Delta prepares for water war
Chuck Baker at the Baker Ranch, a 30-acre pear orchard on Sutter Island that has been in the family since the 19th century.

SUTTER ISLAND, Calif. — As a child, Brett Baker learned farming fundamentals from his grandfather, who taught him to drive a tractor and gave him some advice about water.

"There may come a time," his grandfather said, "when you have to grab a shotgun and sit on the pump."

The vast delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers east of San Francisco, where Baker's family has lived and farmed since the 1850s, has long been the center of the state's chronic water conflicts.

It is the switchyard of California water, the place where the north's liquid riches are shipped to the irrigation ditches of the San Joaquin Valley and the sinks of Southland suburbs.

Now, as if heeding Baker's grandfather, the delta has become the defiant seat of rebellion against the most ambitious water supply project proposed in California in decades, a multibillion-dollar plan that has the backing of the administrations of Gov. Jerry Brown and President Obama, as well as the state's most powerful irrigation and urban water districts.

"Our secret plan is to fight them to build it," said Baker. "If it's built, fight them to operate it. And then fight them to tear it down. We're not going anywhere."

Delta landowners have refused to grant access to state crews doing preliminary soil testing for the project. They have demonstrated against the proposal in Sacramento, pitchforks in hand. They have organized a vocal coalition that has produced a documentary film — airing at public forums around the state — to drum up support for their cause.

The proposal, which is not final, calls for the construction of two 35-mile-long tunnels that would carry water underground from intakes on the Sacramento River a few miles north of here to the giant pumps that fill southbound aqueducts.

The government pumping operations currently suck supplies entirely from the south delta, a practice that plays havoc with the tidal estuary's natural salinity and flow patterns, creating a hospitable environment for invasive plants and fish. So powerful are the pumps that they reverse the flow of some delta channels, confusing native fish and drawing them to their deaths.

Advocates say the tunnel project, which also calls for the restoration of more than 100,000 acres of delta habitat, would reduce the pumps' harmful effects and help imperiled fish species rebound. They hope that in turn will allow the government to lift some of the endangered species protections that have restricted delta water exports.

But delta farmers want none of it. They fear the restoration efforts will cost them portions of their land. They worry that their irrigation water will grow saltier, hurting crops, as fresh Sacramento River water that has always flowed through the delta is instead diverted beneath it.

Opponents, including a number of conservation groups, warn that migrating salmon will run afoul of the massive river intakes. They argue that the big tunnels will inevitably be used to send more water south, robbing the delta ecosystem of needed flows.

"It's really taking away from one place and giving to another," said Baker, 28, a UC Davis graduate in fish and conservation biology who does related consulting work.

Recently married and expecting his first child, he is the sixth generation of his family to call a slice of Sutter Island home. The small north delta island has no towns. It is a neat grid of pear and cherry orchards, vineyards and scattered houses where about 150 people live, protected by earthen levees more than a century old. The Sacramento, California's largest river, rolls by the island's northeastern shoulder and two sloughs wash its flanks.

Baker isn't sitting on the pump with a shotgun yet. But he and other delta residents are taking aim at the big agribusiness interests of the western San Joaquin Valley that would be among the prime beneficiaries of the tunnels — particularly the politically influential Westlands Water District that provides water to some of the largest and richest farm operations in California.

"It's about providing cheap irrigation water for a select few constituents of California senators and congressmen," Baker said.

Baker's great-great-great-grandfather was Asbury Hustler, a stern looking, bearded Austrian who trekked by wagon train from Ohio to California during the Gold Rush and wound up on Sutter Island. In 1876, after draining and cultivating the land under reclamation law, Hustler took title to 50 acres on the island's east side, next to Steamboat Slough.

In their early homesteading years, Hustler and his wife, Mary Jane, couldn't afford fruit trees, so they planted vegetables in the sandy loam soil. When high water in the winter and spring flooded their fields before the levees were built, they would journey east to the Sierra foothills and pan gold, returning with enough money to start an orchard, a few trees at a time. They began with cherries and apricots, then found pears thrived under the cooling influence of the delta's marine breezes.

Their labors are chronicled in worn ledgers that Baker and his parents, Chuck and Joy Baker, never tire of scanning, gleaning the details of 19th century delta life from the careful cursive script. In 1877, the Hustlers bought 250 feet of lumber for $4. In 1880, they paid $15 for a plow and $10 for 50 Bartlett pear trees.