January 12, 2011
Two-thirds of the water used in the state is drafted from the Delta by two sets of enormous pumps that form the heart of the largest water-supply system in the United States. That system -- composed of the federally operated Central Valley Project canals and the State Water Project canals -- sustains 4.5 million acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley along with 23 million people in homes and businesses in Los Angeles, San Diego and elsewhere.
The stark questions now looming have far-reaching implications: Can the Delta survive as a functioning ecosystem, or will it become nothing more than a super-sized water hole dedicated solely to slaking California's legendary thirst? And what happens when the Endangered Species Act becomes so restrictive to powerhouse economies that we're forced to choose between throttling back those economies or abandoning the law?
The struggle over the Delta is often cast as environmentalists versus industrial-scale "water users," which is to say, Central Valley farm barons. But every one of the 37 million Californians, including the most strident critics of the state's farmers, is ultimately a water user. And even if you don't live in California, if you've ever eaten Blue Diamond almonds or Muir Glen organic tomatoes, Dole asparagus or Bunny Luv baby carrots, Corn Nuts or Earthbound lettuce, or knocked back a bottle of POM Wonderful or Bolthouse Farms juice -- or Two Buck Chuck from Trader Joe's -- you are a California water user. Which, at a rough tally, makes about 309 million of us.
Underneath all of this, though, lies another grim reality. Nothing can be done in California that will keep its farms and big cities thriving at today's levels and also keep the fish and the Delta alive. There's simply not enough water to go around anymore: Either the Delta slowly turns into nothing more than a water hole -- as is already happening -- or California's sunbeam-and-salad, fruit-crate-label ideal dries up and blows away -- which is already happening, too. ...it is no longer possible to have it all in California -- or anywhere else in the West, soon enough.