California’s Looming Water Crisis

State needs peripheral canal sending Sacramento water to Southern California

With drought conditions in affect across California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger picked an auspicious time to warm up his campaign for more surface water storage (i.e. dams) and additional water “conveyance” (i.e. building a peripheral canal) in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. In doing so, he waded into a debate that has long epitomized the tensions between water-rich Northern California and the populous southern half of the state.

The governor’s press conferences in Merced and Sacramento counties last week drew criticism from some Delta interest groups, who say he is jumping the gun by advocating for construction of a peripheral canal. They think Schwarzenegger should wait to hear the recommendations of the Delta Vision task force that he appointed to study remedies for the extremely precarious environmental and economic situation in the Delta, which are expected in January.

Restore the Delta, a group of Delta residents criticizing Schwarzenegger’s move last week, opposes plans for any water conveyance that would take water around-instead of through-the Delta. This opposition is because “there will be no incentive to fix Delta levees or to create a flood management plan that will protect Delta people, Delta property, and Delta infrastructure.” That’s the same unfortunate conclusion that many environmentally-minded policymakers reached back in 1982, when then-Governor Jerry Brown’s plan for building a peripheral canal was rejected on a statewide ballot.

The interconnectedness of ecological and economic systems in the Delta is a reality that should not be underemphasized. But what environmental and in-Delta opponents of the peripheral canal sought and won a quarter-century ago was a policy that built even greater dependency into the system. By drawing water through the Delta, water users south of the Delta (most importantly, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California)-so the reasoning goes-would be forced to have a stake in the maintenance of levees and water quality in the Delta.

A second motivation for opponents of the peripheral canal was to create an intentional bottleneck in the state’s water conveyance infrastructure. As in many planning processes, bottlenecks are the worst nightmare of engineers but a commonly-used last resort tactic for activists.

The CalFed planning process, which brought together 25 state and federal agencies to negotiate goals for improvement of the highly contentious California water supply and environmental values which depend on the Delta, approached the conflicting interests carefully-too carefully, perhaps. The CalFed mantra that all stakeholders would “get better together,” essentially meant that failure of the process would amount to something like mutually assured destruction.

In fact, there is little dispute that routing water around the Delta has always made good engineering sense. Numerous planning processes, beginning as early as the 1940s, settled on around-Delta water conveyance as a promising compliment to the rest of the state’s considerable water infrastructure. In 2000, CalFed’s approach to the issue was to agree not to discuss it.

Earlier this year, the Public Policy Institute of California reiterated the benefits of peripheral water conveyance in a report that indicated, based on computer modeling at the University of California at Davis, that higher salinity levels as a result of water diversions would not be catastrophic to in-Delta agriculture (as canal opponents claim) and that in some scenarios, using projections for the year 2050, a canal could make a difference in the need to develop other expensive and controversial water supply improvements, like seawater desalination facilities in the Bay Area. Flexibility in the “plumbing” of the state’s water resources is expected, overall, to lower the costs of ensuring that water is used where it is needed most-including in the environment.

Maybe critics are right that Gov. Schwarzenegger’s move is self-interested and betrays his lack of regard for the public process. At the same time, there is no need to wait another day, much less another year, to see that the decades-old gamble that has tied water conveyance to the south Delta has failed. You need only look at the Delta.

What stands between the Delta and inundation by San Francisco Bay? The “19th-century piles of dirt that we call levees,” (as they were characterized by the chair of the Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife, Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, at a Congressional field hearing in Vallejo earlier this month). Groups like the Metropolitan Water District, which peripheral canal opponents hoped might invest in levee improvements after the failure of the ballot proposition in 1982, instead made safer investments in water storage and conservation outside of the Delta.

The so-called Delta “islands” are farther below sea level today then they were in 1982, and some are still sinking. Meanwhile, the number of lives and value of property protected behind levees is increasing. That means both the risk and the liability of serious flooding as a result of levee failure, especially that which might accompany a major earthquake, continues to grow.

Most absurd of all, the solution purportedly preferred by some environmental opponents of the peripheral canal results in sections of the Middle River and the Old River running backward, uphill, toward the intake pumps in the south Delta, killing endangered Delta smelt in the process. This endangered fish is regarded as an indicator of overall ecological health in the Delta, and is already imperiled by toxic agricultural runoff and other threats.

Marc Reisner, author of Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water, wrote: “Imagine two segments of sleek superhighway separated by a forty-mile jumble of dirt roads. There one has a crude allegorical image of the California water system today. The jumble of dirt roads is the Delta.” That was in 1979, but it is just as true today.

At this month’s Congressional field hearing on this topic, Phil Isenberg, head of the governor’s Delta Vision task force, said that during the peripheral canal debate years ago, “we all argued that routing water through the Delta would protect it.” Isenberg co-chaired the campaign against the peripheral canal measure in 1982. What should change the current debate, according to Isenberg, is that nobody can argue the Delta is better protected from environmental or economic collapse today.

Expanding water conveyance around the Delta won’t solve all the environmental problems the region faces, it won’t make politicians honest, and it won’t promise to enrich all stakeholders equally-nothing will-but it would be a critical mistake to put progress in the Delta on hold any longer.