Water & Drought

Canal plan upsets delta farmers

CLARKSBURG -- Chuck Baker grows pears on land his family has worked since 1851 and has a farmer's sensitivity to the plagues of modern agriculture -- pesticide regulations, the intrusive hand of federal regulators, the threat to private property posed by wetlands restoration -- and, most of all, the need for water.

So, he sympathizes with San Joaquin Valley farmers who are short of water this year, but he also has little patience for the argument being trumpeted by Valley politicians: that the problems confronted by Valley farmers can be reduced to the simple equation of "fish versus farmers."

"I don't think we'd be in this situation if they paid any attention to their own rules," Baker said. "They're the ones that ruined the fish. Not me, not me who's been irrigating the same piece of land for 150 years."

The "they" Baker was referring to was not so much his kindred farmers, but the state and federal agencies that ship them Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water. Those agencies, he said, created the ecological crisis by taking more water out of the delta than they should have.

As delta pumping increased in recent years, fish populations collapsed and triggered new rules to prevent fish from going extinct.

Those rules will affect water deliveries for years, but so far have had a minor impact because shortages this year are mostly due to dry conditions and drawn-down reservoirs.

Now, the solution proposed to keep delta water flowing south -- a peripheral canal -- poses a threat to water rights his family has held since statehood, Baker said. It is not something north delta farmers like Baker should have to worry about. They have the law, contracts and water-quality standards on their side.

But given a long record of broken promises and aborted plans, Baker and others say there is no reason to trust the government will protect their rights from the thirst of others, especially the farmers in the San Joaquin Valley.

"They're going to build this canal whether we want it or not," he said. "The best we can do is fight them until we run out of money."

Baker's son, Brett, a 25-year-old UC Davis graduate who represents the sixth generation of his family to live on the same 30-acre orchard, put it this way: "This is being framed as a fish-versus-people issue, when in actuality it's a people-versus-people issue."

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