One California Farmer’s Battle to Win Water

California farmer Jim Jasper may have lost his bid in the nation’s highest court to boost water supplies for agricultural use in America’s Bread Basket, but he isn’t giving up the fight for more water.

With the state in the fourth year of a historic drought, Jasper is seeking new solutions and a “common sense” approach to save farmland and the agricultural economy, while keeping balance with nature.

Jasper unsuccessfully challenged a ruling that limits the amount of water pumped through canals in the state’s Central Valley that supplies millions of people with drinking water and millions of acres of farmland with irrigation.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year ruled that economic considerations did not trump environmental concerns in protecting the tiny Delta smelt fish that only live in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The fish are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Earlier this year the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal, which had been joined by water districts such as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. It provides nearly 17 million people with drinking water, including the cities of Los Angeles and San Diego.

Meanwhile, Jasper and other growers are feeling the effects of stricter water conservation policies. Farmers have been denied federal water for a second straight year, while water gently flows by in the canal system a stone’s throw from cracked earth and fallow fields.

The court rulings aim to keep higher water levels in the canals that aren’t moving swiftly, although some experts say the moves are not helping save the Delta smelt. UC Davis fish biologist Peter Moyle has told state authorities to prepare for the smelt’s extinction.

There doesn’t seem to be any relief in site from Mother Nature. The California Department of Water Resources reports water levels, the snowpack, and reservoirs are all below historical levels.

“We’re at maximum water in the past week or two. That’s six weeks earlier than normal, that’s a significant impact,” says Pablo Arroyave, deputy regional director for the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation. This agency is responsible for the canal system.

California Republican Assembly Leader Kristin Olsen of Modesto charges current state policies have "favored fish over people.” Olsen says farmers have fallowed over 400,000 acres of land and more than 17,000 farm workers are out of work due to a dearth of water.

Jasper had to fallow 20% of the farm’s 2,000 acres in the past few years because of drought, and several neighbors have abandoned raising crops altogether. He has been running the family-owned Stewart & Jasper Orchards, which has been farming in Newman, Calif. since 1948. But the patriarch worries the future may not be as bright when his son, or his grandson, takes over the business.