THE state that bloomed from desert to produce half the United
States's fruits and vegetables and the world's seventh-largest
economy is now in the fight of its life over the primary commodity
that got it there: water.
The struggle over water is traditionally an urban-versus-rural
one: Cities grumble that 80 percent of water goes to farmers. Now
environmentalist voices have entered the fray in
stronger-than-ever numbers, heightening political tensions among
local, state, and federal authorities.
"We've got historic scarcity added to the most convoluted and
complex legal structures ever devised for the movement of water,"
says Mary Ann Warmerdam, director of natural resources for the
California Farm Bureau. "The situation is quite heated."
Six years of drought have left the state's two largest
reservoirs at historically low levels. Several aquifers are
reaching the point of collapse, after which some experts say they
can never be replenished. Depleted wetlands and riparian habitats
are compounding efforts to protect such key wildlife as the chinook
salmon, delta smelt, and striped bass.
"California's early mistake of building a few big projects
rather than hosts of smaller ones is catching up with us," says
Marc Reisner, author of "Cadillac Desert," a noted work on the
American West and its disappearing water.
The state is taking advantage of the crisis to garner support
for new programs that will carry into the 21st century:
water-trading markets that can disperse surpluses and deficits;
federal legislation that could redistribute the
80-percent-to-20-percent advantage long enjoyed by agriculture over
cities; new storage banks, reclamation, and conservation
procedures; and moves away from flood irrigation to drip
Officials are looking to desalination as well as to new ways of
transferring water and of combining the use of both surface and
ground water for supplemental supplies. "California invented itself
through water," says historian Kevin Starr, who has chronicled the
century-long building of dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts that
turned arid valleys into oases. "Now the reinvention of the new,
limited California is coming through water."
According to Ms. Warmerdam, the state's gigantic construction
program of dams, levees, and aqueducts ended in the early 1960s,
when the state's population was roughly half its current 30
million. But with minor exceptions, no additional carrying and
pumping capacity has been added since the late 1960s. With an
influx of population continuing at about 600,000 a year, with high
concentrations in the more-arid interior, new constituencies are
demanding that different water balances be struck.
As they do, heightened calls for enforcement of environmental
laws - exacerbated by high-profile fights over saving specific
wildlife species - have made building new infrastructure more
contentious. The costs and disputed locations of such dams as the
Auburn Dam north of Sacramento, one on the Santa Margarita River
near San Diego, and one on Sespe Creek in Ventura County have
extended disputes over construction into decades-long battles. …