Pipe Dreams

During planting season, a Sacramento Valley rice farmer’s fields are hardly fields at all. They are still, square lakes separated by dikes and occupied by white egrets. Flooded to depths of about eight inches, the fields wait to be sown by low-flying airplanes spraying rice seed. The seeds germinate in the water and, eventually, green shoots rise to sway above the water’s surface until the fields are allowed to drain again, just before the harvest. Then the hawks appear above, hunting for rodents in  the rice straw. Many farmers now shallow-flood their  fields before the harvest to kill weeds and insects, creat- ing prime habitat for birds migrating south. In winter,  Canada geese, sandhill cranes, and tundra swans forage  in the marsh-like fields for small animals and the grain that escaped harvest.
But this year, water that once flooded around 40,000 of these acres may now flush southern Californian toilets. Sacramento Valley irrigation districts have entered into temporary water transfer contracts to broker the sale of up to 200,000 acre feet of water — that’s 65.2 billion gallons — from Sacramento Valley rice growers to the Metropolitan Water District (MWD), the agency that supplies water to about 18 million people in Southern California. It’s enough water to supply 400,000 households for a year.
And this may be just the beginning. Next year, the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency responsible for many of the state’s largest water projects, will decide whether to renew contracts that entitle eleven Sacramento Valley irrigation districts to 2.2 million acre feet of water per year — 250,000 acre-feet more than the farmers could possibly use, by the Bureau’s own reckoning. What will the farmers do with all this water? Only they know for sure, but with water prices at a premium, it seems likely that at least some will go to quench the thirst of southern California cities.
What will happen when the Sacramento Valley rice fields lie fallow and the water goes south, greening suburban golf courses and the lawns of new housing developments on the fringes of southern California cities? What about the sandhill cranes or the supply stores, seed companies, coffee shops, and all the other businesses in the tiny agricultural towns north of Sacramento?
The Sacramento Valley water transfers and the pending Bureau contracts also raise other questions most Californians rarely consider: Who owns water? Who has the right to sell it?
Californians have never balked at moving water great distances, and transfers continue that audacious water management ethic. Californians can claim the distinction of living in a civilization that has almost nothing to do with the natural flows of fresh water: over a century of aggressive management of water has transformed much of California from a desert into a fertile and wealthy agricultural state. “Everything depends on the manipulation of water — on capturing it behind dams, storing it, and rerouting it in concrete rivers over distances of hundreds of miles,” wrote Marc Reisner in Cadillac Desert. “Were it not for a century and a half of messianic effort towards that end, the West as we know it would not exist.” Over half of the water that should flow through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta and out into the San Francisco Bay is diverted. Of the water coursing through California’s massive Central Valley Project, 95% goes into California fields, many of which would be virtually unplantable without it.
This irrigation has created a robust agricultural economy. Each year, California’s farm industry, the largest in the country, generates about $27 billion. But the four crops that require the largest amount of water to grow — alfalfa, irrigated pasture, cotton, and rice — account for only 10% of the total value of crops produced in California. Plus, it’s getting harder for farmers to survive on the world market.
“We’ve suffered for several years from record low commodity prices,” says rice farmer Don Bransford, president of the Glenn Colusa Irrigation District. “Our district is about 80% rice, with no option to change the cropping pattern. We have a real hardpan clay-type soil, so you either grow rice or you don’t grow anything.”
A lot of cities might be relieved if these farmers didn’t grow anything. As farmers watch their profits dwindle, California’s cities are exploding.
Already, California is home to about one of every eight US citizens. The Department of Water Resources expects the population to increase from 34.5 million people in 2001 to 47.5 million in 2020. About two thirds of this population will reside in southern coastal cities, while over two thirds of California’s water comes from northern California.
As cities grow, so does the pressure on southern California’s water agencies. Local governments must now demonstrate adequate water supplies before cities expand. But that’s increasingly difficult: expensive, environmentally damaging projects like dams are being phased out.
Making matters worse for the cities was the collapse of one of southern California’s greatest hopes for increased water supplies: the Imperial  Valley deal.
In December 2002, the Imperial Irrigation District — an arid farming community southeast of Los Angeles — rejected San Diego County’s proposal to purchase 200,000 acre feet of water annually for the next 75 years. The deal was central to a larger plan to reduce California’s dependence on the Colorado River, but it also might have forced many Imperial Valley farmers out of business. When talks between the farmers and the Metropolitan Water District failed, Secretary of the Interior Gail Norton shut off the pumps, reducing California’s take of the Colorado River by 15% and forcing the Metropolitan Water District to look  elsewhere for water.
“It’s very much a crisis situation for them,” says Tim Stroshane, author of Spillway Newsletter, a publication  devoted to California’s water issues. “Southern California has big problems, and their problems become northern California’s problems.”
Enter the rice farmers. Sandy Denn and her husband farm rice near Willows, California, a blip of a town off I-5 north of Sacramento. As a part of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, Denn had the option to fallow her land and sell her water this year. Denn chose to keep farming, but she supports the idea of water transfers, and says that a water transfer she took part in a few years ago gave her the opportunity to do valuable work on her farm. “Fallowing can be beneficial in resting land so that it is more productive, and for leveling it so it can be more water-efficient. Periodically, you have to re-level because every time you go around a field with a tractor, dirt is being moved from one area to another in that parcel. You try to work it so it stays level because it’s expensive to go in and re-level, but it does build up.”
Farmers who participate in transfers make a profit by selling their subsidized agricultural water at a higher municipal rate — a potential boon as southern California municipalities become increasingly desperate for fresh water. But Denn, a third-generation rice farmer, doesn’t see these water transfers as a long-term solution to urban water shortages. “You know, basically, we’re farmers,” she says. “We’re not water transferrers or professional land fallowers.” Asked if water transfers are a sign that California farmers may soon cash in their water rights and give up farming altogether, Denn laughs. “If we were in this to make a lot of money, we would have left a long time ago.”
But with California agriculture faltering and cities thriving, it’s easy to see how water transfers could become routine or turn long-term — if, for example, the Bureau grants those 2.2 million acre feet to Sacramento Valley farmers. Says John McCaull of the American Farmland Trust, “I think we all better have our eyes wide open about whether this is really short-term or not.”
If farms evaporate — whether due to water transfers, reduced commodity prices, or the urban sprawl eating  up the edges of farmland — it will mean a sea change for millions of  Californians tied into the state’s  agricultural complex.
Farming is the main economic activity in most of the Sacramento Valley. Ranching in the north gives way to rice in Butte, Glenn, and Colusa counties and to tomatoes, fruits, and nuts further south. In some areas, over 80% of the land is in agricultural production and 30% of the working population is directly employed by agriculture. Some farms have been here for nearly a century, with equally old water rights:  Sacramento is home to Blue Diamond Growers, a 90-year-old cooperative of almond farmers. Sacramento Valley farmers were among the first to fight for water stewardship, challenging hydraulic gold mining that choked rivers with debris, flooded farms, and made the American River impossible to navigate.
The effects of water trickling away from the Sacramento Valley through transfers will likely be much more subtle and may take years to emerge, but they will be felt in California’s farming towns. As some farmers fallow their land, others are resisting, citing concerns about the fate of local businesses and farm workers, including almost 600,000 migrant farm workers employed on California fields at any given time.
“People say, oh well, it’s no impact — 20,000 acres or whatever,” says John Garner, a Glenn County rice and walnut farmer and member of two irrigation districts that voted against transferring water. “But when you look in terms of our input costs, around $480 per acre for rice, all that money goes into  the community and that helps the farm laborers and everybody else.”
Dave Kranz of the California Farm Bureau agrees. “If the deals continue and they eventually reduce the inventory of land that’s being harvested, does your local seed store find it hard to stay in business?” he asks. “Does your local farm equipment or auto-parts store find it hard to stay in business? Does that, in turn, make it more difficult for the farmers who are still farming to stay in business?”
And what about the wildlife that depends on water’s remaining in the Sacramento Valley? In a state that has destroyed over 90% of its naturally occurring wetlands, even rice fields themselves play a critical role as habitat.
The Sacramento Valley sits in the middle of the Pacific  Flyway, the route taken by birds migrating south from their breeding grounds to milder winter climates. About 60% of the flyway’s waterfowl, birds such as ducks, geese, and swans, migrate to or through California. Some remain in the valley to nest. The California Rice Commission claims that three to five million waterfowl use rice fields for winter habitat. In addition to waterfowl, shorebirds — sandpipers, plovers, and such — migrate through the Sacramento Valley, along with hawks, eagles, falcons, and songbirds. If the water that normally drains off rice fields and soaks the marshlands goes south, more wetlands may be lost.
Normally, rice farmers flood their fields north of the Delta with water taken from the Sacramento River, whose flow is controlled by releases from reservoirs. Eventually, some of that water drains off the fields, replenishing local waterways and the natural flow of the Delta itself. Water transfers disrupt this system. During this year’s transfers, 200,000 acre feet of water will bypass rice fields, flush through the Delta, and get sucked into pumps at the California Aqueduct near Tracy, where it will begin a 444-mile journey into southern California. The water will do nothing to help an already compromised Delta ecosystem.
Those working towards the Delta’s recovery question even this year’s short-term transfer. “Every further drop south threatens the viability of the entire estuary,” says Grant Davis, executive director of the Bay Institute.
Most of the concern is over the necessity of increasing pumping to make a transfer work. Pumping changes the flow patterns that fish use to navigate. Migrating juvenile salmon intentionally swim downstream to reach the ocean, but now downstream is often south, toward the pumps, instead of west. If they aren’t eaten on the way, they may be sucked in the pumps and killed, or else perish during the “salvage” process in which fish are screened away from the pumps, placed into holding tanks, and literally trucked back to the Sacramento Delta. The endangered delta smelt, found only here, rarely survives this rescue effort.
Human health depends on that estuary as well. The Delta serves as the source of drinking water for many people in the Bay Area, including almost a million people in Contra Costa County. The more water taken out of the Delta, says Bill Jennings of DeltaKeeper, the greater the concentration of pollutants. “We don’t believe the Delta can retain, let alone regain, its ecological health if exports are increased,” he says.
Proponents of water transfers argue that short-term transfers are what’s needed to keep farmers in business. “A farmer today is faced with a lot of difficult financial circumstances due to markets,” says Van Tenney, general manager of the Glenn Colusa Irrigation District. “[A water transfer contract] gives an individual farmer a financial tool to deal with that.”
But this raises another question: even though California law allows transfers, how much profit should farmers be able to make off water that’s been sold to them for the purposes of farming? Is the water really theirs to sell in the first place?
Many farmers consider water rights to be as inviolable as property rights. But the state constitution says that water itself cannot be owned, it may only be granted to private entities or individuals for beneficial and reasonable use. Basically, it  recognizes water as a resource too valuable to be owned —  a concept called public trust.
“The way to understand it is that [the concept of public trust is] an ancient doctrine that has been given life in the US by the California and US Supreme Courts,” explains Greg Thomas, lawyer and director of the Natural Heritage Institute. “The US Supreme Court essentially says that there are certain environmental assets that the government cannot give away.” Water is one of those assets, along with the air and the sea, all technically owned by the public.
And it’s the public that has paid for the construction of water projects. “A hundred years ago, Congress made a bargain with farmers in the dry West,” wrote Congressman George Miller (D-Martinez) in a February Los Angeles Times editorial. “Taxpayers would subsidize dams, canals, and water to promote settlement and irrigate family farms. In return, farmers would have to repay only a fraction of the true cost of the investment. Why shouldn’t the taxpayers, who built and subsidized the projects in the first place, get to sell the water for a large profit?”
If the Bureau renews contracts for water that Sacramento Valley farmers can’t use, the profit may be enormous. Rice farmers pay a water storage fee of about fifty cents per acre foot for that water, according to Jeff McCracken of the  Bureau of Reclamation. In this year’s water transfers, the Metropolitan Water District is paying $100 per acre foot for water. That’s $99.50 per acre foot of potential profit to the water rights holder.
“All of a sudden the rice growers are seeing that they can make more money selling the water than selling the rice,” says Mike Warburton of the Community Water Rights Project, an Ecology Center program. “The whole point of the subsidy was to support agriculture in the public interest, not to just give money to the people who have water permits.”
Rice farmers insist they’re committed to farming but need the financial shot in the arm temporary transfers will bring. “There’s no question that water transfers can really help a farmer invest in some of their local needs,” says David Guy of the Northern California Water Association, an organization representing 68 northern California farmers and agricultural water districts. “The bottom line is that these farmers want to farm. They want to stay in business. Many of them are fourth-generation farmers and really want to continue to farm, and to see the next generation farm.”
Done well, with environmental and economic protections in place, water transfers might bolster urban water supplies and keep farms in production.
But water is a limited resource. Aquifers are depleted. Rivers dry up. Transfers shuffle water around, but they can’t make more. Randele Kanouse, an East Bay Municipal Utility District lobbyist with decades of experience working on California water policy and law, supports transfers, but fears the precedent that might be set by a loosely regulated water market where farmers and water districts freely buy and sell water.
“What I am deeply distrustful of is creating incentives for private companies to come and try to acquire water rights in California,” says Kanouse, “[where] AOL-Time Warner might say: ‘Shit, what the hell are we doing just trying to buy up newspapers? There’s real money to be made by buying up these farms to control the water supply and make a profit.’”
Californians, Kanouse says, know all too well the danger of the unregulated utilities market.
“Look at what happened with our so called deregulated energy experiment. Large international and national corporations came in and tried to game the market, drive prices up. And then what did we want to do?. We wanted to throw out environmental protections to get energy plants back on line. If we want to avoid repeating that on the water front, we should be paying attention to this stuff now.”

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