The natural landscape of the Golden State has become tarnished over the years: forests logged; grasslands grazed or plowed up for farming; wetlands drained; rivers and streams dammed.
Of the 47 main habitat types and 380 or so distinct natural communities in California, ``few are healthy and thriving,'' warns conservation biologist Reed Noss in a recent Defenders of Wildlife publication. The Nature Conservancy considers nearly half of the state's natural communities to be ``rare or threatened,'' Dr. Noss points out.
So it was a major breakthrough when state and federal officials last week announced agreement on a plan to protect the San Francisco Bay and its delta. The area concerned is of great environmental, social, and economic significance. The watershed drains 40 percent of the state's land area, capturing almost half of California's water runoff along a 350-mile stretch of the Sierra Nevada.
It is the largest and most productive estuary on the Pacific Coast, supporting 120 fish species, providing drinking water for 20 million Californians (some two-thirds of the state's population), and irrigating 200 types of crops, including 45 percent of the nation's fruit and vegetable harvest.
But years of water diversions for agriculture and domestic use have damaged the Delta. When natural water flow is reduced to grow cash crops in the Central Valley or fill swimming pools in Los Angeles, salt water from the bay encroaches on fresh water coming from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers.
These man-made changes to the essential chemistry and biology of the ecosystem have led to violations of two of the most important federal environmental laws: the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. As a United States Bureau of Reclamation analysis says, ``The estuary's fisheries have declined steadily from historic levels, and populations of many species have been at record-low levels in recent years.''
The various interest groups and government entities have for years quarreled over the scope of the problem: who was to blame, and how to deal with it. As usual, political maneuvering and then lawsuits resulted.
Finally, when it became clear that the economic as well as environmental future of California was at stake, cooperation and compromise began to replace confrontation.
Over the past year, environmentalists, water-users, and nine state and federal agencies wrangled out a comprehensive package of actions to protect the San Francisco Bay and Delta.
Included are salinity and other criteria for maintaining tidal wetlands, survival targets for at-risk fish, and designated habitat for threatened species. This will require reducing water diversions by about 10 percent a year to provide more fresh water to the Delta. During drought years, when threatened species face greater risk, about twice that amount of extra water will be allowed to flow out to sea.
Since agribusiness uses more than 80 percent of California's water, farmers will have to give up the most. But part of the deal is that they now will have greater certainty about water supplies. Water-users also will benefit from the state's greater flexibility in meeting federal environmental requirements over the three-year term of the agreement.
Water wars have been fought in the West ever since the first homesteader poked a well into the ground or scraped together a little earthen dam. The conflict has become less violent in recent decades, but still seemed intractable. This latest agreement is just a first step. One of its goals is to identify long-term solutions. It represents an important turning point, however, not only in water policy but in helping to repair the rich landscape that has made California so attractive to natives and newcomers.
It is, as Environmental Protection Agency administrator Carol Browner says, ``a triumph of common sense over politics as usual.''