Elk Slough, near the Delta town of Clarksburg

Elk Slough, near the Delta town of Clarksburg

Peripheral Vision

Can state and federal officials agree on comprehensive reform before it's too late?

Back Longreads Nov 1, 2009 By Rich Ehisen

This is the third installment in a four-part series on water. This month, we examine the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta proposals for a peripheral canal and impacts on the environment. Next month we’ll wrap up the series by examining upcoming issues in 2010.

For centuries, the biggest environmental concern for most California water users was how to squeeze every last drop from nature. While a wet year might shift concerns to flood control, grab-as-grab-can gusto came back almost as soon as the waters receded. But that was then. Today, environmental concerns are center stage in the state’s ongoing effort to reform its water system.

There is good reason for this sea change: Virtually no part of the state’s complex water system is free from an environmental challenge. Key fish species are in rapid decline, particularly in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, one of California’s most sensitive ecosystems. Pollution from both agricultural and urban runoff has sharply degraded water quality in some areas of the state. Withdrawing massive amounts of groundwater in the Central Valley is causing some parts of its floor to sink, while many of the Delta levees that protect people, homes and businesses throughout Northern California are rapidly eroding, placing lives and the state’s economy in peril. Global climate change is also a factor, spurring a rising sea level and threatening to dramatically change the Sierra snowpack, the state’s natural water storage and supply system.

This potential disaster is most evident in the Delta, the state’s central hub for moving water north to south. According to the California Department of Water Resources, approximately 25 million people from San Diego to San Francisco rely on Delta transports for at least part of their water supply, as do millions of acres of Central Valley farmland. But the Delta is more than just a large pipe for getting water to California’s drier half: It’s the largest estuary on the West Coast and home to more than 55 fish and 750 animal and plant species.

A half-million residents also live there. Most are farmers using more than 500,000 of the Delta’s 738,000 acres for agriculture. Another 700 miles are waterways used by fishermen, water skiers and other outdoor enthusiasts. It is without question one of the most important natural and economic ecosystems in the world. But with so many hands taking from the system each day, the Delta is also in serious jeopardy.

“The Delta is dying,” says state Sen. Lois Wolk, whose 5th Senate District includes several Delta counties. “It absolutely has to be restored.”

Former Assemblyman and Sacramento Mayor Phil Isenberg, who chaired Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force, gives a dour assessment of the Delta’s condition.

“The Delta,” Isenberg says, “is going to hell.”

That assessment is one of the few places where water stakeholders agree. The Delta’s problems are many, starting with the precipitous decline in some fish species, specifically the tiny Delta smelt, which are prone to being sucked into the massive pumps that ship water south. Smelt numbers have dropped so low that in 2007 a federal judge drastically cut the amount of water those pumps were allowed to process, creating significant havoc for Central Valley farmers who depend on through-Delta water to grow their crops. Smelt and farmers are not the only fish species or industry in peril. Similar declines in the chinook salmon population have shut down the state’s salmon fishing industry for two straight years, and a third year is likely. Several more open-water fish are also at historic lows, including striped bass, threadfin shad and longfin smelt.

The Delta’s problems don’t end there. It’s also home to more than 200 non-native invasive species. Some of those have dramatically disrupted the system’s natural food chain, causing harm to an even greater number of native species.

Some humans who live in the Delta aren’t helping matters much. Delta Vision estimates that only a third of those diverting water from the estuary hold a state permit to do so, making it impossible to know with accuracy how much is taken from the system. This is another problem that may get worse: The Public Policy Institute of California projects the five-county Delta region to more than double its population by 2050 to 3.7 million.

Those newcomers may need to find some way other than agriculture to make a living. A study by the CALFED-Bay Delta Program says ongoing global climate change could raise sea levels by as much as 55 inches by 2100. If that projection is true, much of the Delta could ultimately flood with saltwater, making farming difficult in much of the region.

Scientists believe climate change will also produce much wetter winters with far less Sierra snowpack, which California has used for centuries as a natural reservoir that gradually releases water into the streams and rivers at a steady and predictable pace. With more rain and less snow, those flows will be concentrated mostly in winter, greatly increasing downstream flood possibilities. The smaller spring and summer inflows may also make agricultural runoff and urban wastewater discharges more concentrated, thus harming across-the-board water quality.

“Pursuing the status quo will lead to irreparable harm for California.”
Lester Snow, director, Department of Water Resources

None of this is happening in a vacuum. Plans to combat these scenarios are in the works, both in the Delta and in waterways around the state. A move to help restore the historic salmon run has already begun. It’s a federal effort to restore flows to 60 miles of the San Joaquin River between Fresno and the Delta, which has been dry since the Friant Dam came online in 1942.

Restoring that run is also the motive behind a rapidly accelerating movement to take down four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River along the Oregon-California border. Advocates say it would be the largest such project in U.S. history. After years of conflict with environmental groups and fish advocates, Portland-based PacifiCorp, the utility that owns and operates the dams, agreed in September to remove them in order to restore approximately 300 miles of the Klamath, which had once contained one of the West Coast’s largest salmon runs. A lot still has to happen, however, before a single dam goes offline, including an environmental study that meets Department of Interior approval. The removal also won’t come cheap. Once PacifiCorp turns the dams over to the federal government, which wouldn’t happen earlier than 2020, Oregon ratepayers are expected to pony up $200 million in surcharges to help cover the cost of tearing them down. California ratepayers will initially be on the hook for about $16 million, but that figure could climb as high as $250 million if current cost estimates are too low.

Regardless of the questions surrounding both the Klamath and San Joaquin rivers, in those cases there is at least a plan in place and action under way. Not surprisingly, the call to build a new conveyance system to shuttle water around the Delta is proving to be far more problematic. Whether known by its new nomenclature or its more pejorative original incarnation — the peripheral canal — the concept of building a massive new channel for shipping water south around the Delta remains the most controversial proposal in the state’s water history.

For supporters like Delta Vision, which proposed a dual conveyance canal as part of its final report in October 2008, the canal is an integral part of reshaping California’s water management system into one of “co-equal” goals: restoring the Delta’s ecosystem and ensuring water reliability for downstream users. Delta Vision argues that a dual-purpose conveyance, which would reduce through-Delta shipments in conjunction with a new, isolated around-Delta conveyance, would allow water officials the flexibility to regulate flows for the benefit of both people and fish. That, it contends, would not only blunt the negative environmental impact on the Delta ecosystem but also greatly reduce the potentially devastating repercussions of a major earthquake. Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, says that, while “nobody likes Delta Vision’s plan in its entirety, the logic there is very straightforward. You have to separate the economy’s water from the environment’s water, so you can manage both for their intended purposes.”

Although environmental groups like The Nature Conservancy, which owns and preserves tens of thousands of acres in the Delta, have also endorsed the canal proposal, many other environmental organizations and Delta advocates have not. The reasons haven’t changed much since the original peripheral canal battle of three decades ago. Many Delta residents see a new conveyance as just another statewide water grab with no concern for the impact such a project would have on their way of life.

A big part of that is the canal’s potential size, a conveyance with the capacity to handle flows up to 15,000 cubic feet per second. According to Richard Sanchez, executive program manager of the Delta Habitat Conservation and Conveyance Program for the Department of Water Resources, something that big would require a width of about 1,400 feet with five new north Delta intakes to divert water from the Sacramento River near the town of Hood. It would also require as much as 80,000 total acres when accounting for the required mitigation area around the canal.

To many Delta advocates, that is just too much to ask. At a rally against the proposal on the Capitol steps in August, Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, whose 15th Assembly District would contain much of the proposed canal, told a raucous crowd of Delta advocates that she will “never vote to build something the size of the Panama Canal down the middle” of her district.

Sanchez says the dual conveyance “is the preferred option,” but the state is looking at other options, including a possible tunnel to convey water under the Delta rather than around it. Sanchez says the state is considering the tunnel option because the footprint and total cost would be a fraction of a ground-level facility.

But the size of the canal is only one concern. Delta residents also worry that large upstream freshwater diversions — whether for a canal or for a tunnel — will drastically raise the Delta’s salinity level, turning it into a brackish backwater no good for farming or wildlife.

Anthony Saracino, director of The Nature Conservancy’s California Water Program, says salinity worries are “absolutely untrue,” adding that such claims are part of misinformation and hysteria about the canal, particularly when no final decision has been made.

“Will there be economic help for the Delta towns
that lose their economy to habitat restoration?”
Don Nottoli, supervisor, Sacramento County

It doesn’t end there, however. Still another proposal, this one from the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, could ask Delta landowners to surrender up to 80,000 acres over the next 40 years as part of an effort to restore Delta marshes and floodplain habitat. Although landowners would have to agree to sell their properties, some residents fear the state may invoke eminent domain to seize land.

Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli, who also represents part of the Delta, says he understands those concerns, noting that a lot of attention is given to Central Valley farmers who complain that water restrictions may force them out after generations of working the land without consideration for farm families facing a similar plight in the Delta.

“We must recognize the Delta’s history, too,” he says. “Some Delta towns go back all the way to the Gold Rush. What about them? Turning 80,000 acres into habitat is good for the environment, but what about the people and the businesses? Will there be economic help for the Delta towns that lose their economy to habitat restoration?”

“This is a matter of trust,” says Fritz Grupe, a Stockton-area developer and member of the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, a public-private partnership designed to help boost the economic vitality of the Central Valley. “People who have been screwed over before don’t just buy in when new people come in and say ‘trust me.’ These people don’t trust politicians to protect Delta interests.”

For better or worse, the ongoing conflict has now captured the attention of even more politicians, this time in the Obama administration. In October, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a memo of understanding between six federal agencies — the departments of the Interior, Commerce and Agriculture; the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers — to work with California to resolve its water conundrum. This effort will also include honoring a suggestion from California Sen. Diane Feinstein to have the National Academy of Sciences examine the biological opinions on Delta smelt that led to the water pumping restrictions, including identifying possible “scientifically defensible alternatives” to those opinions.

That was followed a day later by Feinstein’s announcement that she would begin working on water reform legislation of her own. Feinstein offered no specifics but says she ordered her staff to review other major environmental reform programs around the nation to see what, if any, could be applied to the Delta. She also joined the chorus of many congressional Republicans calling for a waiver to the Endangered Species Act, which would allow California water officials to bypass the Delta smelt-inspired water transfer reductions.

Salazar has so far been cool to that idea, as have some major California water officials. Department of Water Resources chief Lester Snow, for one, urged Feinstein not to seek an ESA waiver, stating in a letter that such efforts are “shortsighted” and distract from state efforts to comprehensively reform the state’s water system.

But while Snow may not support the totality of such efforts, he made it clear at a recent water forum attended by hundreds of water managers from around the state that not working for a comprehensive solution, or worse, doing nothing at all, is not an option.

“The potential is that pursuing the status quo will lead to irreparable harm for California,” Snow says. “The bottom line is that there are no more silver bullets for fixing our water system.”

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(courtesy of Delta Stewardship Council)

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