In the final scene of “Chinatown,” the noir movie version of Los Angeles’s original water grab, anti-hero Jack Nicholson confronts the brutal triumph of the film’s “pillar of the establishment” villain. The cops don’t want to hear his story. They invoke the racist trope that the law of the jungle rules in the ethnic enclave where the scene occurs: “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” The real life water wars continue, however, and it remains to be seen who will win the current power struggle at the Metropolitan Water District.
Shortly after taking office two years ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom promised to deliver a massive compromise deal on the water rushing through California’s major rivers and the critically-important Delta — and bring lasting peace to the incessant water war between farmers, cities, anglers and environmentalists.
California’s water wars are epic. They’ve inspired Hollywood productions and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism. Water has been the source of both great wealth and great poverty in California. A fellow Irishman, James Mulholland, who was born around the corner from where I was and even baptized in the same church, delivered water to the City of Los Angeles with what was described as “chicanery, subterfuge … and a strategy of lies.”
In California’s never-ending water and fish wars, the striped bass doesn’t get nearly the publicity as its celebrity counterparts, the endangered Chinook salmon and Delta smelt. Yet the striped bass is at the heart of a protracted fight over California’s water supply, 140 years after the hard-fighting fish, beloved by anglers, was introduced here from the East Coast. Wealthy agricultural and Southern California urban water interests, tired of seeing their Central Valley water supplies reduced to protect native fish, have been quietly waging a war against the bass because they prey on hatchling salmon and adult smelt. They’ve repeatedly tried to introduce legislation or change regulations that would reduce the numbers of striped bass from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Even before he was sworn into office, Gov. Gavin Newsom threw his weight behind a series of tentative deals, brokered by his predecessor, that were intended to bring lasting peace to California’s never-ending battles over water and endangered fish.
The deals, designed to reallocate water from the state’s major rivers, have yet to be finalized a year later.
Now, one of the nation’s most powerful farm irrigation districts says it will back out of the agreements completely if Newsom follows through with a pledge to sue President Donald Trump over a federal plan to pump more water to farmers from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the fragile estuary on Sacramento’s doorstep.