The Science of Sustainability

Different Deltas: Q&A with Jason Peltier of Westlands Water District

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Water from the Delta has been fought over for more than a half century. Reporter Lauren Sommer sat down with Jason Peltier, the Deputy General Manager of Westlands Water District to discuss the future of the Delta and California’s water supply. The Westlands Water District is a 600,000 acre agricultural district on the west side of the San Joaquin valley. It’s part of the 3 million acres of farmland that’s served by water that’s moved from the Delta.

For another viewpoint, check out this Q&A with Barry Nelson of the Natural Resources Defense Council or see the rest of our series coverage.

Jason Peltier, Deputy General Manager of Westlands Water District

Jason Peltier, Deputy General Manager of Westlands Water District

Where does the water for Westlands agriculture come from?

Through our history, California has accomplished great engineering feats with a system of dams and reservoirs. Those dams, like Shasta and Folsom, allow us to store water and move it through time. In other words, from wet season to dry season. And the aqueducts allow us to move the water from place to place.

How has the allocation of water changed over the years?

Over the last 20 years, our farmers have seen dramatic swings in their water supply, mostly on the downside. We’ve experienced 40%, 60%, up to 90% reductions in deliveries out of the Delta. In some cases there were dry years, but mostly it’s driven by environmental laws, the Endangered Species Act and the Central Valley Project Improvement Act. They’ve had a rough couple of decades dealing with uncertainty, unpredictability. You can’t get a loan to farm unless you can show the banker what water you have. And they don’t have a lot of confidence in going to their bankers.

Fifteen years ago, people were astonished by it. Now they are learning how to cope with it to some extent. The district has purchased 100,000 acres of farmland and taken it out of irrigated agriculture. Our farmers have shifted their crops to higher value, permanent crops, so they can afford to buy water on the market when the projects can’t deliver water. 80% of the district is on drip irrigation today. We’ve seen our water rates go up tremendously — our cheapest water is $100 an acre foot. Sometimes on the market, farmers are paying $400 an acre-foot.

Where do those fluctuations come from?

"We can look at the results of reallocating water supply over the last two decades, and here in the last few years, you know, the fish have not done any better. We’ve seen 40 million acre-feet reallocated from human use to environmental use, and we haven’t seen the kind of response any of us would like to see."

Part of these 20 years of water supply uncertainty has been driven primarily by environmental laws and restrictions. The restrictions that emanate out of the Endangered Species Act in the form of the biological opinions issued by the federal agencies have been kind of an added wrinkle of complexity for us. We can look at the results of reallocating water supply over the last two decades, and here in the last few years, you know, the fish have not done any better. We’ve seen 40 million acre-feet reallocated from human use to environmental use, and we haven’t seen the kind of response any of us would like to see. It’s very frustrating.

Something Westlands has sued over–

Well, yes, there’s been a lot of litigation and I’m sure there will be going forth because the stakes are so high. We’re quite happy to use the third branch of government to help to decide some of these huge differences we have with the administration. You know, we lose more than we win. But you know, it helps, even losing creates some certainty that, in the big picture, is of great value to us.

Now, there’s a new planning effort underway to create more certainty, right?

All the stakeholders kind of came together and said you know, what we’re living, this status quo is unacceptable for all of our interests. So we’ve got to try and find a new approach, a new way to address and resolve the conflicts between water project operations and our fisheries and our ecosystem. And that’s what gave rise to the Bay Delta Conservation Planning effort.

That plan, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, calls for a large tunnel or canal to take water around the Delta, instead of through it.

It’s been recognized for decades that the location of the export pumps in the southern end of the Delta is a real problem for water quality issues, for vulnerability to earthquakes, for fish on some levels. So, we’re kind of trying to figure out how can we relocate those intakes up to the Sacramento River? We would be able to positively screen for fish, because we’d have a river flowing by. So there’s the alternative conveyance, probably cost $12 billion. And we think, you know, it is expensive. But it’s not because we have such a huge population base to spread our costs over. There’s a huge part of the economy of California that is at-risk today. And we shouldn’t accept that. We shouldn’t live with it.

The plan also calls for a lot of habitat restoration. Who should pay for that?

Our current planning target for recreation of intertidal habitat is about 60,000 acres. It’s to be determined how that’s going to be paid for. But in our minds, most of that is a public investment. That land was at one time fully in contact with water. With the Swamp and Overflow Act in the mid-1800s, islands were created, levees were built, and that water-land contact was lost. We can’t go back and find the people that built the levees in the 1800s, but we can recognize that there’s a broad public value for increasing intertidal habitat and trying to recreate some of the food conditions. Creating better habitat creates more food for the lower-end of the food chain, which then hopefully will work its way up to help the native fish.

Fish recovery is good for everybody, right?

The Delta is not dying – it’s a healthy and vibrant place. But there are those that think that the system is over-subscribed. We hear, “we don’t have enough water in California; we’ve got too many people, too many demands.” Some years, that’s the case. But there are also a lot of years when we have absolutely plenty of water in the system to meet the reasonable needs that are out there.

Plenty of water to meet the needs of both water users and the species?

All the beneficial uses. The average through the years is at about 80% of the water that flows into the Delta goes out to the ocean. And after a new conveyance is built, we’ll still be at about 80%. If somebody could tell me specifically where additional water is needed, when it’s needed and what good it’s going to do, we could have a conversation. As it is, it’s kind of a bumper sticker kind of a debate.

Right, fish vs. farms.

Farmers and fishermen have a heck of a lot more in common than they have dividing them. One of the saddest things for me right now is that we can’t work together more constructively: they want healthy fishery to sustain their fishing, and we want a healthy fishery to sustain our ability to export water. And we have an identity of interest. It’s just how we come at the problem.

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Category: Biology, Engineering, Environment, Water

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About the Author ()

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs - all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.
  • Waterguy

    Somehow, he doesn't come across as having the public interest at heart.