlands Water District, which represents the west side and is the largest farm water delivery system in the nation, saw the grab coming. For years, Westlands has been content to draw water from a supply 120 miles north.

The grab has rankled bureaucrats and miffed politicians, including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who called it a "huge, huge mistake," in part because the federal government has spent six decades and billions of dollars delicately balancing competing water interests and installing the intricate plumbing that transformed this desert and marsh.

And the fight could end up costing Los Angeles a future supply of pristine Sierra water. If Westlands prevails, a much-discussed partnership between east side farmers and the city's Municipal Water District would almost surely die aborning. The prospective partners have been talking about a plan to add storage space to Friant Dam. In exchange for helping to capture more river water, Los Angeles could receive some of that water in wet years.

"This scheme by Westlands isn't some small water war with hard-to-understand issues," said Richard Moss, general manager of the Friant Water Users Assn., which represents 15,000 east-side farmers in 25 water districts from Madera to Kern counties, a 152-mile stretch. "It is nothing short of a direct, Pearl Harbor-type attack intended to cripple agriculture along the San Joaquin Valley's east side."

In their defense, Westlands farmers point out that their draw of federal water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has been nothing but unreliable over the past decade. Some years, they have received only 25% to 30% of their contracted supply because of drought and legislative reforms that have increased flows for delta fish.

Backed into a corner, they say they had no choice but to take the unusual step of filing a permit with the state water resources agency to divert 500,000 acre-feet of water a year from the San Joaquin River. (An acre-foot, about 326,000 gallons, provides enough water for two typical families for one year.)

Westlands farmers are laying claim to one-third of the river's flow on the basis that their land is in the river's general vicinity. They have dusted off an old state law protecting local watersheds as their justification.

"I have no desire to take water out of the San Joaquin River and shortchange those guys on the east side," said Ross Borba, a grower who farms 9,000 acres of diversified crops in Westlands. "But the federal government is failing to live up to its contract and deliver the water it promised us clear back in 1953. So we've got to do something."

Long before the dam building of the 1940s, valley farmers had dug enough canals to make the rivers theirs, grabbing a Sierra snowmelt that in the wettest years formed a great inland sea. The finest restaurants in San Francisco fished turtles for soup out of Tulare Lake, once the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi.

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