Farmers in the California Delta oppose a $25 billion water diversion project they fear will force them out of business.
Farmers in the California Delta oppose a $25 billion water diversion project they fear will force them out of business. - 
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You’ve heard that quote, “Whiskey’s for drinkin’, water’s for fightin”? That’s been true in California for well over a century and the current drought has only intensified conflict over who should get how much water and from where. The latest conflict pits farmers in the California Delta, east of San Francisco Bay, against water users further south.

Delta farmers and environmentalists are fighting a proposal to build two 35-mile long water diversion tunnels upstream. They fear the diversion will ruin the Delta’s water quality. Farmer worry it will make agriculture in the Delta untenable. 

Unlike much of California’s farmland, the Delta is surrounded by water. The Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers meet there and it's the largest estuary on the West coast. It's also a key part of the state plumbing that delivers northern California’s water to points further south. The “twin tunnels” plan, backed by Governor Jerry Brown, is partly aimed at making sure farms and cities in central and southern California will have a reliable water supply if the Delta’s aging levees collapse in an earthquake. 30 percent of southern California’s water supply flows through the Delta

Rudy Mussi, 62, is among those who oppose the tunnel plan. He and his brother farm 4,500 acres in the Delta. They grow wheat, chardonnay grapes, almonds and other crops.

“Building tunnels isn’t creating more water,” says Mussi. “You’re just stealing water from one area and giving it to somebody else.”

Mussi worries the diversion will take too much freshwater out of the Delta, leaving the water supply there too salty for farming. He wants the state to strengthen the levees instead of building tunnels. “We’re gonna fight … because if we don’t, it’s our demise," he says.

Jason Peltier, deputy general manager of Westlands Water District, based in Fresno, insists the Delta won’t “turn into an inland sea” if the tunnels are built. Westland growers, some of them agribusiness giants, would benefit from the massive water project. Peltier says the fear that once the tunnels are built, farms and cities to the south will take more and more water, is unfounded.

“We have the capacity to take about 12 million acre feet a year,” he says. "The most we’ve ever taken is six. I can’t imagine us taking more than that.”

Peltier says there’s strong “genetic code” in California - the belief that southern California’s thirst will eventually destroy the north. That code runs deep and colors much of the debate over water in the state. Historian Phil Garone, California State University, Stanislaus, says it was the same in 1960 when Californians split over funding the famous California Aqueduct.

“Northern Californians and residents of the Delta felt, perhaps rightly so, that once this infrastructure was put into place that ever more water would be transported to southern California,” says Garone.

The 1960 bond measure barely passed. The margin of victory was only 173,944 votes out of 5.8 million ballots cast.

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Follow Sarah Gardner at @RadioGardner