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Dry times revive an old debate

ON CALIFORNIA: Essays from the Golden State

In the delta that is the state's water well, ecology versus usage rises to the fore.

July 21, 2008|Peter H. King | Times Staff Writer

There are, in fact, some differences between the water world today and where it was when we left it after the last drought. For starters, the delta, while always important, has moved to the center of the debate. The fight was once about which rivers to dam, which valleys to flood. Now it's about how to save the delta -- and still quench the great California thirst.

Also, suburbs have been spreading across the Central Valley floor. Often they are built on flood plains. This means that in wet years more and more water must be shunted around these new neighborhoods in flood canals and dispatched to San Francisco Bay. "Wet-year capture" is now a frequently heard term in the water world.

Conservation, once seen condescendingly as a noble gesture on the way to throwing up ever-bigger dams, has gone mainstream, embraced by a Republican governor, the state Department of Water Resources and the MWD alike as a main source of "new" water.

There also seems to be some rethinking of basic rules. Not all farmers are short of water this year. Not all cities have been compelled to mandate conservation. In fact, for much of California, farm and city alike, the drought is little more than a word in a newscast. It all depends on where they stand on the hierarchical ladder of water rights.

This leads to some contradictory images. On one day there's a front-page photo in the Sacramento Bee of a state worker spraying down a Capitol Avenue sidewalk with a pressure hose. On the next, the San Francisco Chronicle runs a picture of unwatered almond orchards, wilting in the summer sun on the valley's west side. And so some water people have begun to ask, quietly: Historic "rights" aside, what do Californians on top of the water entitlement ladder owe the rest of the state in dry times?

One fundamental remains unaltered: Everybody wants more water than the system can deliver. Said former Assemblyman Phil Isenberg, who heads a state task force exploring the water dilemma: "We are, as they say in the water world, oversubscribed." What the competing factions want the water for, by and large, are noble endeavors. But at some point, choices must be made.

"If it comes down to water for Los Angeles children or water for delta fish," Jennings said, playing out the poster-child game as he drove a couple of visitors through the delta, "delta fish are going to lose every time. No doubt about it."

What if it comes down to farms versus fish?

"Well," he said, "Let's separate farms into food crops and nonfood crops. Rice grows great in Arkansas. Cotton grows great in Mississippi. Kansas is good for growing alfalfa. The issue isn't between people and fish. It's whether you are going to use subsidized water to grow subsidized crops on drainage-impaired, arid land."

That's one viewpoint. There are many. For every call to fallow the valley's west side, there are others to check suburban sprawl, or to build a Peripheral Canal, or even to let the delta go. What all corners can agree on is this: Year by year, the squeeze is getting tighter, and another dry year would be a killer. They'd be wise to get something done before the rains return.

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peter.king@latimes.com

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