Saturday, August 11, 2012

Redirecting Fresh Water Raises Fears for Delta Farmers

COURTLAND, Calif. — On the last Sunday of July, this small town in the Sacramento River’s delta takes a pause from the peak of the pear harvest season by holding its annual pear fair. A pear run, a pear parade, a pear pie eating contest and a pear fair queen are as much a part of life’s rhythm here as the pruning, picking and packing of pears.
Jim Wilson/The New York Times
Joy Baker opposes plans to install twin tunnels to siphon water from the area.More Photos »
The New York Times
More than 1,000 miles of rivers and sloughs lace the 500,000-acre delta, where reclaimed islands are ringed by aging levees. More Photos »
But not far from the booths offering baskets of the fruit, and pear drinks and pear sausage, there were hints this summer that something was ruffling Courtland. At the same booth where a handwritten sign advertised “Pear oatmeal cookies, 2 for $3,” there were pointed political messages like this one: “Build the tunnel. Kill the delta.”
Just a few days earlier, state and federal officialsannounced plans to build twin 35-mile tunnels that would tap water from the Sacramento River at intake stations here. Like highways with no exits, the $14 billion giant pipelines would run under the delta in a straight line and deliver the water to aqueducts that feed water to large corporate farms and densely populated regions in Central and Southern California.
Supporters say the pipelines will improve the environment of an increasingly fragile delta by replacing the pumps that now suck water directly from the southern delta. More than anything else, backers — led by Gov. Jerry Brown, who failed in his bid to build a similar project in his first term as governor three decades ago — say the tunnels will secure a supply of water to California’s most economically vital areas.
But opponents, including elected officials and farmers from this area, say the tunnels will reduce the amount of fresh water in the delta and cause irreparable damage to fish and farmland by raising the level of salt water. Much of the delta is classified as prime farmland and produced about $800 million in agricultural products in 2009, but the output is dwarfed by counties to the south, whose agricultural production totaled about $25 billion.
More than 1,000 miles of rivers and sloughs lace the 500,000-acre delta, where 57 major reclaimed islands are ringed by more than 1,100 miles of aging levees. Here in the upper delta, the least urbanized area of the region, small towns invariably described as sleepy dot winding levee roads. There are family-owned general stores and no chain stores. Old Victorian houses belonging to farm owners can be seen from the levees, as well as encampments for the migrant workers during harvest. Vestiges of ethnic groups that built the levees or farmed the delta can be found in this area’s fading Chinatowns and Japantowns, reinforcing the impression of an earlier time.
In Courtland, population 355, there is anxiety that the tunnels will threaten that way of life.
“That’s our rub,” said Chuck Baker, a pear farmer who like others here accused government officials and people in the south of “stealing our water.” “They want to take these islands and the way we’ve existed for 150 years.”
In his living room on a recent morning, Mr. Baker and his wife, Joy, displayed daguerreotype photographs of ancestors who came here from Ohio during the Gold Rush of the 1850s. They first grew melons and pumpkins, panning for gold during the months when the delta’s islands were flooded. Eventually, with other farmers in a newly created reclamation district, they employed Chinese laborers to build the levees that remain today. Fresh water from the Sacramento River and the myriad sloughs allowed them to irrigate their farms.
Like other farmers, the Bakers’ ancestors quickly found out that the delta’s rich soil, coupled with the cool delta breeze that blows in at night, was ideal for growing Bartlett pears.
The Gold Rush brought a pear rush here. David Elliot, an ancestor of the Elliots, another old pear farming family here, imported the first Bartlett pear trees from France during the Gold Rush. Some of those trees survive on the family’s land on Randall Island and still produce pears.
“It’s a special feeling that I’m picking from the same pear trees that my father did and that his father did,” said Richard Elliot Jr., 25, the sixth generation in the family business.
Over lunch at Courtland Market, the general store where much of the town’s life gravitates, he and his brother Ryan, 22, said that like their peers in other longtime pear farming families, they were attached to the strong sense of community in the delta towns.
Ryan Elliot, who played football in high school, said he briefly dreamed of leaving Courtland to pursue football in college and then possibly a career in professional football. In his early teens, he said, he resented having to work on the farm during summer vacations, but he grew to love pear farming.
“I really dug into it probably toward the end of my high school years,” said Ryan, who is majoring in fruit science at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “I think I just came to the understanding of what this all is and what we exactly do here.”
Increasing salt water would have the greatest impact on farms in the delta south of here. But two of the water intake stations could be built near the Elliots’ Victorian home and a 200-acre farm that they acquired two decades ago and diversified with cherries and apples.
“It’s all developed now, and we’re just waiting for everything to come on, and now they want to take it from us,” said Richard and Ryan Elliot’s father, Richard Sr.
“This is just a lovely place to live,” he said. “It’s kind of secluded. It’s quiet. We’ve always been kind of left alone until now.”
Busy with managing the harvest, Mr. Elliot missed the pear fair this summer, though his family made it. His wife, Rebecca, recalled that Ryan won the pear pie eating contest when he was 5 or 6.
As the midday sun began to reach its full power, Ms. Elliot watched the pear parade from a folding chair with her daughter Rachel, the 2010 pear fair queen, sometimes sitting on her lap.
The grand marshals, Doug and Cathy Hemly, the head of another old pear farming family, sat inside large carts pulled by a red tractor. “Courtland,” read a yellow handwritten sign on the side of the cart, “is in pearadise.”

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