Korinne Flowers, who owns the Tracy Oasis Marina-Resort, uses a pole to show how low the water level is in Tracy, Calif., Friday, July 27, 2012. Flowers is worried any plan to move water to existing pumps that supply water to Southern California, the Central Valley and the Bay Area will lower the water even more and hurt business. Photo: Sarah Rice
San Joaquin County - Strolling down a dirt levee road, farmer Mike Robinson passed his fields of alfalfa and yellow safflower. A worker pumped river water toward a tomato crop, and two men and a boy laughed as they sped by on personal watercraft.
It was an idyllic summer scene in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, but one that did not veil Robinson's anger over the latest chapter in the state's never-ending, north-south water war.
"The Southern California interests want our water. Now they've got the answer, and they're falling all over each other to justify it," said the 65-year-old owner of Robinson Farms Feed Co., which sits north of Tracy and west of Stockton.
Fighting over water is a birthright in the delta.
And downstream residents are convinced they're being set up for ruin by a multibillion-dollar plan, backed by Gov. Jerry Brown and federal officials, to build massive twin tunnels to divert water south from the Sacramento River near the small town of Hood.
Brown announced last week a "big idea for a big state," one he said would supply steadier water to Central Valley farms and Southern California cities, while protecting the delta's declining fish population and plants. The project - which is still in the preliminary stages and could change - would overhaul a decades-old delivery system that relies on fish-killing pumps in the southern delta.
Ready to fight
But along the delta's sloughs and winding channels, many residents see only a tide of politics serving more powerful interests.
To them, Brown is moving on his plan without answering key questions, such as how much water would be exported, and without preparing a cost-benefit analysis.
Rudy Mussi, a 59-year-old farmer on nearby Roberts and Union islands, said he and his neighbors will fight, just as they did when Brown - in an earlier term as governor - saw a similar plan for a peripheral canal killed by voters in 1982.
"They want to leapfrog the water rights system, and make inferior water rights into superior water rights," he said. "We're going to become the Viet Cong of the state. We're going to fight them at every point we can. We'll sue them and stall them. And if they don't negotiate, we'll do the same thing we did 30 years ago. We'll say, 'Get ready for a referendum.' "
Residents said they had no problem diverting surplus water south, but predicted that the tunnels would siphon off vital freshwater from the Sacramento River, allowing more salty bay water to flow inland and harm crops and fish.
And the call for habitat restoration on tens of thousands of acres of land will mean the seizing of long-held family farms, they said.
Fishermen had equally strong words for the tunnel plan.
Barry Canevaro, 69, whose Fish Hookers charter service runs boats out of Pittsburg and Iselton, said the plan would crush the delta fishing industry. When the commercial salmon season was canceled in 2008 and 2009, he said, he lost $100,000 a year.
"Sorry for the pun, but salmon is king here," he said. "I won't be alive when they build it, but it will absolutely destroy this whole delta system."
Big stakes and money
The state's water wars have always involved big stakes and big money.
According to the Business Forecast Center at the University of the Pacific, delta farming created 13,000 jobs and $1.6 billion in revenue statewide in 2009. Fishing, boating and tourism generated more than 3,000 jobs in the region and $250 million in spending.
Meanwhile, about 25 million residents and millions of acres of farmland in the Bay Area, Central Valley and Southern California rely on water from the West Coast's largest estuary.
On Upper Roberts Island, 62-year-old Rogene Reynolds - an activist on water issues whose family has farmed in the area since 1889 - said the government was choosing sides.
"It's a transfer of wealth," she said. Of the governor, she said, "You can't print what I'd call him."
Split the state
A few miles south, at the Tracy Oasis Marina-Resort, owner Korrine Flowers went further, dusting off an idea from water wars of long ago.
"We need to separate Northern California from Southern California," she said. "They need to get their own water."
As she spoke, two friends backed a boat into Fabian Bell Canal for their weekly fishing trip into what they called "a little paradise." Sareth May, a 41-year-old grocery store manager from Modesto, joked that perhaps saltier delta water might carry a benefit.
"If there's more salt, a shark might come in," he said. "That would mean less water skiers, and calmer water for us."