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FRIANT, Calif. — Californians suffering through the fourth year of a punishing drought have a new worry. With fierce storms predicted for the winter, they are bracing for floods by stockpiling sandbags and rushing to buy insurance.

Yet those who need water the most, farmers, are in a poor position to take advantage of any deluge. If El Niño floods pour into the Central Valley, the farmers will inevitably watch millions of gallons of water flow to the sea.

This state, forward-looking on other environmental issues, has been stymied for decades over how to upgrade its plumbing system, an immense but aging network of reservoirs and canals that move water from the mountainous north to the drier south.

But the prolonged drought of recent years has prodded California into action, with new laws and a willingness to spend public money to better prepare for a future that is likely to be more difficult because of climate change. The state must decide how best to save the water that arrives between the drought years, weighing the value of billion-dollar construction projects against smaller and less expensive measures.

“We’re seeing a level of attention and commitment that we haven’t seen in decades, a desire to move forward,” said Lester A. Snow, a former head of water resources for California and veteran of the state’s water battles.

Big decisions loom. What parts of California’s water system, the most elaborate in the world, need fixing the most? And how can it be done in a way that helps the state’s enormous farm economy, which uses huge amounts of water, without sacrificing the needs of its cities or the environment?

The path California chooses will affect people across the United States and even around the world.

In the 20th century, cheap and plentiful water for irrigation, coupled with rich soils and a special climate, turned the state into a cornucopia that has stocked the nation’s refrigerators and cupboards for generations. These days, farmers are also helping to supply developing countries like China with fruit and nuts.

But keeping California’s agricultural land in production depends on fixing its growing water problems.

As the state considers its options, many farmers want to revive the approach that worked for them in the last century: building dams. Not far from this tiny hamlet northeast of Fresno, for instance, the government is thinking of building a new artificial lake just above an existing one.

“We’re in a critical condition right now,” said Mario Santoyo, a board member and technical adviser for the California Latino Water Coalition, as he stood on the deck of a motorboat in the middle of Millerton Lake, built in 1942. He pointed to a spot called Temperance Flat, where the new dam — it would be the latest of many on the San Joaquin River — would be built.

Yet, as agricultural interests prepare a major push to get water projects built, doubts are growing about whether spending huge sums to pour high walls of concrete are the best way to solve California’s water problems.

Many independent experts, and almost all environmental groups, argue that dams would supply relatively little water for the money. They contend that Californians need to move aggressively to more modern methods of water management, reducing waste to a minimum and learning to live within the limits imposed by an arid environment.

“We are living with a legacy of decades of overallocating our water, and refusing to say ‘no’ when people want more,” said Doug Obegi, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. “When people think they are entitled to more water than exists in the system, that’s a recipe for failure.”

California is able to supply a third of America’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts because it is one of only five major growing regions of the world with what is known as a Mediterranean climate. That means it is cold and wet in the winter, then dry and sunny in the summer. The bright, clear days create ideal growing conditions.

The hitch is water. Precipitation is erratic, and when it comes, it tends to fall in the mountainous northern and eastern parts of the state, while much of the population and farming are in the south and west. Winter snows in the Sierra Nevada are crucial, sending billions of gallons of water racing down the state’s rivers with the spring snowmelt.

In the mid-20th century, two enormous government projects — the federalCentral Valley Project and the State Water Project — were built to capture those flows. They move water over hills and through deserts, delivering it as far south as the San Diego neighborhoods bordering Mexico.



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