SACRAMENTO -- California as we know it today was built largely on this fantasy: That arid cities in the south could indefinitely satisfy the thirst of a growing population by importing water from the north.
The fantasy endured for a while, buoyed by water diversions from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas, it drains 40 percent of California, transporting vital snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada across the state.
Recent events have revealed the truth: California is reaching the limit of its water supplies, and the economy and the environment are suffering for it.
The future offers even harsher realities: Global warming is drying up the snowpack and natural disasters could shatter the delta.
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Now, the state's water planners are proposing the most sweeping landscape change in America, resurrecting an audacious notion for replumbing this state. A controversial idea that many thought died long ago.
Central to their plan is a massive earthen canal -- wider than two football fields and more than 40 miles long -- that would give Southern California its first direct tap into the Sacramento River. California hasn't seen a water project of this scope in a generation.
Starting near Elk Grove, the channel would divert some of the river's flow around the fragile delta and on to pumps near Tracy. From there, the river would continue to serve Los Angeles, San Diego, farms in the San Joaquin Valley and portions of the Bay Area.
Several teams of researchers consider the canal essential to separating the state's water demand from a delta environment under grave stress. Nine delta fish species are being pushed toward extinction, in part, by this demand.
This new proposal, however, bears the weight of a controversial past.
California voters rejected a similar project in 1982. Then known as the peripheral canal, it won support from only eight of California's 58 counties -- all in Southern California. Everybody else viewed it as a blatant water grab by the south with no advantages for the north.
The campaign touched off one of the state's ugliest water wars and resentment lingers on both sides.
"We feel we should get the water instead of the fish," said Chuck Badger, a third-generation citrus farmer in San Diego County, where the groves are irrigated by water imported from the delta.
"Maybe if the people down south learned how to conserve a little bit, then they wouldn't be after the water so badly," said Karen Cunningham, a cattle rancher on the delta's Bradford Island whose livelihood is threatened by environmental improvements linked to the canal.
Those are the extremes. Between them, a new understanding is emerging. Southern Californians come to today's debate more willing to pay for delta restoration in return for reliable access to water. Northern Californians face a decision, likely in the next two years, about whether they are ready to share that water.
If you slice into an avocado grown in San Diego County, you're cutting into the Sacramento River. If you watch an episode of "The O.C." on television, the Sacramento River stars in all those gorgeous swimming pools.
Southern California gets at least 30 percent of its drinking and irrigation water from two aqueducts draining the delta. Most of this water enters the delta from the Sacramento River, the state's largest.
Though Southern California has a reputation as a glutton for imported water, it has worked hard to become a better steward of the resource. Its conservation efforts now outpace those of any other region in the state.
Research conducted for the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force, appointed by the governor in 2007 to wrestle with the estuary's conflicts, found that water consumption in Southern California, both overall and per capita, has remained flat since 1990. The population grew by about 10 percent, or 1.5 million people. But per capita water consumption declined by 10 percent.
The Central Valley saw population increase 20 percent and water consumption grow by the same amount. Per capita consumption remained flat. In other words, valley residents overall made no progress on water conservation.
The likely cause: the thousands of lawns that came along with valley sprawl. Landscaping soaks up at least 60 percent of urban water, and grass is to blame for most of that.
Price no object
A delta canal was part of the plan for the original State Water Project, first drafted in 1951 to provide Southern California's economy the water it needed to grow. Oroville Dam and the California Aqueduct were built, but not the canal, waylaid by opposition and lagging funds.
Today, a canal is the centerpiece of nearly a half-dozen planning efforts to resolve a looming water crisis and help a delta environment in steep decline. Proposed routes flow east or west of the delta. Some alternatives include a secondary canal through the delta's middle.
The goal of the proposals is not necessarily more water for Southern California, just more consistent delivery of the supply.
Next year, the canal will enter mainstream consciousness as it reaches the governor and Legislature. They will wrangle over whether and how to build it, as well as over options to buy up land for 100,000 acres of environmental restoration in the delta -- and changes in state law to make both possible.
A committee of government agencies is working on a related delta habitat conservation plan, due in 2010, which also is expected to include a canal. The state Department of Water Resources is drafting an environmental impact report on canal options, also due for 2010 completion.
The canal is likely to cost more than $10 billion, but that seems to be no deterrent for delta water users -- some 25 million people between the Silicon Valley and San Diego, along with farmers collectively irrigating 3 million acres.
Al Stehly is one of them. Stehly grows avocados in Valley Center, a community of ranch homes and orchards scattered across rugged hills in northern San Diego County. A third-generation farmer, his organic avocados are sold at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op.
Southern Riverside County and northern San Diego County grow 95 percent of America's avocados, thanks to Sacramento River water transported more than 400 miles by the State Water Project.
In an orchard he manages on a scenic hilltop, Stehly stands at the threshold of a crisis. On one side are healthy 20-foot trees. On the other are stumps, dramatic reminders of water shortages caused by the delta's limitations.
Last year, because of drought and court-ordered protections for delta fish, growers there were required by the Metropolitan Water District to reduce their use 30 percent or face fines. Most responded by cutting some of their trees down to the stumps, putting them into a dormant state that allowed them to survive without water for up to a year.
Stehly hired a crew to stump 300 trees on this plot, plus 1,200 more in an orchard he owns across the valley.
Avocado growers there pay more for water than just about anyone else in California -- as much as $800 an acre-foot.
(An acre-foot of water is about 326,000 gallons, enough to serve two average households in Southern California for a year, or one in Sacramento.)
Water is Stehly's single greatest cost, reaching $3,000 per acre annually. As a result, he and his peers have invested in efficient microsprinklers and moisture sensors.
Stehly is willing to pay even more for his water to help build a delta canal because of the security it would offer.
"They're going to have to find a way to move water around the delta, or we give up on agriculture in Southern California," he said. "We can't conserve our way out of this problem."
The peripheral canal once was seen only as a water conveyance. Now, many scientists also see it as a restoration tool and a hedge against disaster.
Pumping water directly out of the delta clearly hurts the environment. Water diversion pumps in the south delta, near Tracy, are so powerful that they make the delta's mazelike channels flow backward. Instead of draining slowly toward the sea as nature intended, many delta sloughs are drawn toward the pumps. Fish and the food they eat get caught in this vortex.
In response, a federal judge in 2007 ordered water exports curtailed during critical winter breeding months for the threatened delta smelt, a translucent, finger-length native fish. Then, in November, the state Fish and Game Commission imposed additional limits to protect the longfin smelt, a candidate for protected status.
Nature threatens the delta, too. Earthquakes, floods and rising sea levels endanger its water supply. Recent studies by state and federal scientists show that escalating risk from this triad of dangers virtually guarantees that dozens of delta levees will fail simultaneously by the end of the century.
The resulting flood would draw a huge pulse of salt water into the delta from San Francisco Bay. This would contaminate the freshwater supply, perhaps permanently halting delta water deliveries.
A canal, with its intake upstream on the Sacramento River, would safeguard the freshwater supply from such a disaster.
Still, there are many unanswered questions, such as: Who will operate the canal, how much water will they divert, when and where? A canal intake located upstream, for instance, could threaten migrating salmon.
"It's a huge project that has all kinds of ramifications -- ecological and political. A lot of them we haven't even thought about," said Peter Moyle, a professor at the University of California at Davis and one of the nation's leading fisheries biologists.
Moyle voted against the peripheral canal in 1982. But in July, he co-wrote a study for the Public Policy Institute of California that recommended building a canal. He became persuaded, he said, by the realities of the state's water demand and the delta's limitations.
"From a fish perspective, the best thing is to stop (water) exports altogether. We recognized that's not going to happen," he said. "That means you've got to rethink how a peripheral canal would operate. You have to figure out how can you make it as fish-friendly as possible."
Nobody knows how to do that.
Delta Vision proposes a new governing body to oversee these issues. But many of the planners studying the delta agree its waters are oversubscribed. California, between human and environmental needs, may have reached the limit of its water supplies, leaving only one option: to use delta water better, and not count on taking more.
Southern California's efforts to become self-sufficient grew from conservation policy and economic necessity.
In Orange County, 2.3 million people now drink their own treated waste water. Flushed down toilets and siphoned by shower drains, it is recycled via reverse osmosis and ultraviolet light by the Orange County Water District. Then it is returned to the groundwater aquifer. About nine months later, the water is pumped back into customer taps.
Southern California hasn't reformed totally, of course. It is still easy to find blatant cases of water waste, just as it is in Northern California.
Still, there's a growing sense of personal responsibility about the region's deep reliance on imported water.
Landscape designer Steve Gerischer began teaching "Kill Your Lawn" classes in Los Angeles three years ago for the Theodore Payne Foundation, a native plant organization. The classes have been sellouts, requiring a larger venue for each new session.
John Bednarski oversees the largest water project under construction in Southern California, the $1.2 billion Inland Feeder Pipeline being built by the Metropolitan Water District. The 44-mile pipeline will provide a bigger link to the State Water Project.
Conceived 20 years ago, the pipeline falls in line with the new philosophy for a delta canal. Rather than simply build a small canal to limit water exports, some planners suggest a giant one, controlled by rigid rules, so more water can be exported during times of surplus.
The Metropolitan Water District pipeline will allow the district to move bigger pulses of water through the California Aqueduct into local storage. Then, when delta pumping is limited during drought or to protect fish, the region can rely on its own stored water.
Difficulties in digging a 19-foot diameter tunnel eight miles through the San Bernardino Mountains delayed the pipeline for years. But in August, the giant boring machine broke through, and now the tunnel is being fitted with a steel liner.
"I can imagine there's still a lot of skepticism in Northern California about how we use or don't use water down here," said Bednarski, his voice breaking the tunnel's eerie silence.
Over the past seven years, Bednarski's own water bill at home in Altadena jumped from $40 per month to $100. That has been typical in the region, partly to cover projects like the pipeline and to encourage conservation.
So Bednarski plans to replace some of his lawn with drought-tolerant plants.
"It's just become such a maintenance issue," he said, "and now I'm thinking, 'OK, I can take that out and cut my water use at least 20 percent.' There are a lot more people thinking like that now."