Erica Goode, THE NEW YORK TIMES
Fighting over water is a tradition in California, but nowhere are the lines of dispute more sharply drawn than here in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a 720,000-acre network of islands and canals that is the hub of the state’s water system.
Giant pumps pull in water flowing to the delta from the mountainous north of the state, where the majority of precipitation falls, and send it to farms, towns and cities in the Central Valley and Southern California, where the demand for water is greatest.
For decades, the shortcomings of this water transportation system, among the most ambitious and complex ever constructed, have been a source of conflict and complaint.
But in the fourth year of a profound drought, the delta has become a central battle zone, pitting north against south, farmers against environmental groups, farmers against one another and many local residents against California’s governor, Jerry Brown, whose plan to fix the delta’s problems upsets them almost as much as the drought itself.
“In major battles, crossroads are always fought over,” said Steve Mello, who farms in the north delta. “And this is the crossroads for most of the water in the north state that they are seeking to export south.”
Water pumped from the delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast, accounts for only about 15 percent of the total water from aboveground sources that is used in California.
But the delta pumps help feed more than three million acres of farmland, much of it in the San Joaquin Valley, the agricultural heartland of the state. The estuary’s water is also home to hundreds of wildlife species, including fish — like the winter-run Chinook salmon and the delta smelt — that are listed as endangered and federally protected.
Casualties in this tug of war are counted in fallowed fields and the loss of species. And as the drought has intensified, so has debate over how the delta’s limited supply of water should be apportioned. Farmers in the Central Valley call it a “man-made drought,” complaining that water needed for crops is going to fish instead. This month, an environmental group filed suit against the state and federal governments, claiming that endangered species were being sacrificed to agricultural interests.