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The California Drought

Who Gets The Water And Who's Hung Out To Dry? The historic drought has dredged up old feuds over who can lay claim to water in a thirsty state. As the powerful lobby for the agricultural industry—which currently consumes 80% of California's water supply—cries for more water to be pumped to their farms in the arid regions of the Central Valley, just who would be left high and dry?

  • A car sits in what used to be the bottom of the Almaden Reservoir on January 28, 2014 in San Jose, CA.

    California's record-breaking drought brought many things long submerged back to light when the water line dropped. Long abandoned cars were discovered in shallow rivers, ghost towns emerged at the bottoms of lake beds, and glints of gold in the near-dry streams sent amateur prospectors hotfooting it back into the hills.

    What also re-surfaced were the old and ugly battles over who can claim rights to what has historically been California's most precious resource: Water.

    Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
  • On January 17, 2014, California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency.

    On January 17, 2014, California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency, announcing the lowest total rainfall in the state's 163-year history and asking residents to voluntarily reduce their water use.

    Buried in the declaration was a clause that suspended water quality protections, allowing the California Department of Water Resources and the state's Water Boards to let saltier, warmer water flow through the rivers and estuaries, putting endangered fish species like the delta smelt at risk.

    Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
  • Map of the California Delta and Central Valley.

    At the heart of California's water politics is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Rivers Delta, which, together with the San Francisco Bay into which it flows, is the largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas. The Delta supplies water to farmland that produces almost half the nation's fruits and vegetables. It is also home to hundreds of species of plants and animals, some found nowhere else on Earth.

    Governor Brown has been championing a massive tunneling proposal that would divert water directly from the Sacramento River, bypassing the Delta and sending it south, primarily to Kern County and the Westlands Water Districts, two water agencies that currently receive the majority of the freshwater exported from the Delta.

    The shortfall of fresh water flowing through the Delta would further degrade an already taxed ecosystem, jeopardizing both native species and the local economy. Brown, who was also governor during the 1977 drought, proposed a similar water funneling plan at that time. That project, dubbed the Peripheral Canal, was rejected by voters in a 1982 ballot measure, but became the focus of a north-south battle over water.

    Map Data sources: National Atlas of United States; USGS
  • Standing in a parched field in California's Central Valley in January, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) refers to the catastrophe as a "man-made drought."

    The latest drought has reignited old water rights tensions as politicians and corporate interests seize upon the scarcity of water as a political tool. Standing in a parched field in California's Central Valley in January, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) referred to the catastrophe as a “man-made drought” and called for more freshwater to be pumped from the Delta to corporate agriculture.

    “How you can favor fish over people is something people in my part of the world would never understand,” Boehner said. Had he looked around, he would have seen the faces of many other farmers, fishermen, Native Americans and consumers whose lives would be disrupted by a mega-water grab.

    Scott Smith / Associated Press
  • The Republican-led House later passed a bill that would pump more water from an already taxed Delta, not only gutting environmental protections and threatening the endangered fish, but also potentially imperiling the drinking water supply for northern Cal
  • Sisk during a trip to Sacramento to speak with the Fish and Game Commission about the protection of salmon.

    “The salmon for us are the indicators of how healthy our world is,” says Caleen Sisk, tribal leader of the Winnemem Wintu tribe which for 6,000 years has inhabited the McCloud River watershed area near present-day Redding, CA. The man-made destruction of the natural hydrology of the region through the damming of rivers and diversion of water has decimated the salmon population and forced the upheaval of the tribe from its ancient lands. The tribe now denounces any project that could further ravage the natural waterways, including Governor Brown's Twin Tunnel proposal.

    “We don't start out to be activists or protesters, but when there's nowhere else in the world that you can go to protect your way of life and your culture for future generations, you have to do something,” she said.

    Brad Zweerink / Earthjustice
  • Simpkin stands on the South Fork of the American River.

    According to a 2009 state report, non-motorized boating is a $1.7 billion industry in California. John Simpkin, a kayaker who has lived along the American River since he was seven, said he's never seen the water so low in the wintertime. Kayakers and rafters rely on scheduled dam releases to increase the flow for their runs. Because it is a critically dry year, the scheduled releases have been reduced. “Most people don't kayak when the water is this low,” he said. “There's a number of rafting companies up here and those guys will be out of business if they can't put people in the river.”

    Brad Zweerink / Earthjustice
  • Simpkin, on the South Fork of the American River.

    Simpkin, who kayaks in the American River about 150 times a year, knows some people who are feeling the burn.

    One such person is Keith Miller, who owns California Canoe and Kayak in Oakland. “Normally, this time of the year, hundreds of paddlers would be out on the coastal streams and in the beautiful wild and scenic rivers. But there's no water right now, ” Miller says.

    Brad Zweerink / Earthjustice
  • A farmhouse on Steamboat Slough in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

    Steamboat Slough is the shortest water route between Sacramento and San Francisco. A century ago, Delta farmers used to board the steamships and load up their crates of pears, plums, peaches and other goods to sell downstream.

    Though the ships don't pass through as often these days, Delta farming is still a significant industry with estimated agricultural revenues of nearly $800 million in 2009.

    Brad Zweerink / Earthjustice
  • Baker stands in his pear orchard.

    Brett Baker, a sixth generation farmer in the Delta, says plans like the U.S. House-sponsored bill which threatens to roll back the Endangered Species Act or Governor Brown's Twin Tunnel proposal will only lead to a saltier Delta. A saltier Delta is a sicker Delta, he says, with saline water poisoning crops and killing off or displacing native species—meaning such water grabs will not just erode the ecosystem but an entire way of life.

    Baker explains that riparian users—people whose property borders the waterways—have contracts with the state that promise a certain quantity of water, but makes few guarantees about its quality. “The state has a contract with us but if they want to break it, they may just do that and owe us money,” he says, explaining that the state would make some reparations to people if tainted water forced them to leave their land. “But when you've been some place for 150 years you don't really want to pick up and move. You kind of grow fond of a place.”

    Brad Zweerink / Earthjustice
  • A fly fisherman in the American River casts for salmon near the Nimbus Dam on Feb. 5, 2014.

    Over the course of his lifetime, Baker reckons he's already witnessed decline in the biodiversity of the region due to mismanagement of water.

    “I had a lot of buddies that went over to Afghanistan and Iraq and something we always used to do together was salmon fish,” Baker says. “They went away to this foreign land and did unspeakable things and they did them because they believed they were from this place that was wonderful and deserved protecting. Then they came back and they couldn't go salmon fishing because the environment was so degraded. It makes you wonder, what are you defending after all?”

    Brad Zweerink / Earthjustice
  • Jones stands near a side channel of the American River.

    Jim Jones, who serves on the Advisory Council of the Save the American River Association, has lived along the Sacramento River tributary for 40 years.
    He said many of the local fishing groups, and even the tackle shops and river guides, whose very livelihoods depend on recreational fishing, have asked the Department of Fish & Game to close the American River and other streams and rivers to sport fishermen. With water levels too low, the fishermen fear the eggs laid by the spawning Chinook and steelhead are at risk of dying in the shallow water.

    Brad Zweerink / Earthjustice
  • A fisherman holds a steelhead shortly before the American River is closed for recreational fishing until the spawning season ends.

    When a salmon spawns, it lays its eggs in shallow gravelly areas called redds. Typically, the riffling water flowing through the shallows supplies oxygen to the developing fish, but with such low water levels many of the redds are either receiving low oxygen flow or are completely dewatered, killing the eggs.
    “There are thousands of people who depend on the salmon and the steelhead for their living, whether it's the commercial fishermen, the recreational fishermen, the fly shops, the bait shops,” Jones says. “These are not subsidized people. They have to make a living. They are members of the true free market system, not like the welfare farmers, people in the San Joaquin Valley and the billionaires from Beverly Hills who get millions of dollars of subsidies every year.”

    Brad Zweerink / Earthjustice
  • Jose Chi unloads Chinook salmon from fishing boats in Ft. Bragg, CA.

    Commercial fishermen may not be feeling the effects of the drought yet, but if the salmon can't spawn in the rivers this year—due to the drought or water transfers or a combination of the two—they could be missing out on an entire class of fish in the next few years. John McManus, head of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, says commercial fishermen better be saving their money.

    “There is fear developing among the fishermen about the future, because they know the drought will catch up with them and bite them in the butt,” he says. “Their wealth is typically tied up in their boats and their permit to fish salmon, which can be transferred. After good years, the value of those permits goes up due to the limited number of them. But the converse is also true … If you cashed out after last year, you would've done well. But after 2015–16, you try to cash out—good luck.”

    Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice
  • Cunningham, on the Delta's Bradford Island.

    Karen Cunningham is a Delta cattle rancher for a longtime ranching family that has had to sell off a third of its herd due to the lack of grazing land caused by the drought. She says the ranchers in the Central Valley face the same problems as she does in the Delta, but fears that any water grab could further threaten her ability to keep her cattle healthy.

    “They have the same problems as the ranchers up here as far as the hill ground not having any water on it, and not growing any feed,” she says. “My ranch is in the Delta and I see every day the way the ecosystem is changing, and it just makes me sick that they are going to try to take all that water. We're sub-irrigated so when they take fresh water out of the Delta, the water that comes under my ground is most likely going to be extremely salty and going to have more of the selenium and pesticides. So now we're going to get all the garbage … tainting our feed.”

    Brad Zweerink / Earthjustice
  • Karen Cunningham, a rancher in the Delta.

    “Every 10 to 12 years, you have a dry period in California. That's where we live and you have to deal with it,” Cunningham says, commenting on the politicization of the drought.

    “To use it as a platform to get these tunnels through, it's unbelievable to me because the water still isn't there. Tunnels or not, the water is not there to take. If they go in and build these things, they will take what little remains.”

    Brad Zweerink / Earthjustice
  • Minton by the American River.

    Jonas Minton is a water policy advisor for the Planning and Conservation League, an environmental non-profit in Sacramento. “There are requirements for how much water needs to flow through the Delta,” Minton says. “This year, Mother Nature hasn't provided that much water, so standards cannot force Mother Nature to provide water that she doesn't want to. But the problem was made worse because last year when there was water available, federal and state agencies spent it as opposed to saving it for this year.”

    With 1,400 reservoirs in California, Minton says last year the agencies provided much of the available water to corporate agricultural interests in the Central Valley primarily to feed the almond and pistachios farms, water intensive crops planted in the middle of a desert. “Those reservoirs are both a savings account and a checking account. Last year they treated it as a checking account and drew the balance down. So this year in a drought we don't have reserves that our parents all told us we should be prepared for. It's the opposite of being prepared for a rainy day.”

    Brad Zweerink / Earthjustice
  • Frantz, near his home in Shafter, CA.

    Tom Frantz, a retired school teacher and almond farmer who has lived in Kern County his whole life, understands the hurt that his neighbors are experiencing. “The drought is already costing billions of dollars and it can go far higher,” he says. “Some farmers don't have enough water from underground and are looking to buy water from wherever they can to save some trees. They just want the minimum water, not even to get a crop, just to keep the trees alive. It's a serious business, but we have to balance all of that."

    "We don't want to see any extremes in any directions. I don't want to see plans to cut off the environmental protections, but I also don't want to see hundreds of acres of permanent crops die off.”

    Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice
  • While the governor was calling for water conservation across the state, he also quietly green-lighted water-intensive fracking projects to proceed in southern and central California.
  • Map of the California Delta, Central Valley and areas of active/proposed and potential fracking.

    “California is facing twin crises: One is water and the other is climate. Fracking takes us in the wrong direction for both of those,” said Hollin Kretzmann, of the Center for Biological Diversity, an Earthjustice client in a case challenging the state's refusal to study the impacts of fracking.

    “It uses a tremendous amount of fresh water that once used for fracking can't be used for anything else. It all ends up in underground disposal wells after it becomes mixed with chemicals—it becomes contaminated and taken out of the water cycle."

    Map Data Sources: National Atlas of the United States; USGS; Energy Information Administration
  • An almond farmer stands in his Central Valley grove. Fracking sites, including one next to the farm, have proliferated.

    “The other end of that is the oil comes out of the ground and gets combusted and turned into CO2 and a tremendous amount of methane and other greenhouse gases, and that contributes to our climate crisis," said Kretzmann.

    “You've got these two potential environmental disasters looming in California and we're going the exact opposite direction by allowing fracking.”

    Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice
  • Tom Frantz, near Bakersfield, CA.

    Frantz, the retired almond farmer, set out to document the process of fracking in his town videotaping at a drilling site last year nearby one of the farms. While filming, something caught his attention: black viscous fluids being discharged into an unlined dirt hole only ten feet away from the edge of an almond orchard. He reported the sighting to the local water agency, which investigated and subsequently fined the oil company for dumping diesel and crude oil used to lubricate the drill.

    Frantz worries about the future of fracking in his area and its potential threat to the farmlands. “If there was a failure to contain the fracking fluid at a single well and it reached our groundwater, you could have a couple square miles affected from that one instance,” he said. “Groundwater from underneath the field could be contaminated to the point that it would kill the orchards and the land would no longer be useful.”

    Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice
  • Trent Orr, staff attorney at Earthjustice.

    Earthjustice is currently fighting legal battles related to areas affected by the drought. Besides litigating for stronger protections of endangered fish species, the organization is also challenging long-term water contracts for corporate agriculture interests that were established under an inadequate and since-invalidated biological opinion.

    "We're talking about agreements that hand over a disproportionate share of California's real wealth—its water—to one industry for a fraction of its value, all at the expense of taxpayers, urban water users, and many other businesses and industries in this state," says Earthjustice Attorney Trent Orr.

    "But we don't have to accept these ill-conceived water contracts or the wholesale subsidization of corporate agriculture that they reflect as foregone conclusions. Earthjustice represents fishing organizations, Native Americans, and local, regional, and national environmental organizations in fighting on this issue and many other fronts to ensure the Bay-Delta's health and the health of all the communities and businesses it supports.”

    Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

Over the course of his lifetime, Brett Baker, a sixth generation farmer in the Delta, reckons he's already witnessed decline in the biodiversity of the region due to mismanagement of water.

“I had a lot of buddies that went over to Afghanistan and Iraq and something we always used to do together was salmon fish,” Baker says. “They went away to this foreign land and did unspeakable things and they did them because they believed they were from this place that was wonderful and deserved protecting. Then they came back and they couldn't go salmon fishing because the environment was so degraded. It makes you wonder, what are you defending after all?”

Behind the Scenes

Press Secretary Maggie Caldwell writes about the making of this photo essay in "A Pear Farm On The Frontlines of California’s Water Wars".

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