California's War Over Water Has Farmer Fighting Farmer : The Salt Drought-stricken Central Valley farmers are pointing fingers at the Sacramento Delta, where water still flows reliably. There's more pressure than ever to change a long-standing water rights system.
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California's War Over Water Has Farmer Fighting Farmer

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California's War Over Water Has Farmer Fighting Farmer

California's War Over Water Has Farmer Fighting Farmer

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We begin this hour with a check on the planet's temperature and on one of its most vital resources - water. We go first to the West where the drought is so severe you have farmers, typically a united front, sparring over water and who should get it in a dryer future. NPR's Kirk Siegler has that story.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Rudy Mussi is not the California farmer you've been hearing about. He's not fallowing all his fields or ripping up his orchards due to the lack of irrigation water - nope. For Mussi and most of his neighbors, water is still flowing from the pumps and into the canals lining his field.

RUDY MUSSI: You know, if you had to pick a place where you would say, OK, where should I stick my farm? You'd come to the Delta.

SIEGLER: That's the bucolic Sacramento Delta. As he steers his pickup through his ripening wine-grape vineyards and cherry orchards, Mussi boasts that the Delta is where California farming was born.

MUSSI: We're a giant bathtub, so we're drawing water from all sources. We draw it from...

SIEGLER: The reason farming is still churning right along here is because this huge estuary, the largest on the West Coast, is fed by two of California's largest rivers. See, back in the Gold Rush era, the government built levees and dammed these wetlands so that farmers could grow food for the mining industry. It was only later that modern farming expanded deeper into California's Central Valley and the federal government began pumping water from here through canals to farms in more arid areas hundreds of miles to the south.

MUSSI: You know, the problem started when it just started over exporting water from the Delta. You need fresh water in the Delta or you're going to kill it.

SIEGLER: The fight started brewing long ago, but they're reaching the brink now in the worst drought that's ever hit modern California. There's more pressure than ever to change a long-standing system that gives Delta farmers the first or senior right to use water that is available in lean years like this.

MUSSI: And I'm a farmer. You know, it's not farmer-beat-up-farmer. It's just that when you've got senior water rights, you have a history of farming in the area of the 150 years, that you have somebody with junior rights trying to take your water kind of concerns us.

SIEGLER: And by take, he means pending proposals to pump more water out of the Delta's south to what he calls the Johnny Come Latelies, those who are junior water rights holders. Barbara Barrigan-Parilla heads a local environmental group that's joined forces with Delta farmers. She says pumping more water will only benefit agribusiness, who, she says, grew too big too fast.

BARBARA BARRIGAN-PARRILLA: It makes sense to grow on your best land where there is water with your most sustainable climate than it does to ship a limited resource a hundred miles away onto poor desert soils.

SIEGLER: The fact that farmers are pointing fingers at other farmers shows just how big of a disaster this drought has become and how political the issue of water is here in the country's most productive food-growing state. Drive south along the semi-clogged 99 Freeway deeper into California's Central Valley and the handmade roadside signs change from save the Delta to turn on the pumps and no water, no jobs. The stark views of dusty fields lying fallow and some orchards ripped up has prompted questions about whether farming even has a future in this part of the valley.

GAYLE HOLMAN: I always like to state - when people say that this area should never have been farmed, I always like to point out that the results speak for themselves.

SIEGLER: In Fresno, it's clear that Gayle Holman of the Westlands Water District is used to getting this question. Fresno County averages about $6 billion a year in ag sales.

HOLMAN: This has been the No. 1 agricultural district - actually, agricultural county - in the nation for productivity.

SIEGLER: But for the second straight year, this district's 700 farmers won't get any irrigation water in that federal canal system. Farmers here like Dan Errotaberre want Congress to ease environmental restrictions that require a certain amount of water to be kept in the Delta to protect endangered fish.

DAN ERROTABERE: If I'm being asked to be efficient, and they're asking the urban folks to be efficient by limiting the water and all this stuff, it should be asked that the environment use of water be efficient as well.

SIEGLER: Errotaberre grows primarily almonds and carrots and garlic, and he's one of those junior water rights holders. With no water in the federal canal, he figures he'll have to fallow about 1,200 acres this summer. That's roughly the size of Rudy Mussi's entire operation up in the Delta, by the way.

ERROTABERE: We're getting into kind of a circular firing squad over the remaining supply, and I think that's the wrong question. The question is, how do we fix the supply side? We have to make it run like it used to and get the water delivered like it used to.

SIEGLER: So you've got farmers, big and small, fighting over what little water is left in this state. The only thing that everyone agrees on is that California's current water system is broken. It was built, after all, to support about half as many people and farms as exist today. Whether major changes to that happen could depend on how much longer this drought lasts. Kirk Siegler, NPR, Fresno.

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