SACRAMENTO -- Mike Robinson's family has been tilling land in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta since the 1880s, growing crops in some of California's most fertile soil.
His alfalfa, hay, corn and tomatoes thrive on water pulled from the delta, the estuary that also provides water to two-thirds of the state and cropland throughout the Central Valley. How long he will be able to draw on that supply is among Robinson's chief worries these days.
In recent years, the delta has become an increasingly unreliable water source, in part because of court decisions that have limited pumping to protect native fish. What to do about it is dividing California's farmers and reopening a decades-old fight over whether to re-engineer the state's water system and pipe fresh water around the delta, which stretches from the state capital south to Stockton and out to Suisun Bay.
Within the delta region itself, the water is used to irrigate roughly 500,000 acres. To those farmers, the idea that a canal would funnel fresh water past them leads to fears of withered crops. They worry that siphoning off river water before it enters the delta would allow salty water from Suisun Bay to intrude, ruining their water supply.
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Court rulings leave 200,000 acres idle
"It would be like pumping ocean water on your crops. You couldn't irrigate anything," said Robinson, a third generation delta farmer. "It would literally be the demise of agriculture in the delta."
Farmers to the south in the San Joaquin Valley argue for the canal, saying it's needed to ensure a stable water supply. Last year alone, court-ordered pumping restrictions and a drought forced them to fallow more than 200,000 acres.
Other farmers throughout Northern California view the canal proposal as a water grab by Southern California's municipal water districts. It was that sentiment that killed a so-called peripheral canal at the ballot box in 1982, with overwhelming opposition from Northern California voters.
"It comes down to whether you're going to be helped or hurt by the canal," said Richard Howitt, chairman of the Agricultural and Resource Economics Department at the University of California at Davis. "This is a difficult choice."
There's little debate among politicians, farmers and water users around the state that something has to be done about California's existing water system. The delta's native fish populations are crashing, contaminants are polluting the water and the levees are so fragile that scientists fear they could crumble during a major earthquake and cut off water supplies to two-thirds of the state and about 3 million acres of farmland and orchards.
Drought could cost 45,000 farm jobs
A federal court ruling limiting delta pumping during certain times of the year in an effort to protect the threatened delta smelt is causing hardship for many farmers in the Central Valley who rely on the water.
Supporters say building a canal would provide a more stable way to transport water from Northern California's rivers to fields in the Central Valley, where most of the nation's fruits and vegetables are grown.
If the court's restrictions remain and California sees a third dry winter, some 45,000 farm jobs could be lost in the Central Valley in 2009, Howitt said. By comparison, nearly 3,000 jobs would be lost if agriculture were to be wiped out on 15 of the most vulnerable delta farming plots.
"Over the course of the last 19 years, we have seen our water supply be reduced year after year because of new restrictions to protect fish species," said Thomas Birmingham, general manager of the Westlands Water District, which supplies growers who produce about $1 billion worth of crops each year in the San Joaquin Valley.
"We can no longer rely on the natural channels in the delta to convey water from areas where water is to areas where demand exits."
Delta farmers, environmentalists and sports fishermen argue that the state should instead reduce how much water it pumps out of the delta, helping restore a failing ecosystem that is home to 750 species of plants and wildlife and 55 species of fish.
"Our fate is tied to maintaining water quality and flows into and out of the delta and preserving the estuary," said Dante Nomellini, a Stockton attorney who has represented delta fishermen and farmers. "Why hurt one part of the state for the benefit of another part of the state? We should be trying to help everybody."
The Schwarzenegger administration is studying a canal to determine whether it would affect the quality of the water in the delta and its flows. Those studies aren't expected to be complete until 2010.
Questions remain about how a canal would be operated and who would run it.
Northern California farmers also want assurances that they would keep their legal rights to the water that flows into the delta and want money set aside to build new dams, said Steve Danna, president of Danna and Danna farms in Yuba City.
"We've got family farms that have held water rights literally 100 years or more. Those need to be protected," said Danna, whose family farms about 2,500 acres in Yuba and Sutter counties. "If we're going to build a canal, we also need to build some dams, because the bottom line is there's just not enough water to go around any more."