‘Not recoverable’: Why no one won this year’s water wars in California

By Camille von Kaenel | 05/02/2024 12:09 PM EDT

The state’s wet winter exposed enduring conflicts between fish and farms.

A series of manmade but natural-appearing fish ladders.

Biologists walk by a fish ladder on Gobernador Creek in Carpinteria, California. Environmentalists, farmers and cities are all complaining about low water allocations this year, despite the rains. Reed Saxon/AP

SACRAMENTO, California — California is having a really good water year. But all the rain and snow is doing almost nothing to lubricate the state’s perpetual conflicts between fish and farms.

Neither farmers, cities nor environmentalists feel like they’re getting enough water from the State Water Project and the federally run Central Valley Project, a semicoordinated labyrinth of reservoirs, canals and pumping stations that together irrigates nearly 4 million acres.

Farmers and cities are arguing that the storms mean they should get more than the 40 percent of their contractual deliveries that they’ve been promised so far (they get about 63 percent on average). They’d have more of an argument if endangered fish weren’t also getting massacred at the pumps: The water projects have already exceeded their take limit for the season for steelhead trout, meaning they’re violating the Endangered Species Act.


Everyone is frustrated with Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and President Joe Biden’s administrations, which operate the systems, as well as with themselves: