A little over a year ago, farmers, farm workers and local politicians were marching arm-in-arm across the San Joaquin Valley begging for water for agriculture and jobs.

About the same time, politicians in Sacramento were behind closed doors making pork-and-bean deals to get an $11-billion bond issue on the November 2010 ballot.

Today the hardest hit farmers on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley want to sell surplus water to Los Angeles and the water bond will very likely be postponed until 2012.

What happened?

It rained and snowed in California.

Welcome to the wacky world of California water. From drought to surplus in less than 18 months. It has been the scenario no one wanted, but feared the most.

California’s water infrastructure is 18 months older than it was last spring and still broken. However, Californians no longer notice. The hills were green far into summer from all the rain and snow. Everyone is still overwatering their lawns and no swimming pools are dry.

When this year’s water season started, farmers were told they’d get maybe 5 percent of their total water allocation. By the end of the allocation season, it was up to 50 percent. However, it was too late by then to plant additional crops to use the water.

The farmers cannot hold it over in the San Luis Reservoir for 2011 because the lake is full after a wet year. It must be lowered this fall to make room for next winter’s snowmelt — if there is one. Farmers cannot use all of it this winter, so it is either sell 50,000 to 100,000 acre feet of water to L.A. or lose it. L.A.’s urban reservoirs are low and L.A. and Westlands Water District are trying to cut a deal to take the irrigation water for urban use this summer and fall in exchange for L.A. water for farming next year.

If there was additional storage available, Westlands could hold the water over for 2011. That is the problem with the state’s outdated water system. It was built for a population of 20 million Californians where more than 37 million now live. Storage is woefully inadequate.

Water management is a guessing game with little room to wiggle in this outdated system. The state’s water supply is managed based on “normal” rain and snow. If there is too much runoff, then excess water is released to go to the ocean. If the lakes are drained and runoff is below normal, agricultural and urban water users suffer.

And you also have the environmental/fish preservation issues muddling that.

The lame duck California governator has proposed postponing the water ballot until 2012 in the wake of California’s continuing budget deficit. The Legislature must agree, but most indicate it is a done deal. The idea is getting support from those who say the water package must be reworked to make it more politically and economically palatable and still fix the state’s water system.

So now we wait for the next drought and hope it lasts long enough to convince voters there is a true water crisis. We just hope we don’t have to persevere too long until there is only a little of agriculture left to save.

email: hcline@farmpress.com