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Reformist farmers in California are rethinking water

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A local election in rural California caught our attention last month. Farmers ousted the longtime leaders of the organization that supplies their irrigation water, which may sound small, but as Dan Charles reports, it's a sign of something bigger - farmers reacting to a hotter climate.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Westlands Water District, west of Fresno, is the biggest agricultural water district in the country. It's part of a wide, fertile valley that supplies the country with a lot of its fresh produce, fruit and nuts. It's politically well-connected. And Tim Quinn, who used to run the Association of California Water Agencies, says Westlands has a reputation for fighting.

TIM QUINN: We're pretty entrenched in adversarial decision making. It was us versus them, and we were going to win and they were going to lose.

CHARLES: The battles started in 1992, when Congress passed a law that says the massive network of canals and pumping stations that delivers water from California's rivers to its farms has to preserve endangered fish in rivers and estuaries, too. So when droughts hit, farmers got less water from that system, sometimes none at all. And Westlands fought back. It sued the government, pushed for new laws. Here's Westlands General Manager Tom Birmingham at a hearing on Capitol Hill in 2016.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM BIRMINGHAM: Where's the outrage that it's governmental policies that have created zero water supplies for communities in the San Joaquin Valley?

CHARLES: But recently, some farmers in Westlands have been questioning this approach, like Sarah Woolf. She served on the Westlands Board for six years and tried to get the district to fight less, compromise more. Eventually, she resigned.

SARAH WOOLF: What we do is important. Growing food is very important. It's something to be proud of. And I want to be proud of what we're doing. But if we're just fighting with people, I don't - I'm not very proud of that.

CHARLES: Other farmers say Westlands should do more to adapt to the fact that water is scarce in a warmer climate. Droughts have been hitting more often, lasting longer. In four of the past nine years, Westlands got no water from those dams and canals. Farmers stayed in business by pumping more water from their wells. But now, a new law is restricting groundwater pumping, too. Vegetable grower Justin Diener says the situation's getting desperate.

JUSTIN DIENER: I think this farming community is really struggling at this point. There are a lot of people kind of looking at the walls wondering what they're going to do.

CHARLES: This year, frustrated farmers in Westlands formed a coalition pushing for change. And last month, four of them, including Diener, won seats on the Westlands Board. They appear to have a majority because some allies were elected previously. After those results came out, Tom Birmingham, the district's longtime general manager, announced that he'll retire. The change candidates came in with a to-do list. One big item - store more water underground when it does rain. Sarah Woolf says, let me show you something.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR BEEPING)

CHARLES: How far away is it?

WOOLF: Just down the road, it's not...

CHARLES: OK.

WOOLF: ...Very far at all.

CHARLES: She drives me out to a field.

WOOLF: I'm just going to kind of show it from right here 'cause I think it's an easier vantage point.

CHARLES: There's a dry creek bed in the distance. When it rains, that creek fills up. Sometimes, it floods.

WOOLF: It pushes out into the flood plain, back where you can see more brush.

CHARLES: In the past, the water just sat there in a silted-up pond until it evaporated. But now, Woolf says, some farms set up a system to pump it into this wide, terraced field. There, it can soak into the ground, all the way down to the aquifer, an underground reservoir that farmers can tap when they really need it.

The incoming board members want to build a lot more projects like this. They also want to develop plans to convert some of the district's land to other uses, like solar farms or wildlife habitat because with less water from the rivers and depleted aquifers underground, Woolf says that they can only expect to grow crops on about half as much land as they once did.

WOOLF: It's not going to just be agriculture in the future.

CHARLES: And the newly elected board members say they want to cooperate with other groups that have their own claims on California's water, like environmentalists, also advocates for safe drinking water. Tim Quinn, the former water manager, says this is a big, new trend in California's water politics - collaboration.

QUINN: What you're seeing here is not unique to Westlands. It's happening everywhere.

CHARLES: In California today, he says, adversaries have to work together to get anything done.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Charles.

SHAPIRO: And this story was a collaboration with the Food and Environment Reporting Network.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATIK SELEKTAH'S "TIME (FEAT. JACK HARLOW)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.