The peripheral canal redux
The more Californians fight about water, the more it stays the same
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!
For decades the Yodeler has been running versions of this story.
The Delta is on the brink of ecological collapse; groundwater resources are being used up faster than they are replenished; population and water demand are rising. Someone (usually the governor) has a plan that would make things worse; someone else has a plan that would make things better. Please write a letter supporting the good guys.
Today's good news is that the bad guys haven't yet won. The bad news is that the good guys haven't won yet either, and meanwhile the Delta environment keeps deteriorating. Global climate disruption - with more erratic rainfall and sea-level rise - exacerbates the threats.
As long as the impasse continues we will periodically have to mobilize to defend the Delta. If you read no farther, at least jump to the what-you-can-do at the end of this article and write a letter to the governor.
Why is the Delta important?
The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and San Francisco Bay form the largest estuary on the West Coast south of Alaska. Such estuaries, where fresh and salt water mix, are among the richest zones of biological productivity and diversity. In addition, the pumps of the State Water Project and the (federal) Central Valley Project, in the south Delta, pump southward an ever increasing volume of water to Central Valley farmers and southern California urban water users. When one adds in other water pumped from the Delta, as well as from rivers upstream of the Delta, this watershed provides 13 million acre-feet of water/year, approximately 30% of the total water used by [human] Californians.
The current version of the threat
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is pushing for new reservoirs and a "peripheral canal". Such a canal would divert water from the Sacramento River upstream of the Delta and carry it to the export pumps - without mixing with the water of the Delta. He is expected to propose a bond measure to provide state funding for these projects. Typically, bond advocates are pushing forward before analyzing environmental impacts. Neither have financial agreements been made for future beneficiaries to fund the projects, and we expect that the governor will try to get the taxpayers to pay.
A more balanced idea
In January 2008 the Governor's Delta Vision Task Force's Blue Ribbon panel released recommendations for more conservation and water-system efficiency, and reductions and/or timing changes in water diversions from the Delta, as well as construction of a peripheral canal.
A less balanced idea
This January, however, the Delta Vision Committee, comprised of five governor-appointed cabinet secretaries, released a report retaining many of the Task Force recommendations, but placing construction of a peripheral canal at the top of the agenda. Further, the committee made big news by announcing that the governor can build a canal without legislative or voter approval.
A tricky idea
A peripheral canal has tremendous potential benefits as well as risks.
One of the worst effects of the current pumping regime is the "reverse flow" problem. The pumps are so powerful that they literally reverse the direction of water-flow in certain nearby waterways. They also suck up Delta fish such as the once-abundant but now-endangered Delta smelt. A peripheral canal could end these problems.
But the water that flows through the canal would result in that much less water flowing through the Delta and eventually to the Bay. By removing fresh-water inflow to the Delta, a canal would allow salt water from the ocean to intrude deeper into the Delta. There would be less fresh water to flush out pollutants.
Depending upon its desigin, a canal could allow an increase in the volume of water exported, even though the current volume is already causing problems. A canal based on current design ideas would be large enough to capture almost all the water flowing down the Sacramento River most of the year, making the Delta a stagnant cesspool.
In the past, there has been talk about making a peripheral canal more acceptable by writing into law an enforceable maximum on water exports, but this is not in the current proposal. In fact, the Committee would put off until 2012 - a year after starting canal construction - the determination of how much water is required for the survival of native species, but past experience has demonstrated that once a facility is built, it will be used - whether or not it makes sense.
If the governor tries to build a canal, almost surely legal challenges will follow.
The cabinet Committee has its priorities backwards. The first consideration should be to restore the Delta ecosystem to sustainability. Any volume of water export should be considered only if compatible with that goal.
The Delta Vision Committee indeed recommends restoration of Delta aquatic habitats - but without sufficient freshwater, no habitat restoration can restore viable fish populations.
A federal marshal to the rescue
On the brighter side, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently released a new Biological Opinion to protect the delta smelt under the federal Endangered Species Act. The opinion requires curtailment of water exports during times of year when Delta smelt are spawning and when larvae and juveniles are present - which would result in a 17% reduction in pumping from the current over-inflated volumes during average water years. A previous Biological Opinion claimed that the water exports did not threaten survival of the species, but that conclusion was litigated by environmentalists and ruled to be "arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law".
Other fish, including salmon, depend on freshwater flows into the Delta. Central Valley salmon numbers have dropped so drastically that last year all salmon fishing off California and Oregon was prohibited, and a similar ban is expected for this year. A separate Biological Opinion for salmon is scheduled for release in March.
A much more balanced idea
The non-partisan state Legislative Analyst's Office recently released a "Water Primer" with insightful recommendations:
- water-supply reliability. For the short term, the legislative priorities should be to improve urban water-use efficiency and groundwater storage, and secondarily to increase agricultural water-use efficiency. For the long-term, the priorities should be to recycle more municipal wastewater, and secondarily to improve conveyance, desalination, and reservoir projects. Urban water-use efficiency is both the most cost-beneficial and the largest potential water producer of all of the solutions evaluated. The analyst found that urban water-use efficiency could save four times as much water as the governor's proposed dams, at 1/10 the cost per gallon.
- modification of the water-rights system. Water rights for both agriculture and cities should incorporate cost-effective water conservation and efficiency. Through realignment of "water conservation and efficiency efforts with water rights, overuse of water simply to maintain a water right could be reduced and that water would be available for other purposes within the region or state."
- groundwater management. The state should establish a water-rights and -permitting system for groundwater to address both quantity and quality, with the cost of the regulatory system to be borne by those who use and pollute groundwater.
- conveyance and new reservoirs. Legislators should evaluate the Delta Vision recommendations for conveyance and new and expanded reservoirs, carefully considering the costs, trade-offs (including environmental and land-use impacts), and benefits of each alternative. Funding for implementation of any alternative should be based on the principal that the beneficiary pays.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
Sacramento, CA 95814
Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg
State Capitol, #205
Sacramento, CA 95814.
Urge them to oppose construction of new reservoirs, and to support cost-effective and more sustainable alternatives: water conservation, water-use efficiency, water recycling, clean-up of groundwater, increased groundwater storage, and conjunctive use (the combined use of surface and ground water systems to optimize resource use and minimize impacts of using a single water source). Urge them to curtail water exports from the Delta system.