Water lazily rolls by, acres of pear trees blanket the horizon, and tiny communities dot the landscape. Walnut Grove is a Delta town with 1,500 residents, just one ice cream shop and a mom-and-pop grocery store. It feels sleepy, humid and slow—like the Sacramento River. Brett Baker, a sixth-generation pear farmer who lives nearby, on Sutter Island, describes the area nostalgically:
“I enjoy the peace and quiet, the landscape and scenery,” he said. “I have a personal relationship with almost everyone in my town. I have known them all my life, played sports with them, was coached by them growing up. Out here, there is a real sense of community. When tragedy strikes, your neighbors pick you up and help support you.”
Tragedy might be striking. Just 10 minutes away is the roar of Interstate 5, one of California’s major freeways. Twenty minutes farther is Sacramento and the buzzing State Capitol, where the fate of this farming community, the Delta, the state’s river system, and the largest estuary on the West Coast will be determined.
The Delta is the heart of the state’s water resources. Most rivers flow into it, the ocean meets it, key species migrate in and out of it, 25 million people draw water from it, and a large portion of agriculture relies on it to irrigate crops. And now, Gov. Jerry Brown wants to forge ahead with a $23 billion plan to build two massive tunnels underneath or around the Delta.
The stakes are enormous.
The governor’s proposed Bay-Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), also known as the tunnel conveyance system or peripheral canal, would carry part of the Sacramento River underneath the Delta in two 35-mile long tunnels to the California Aqueduct. There, the water would be pumped uphill to cities and farms in more parched regions of the state, including the southern Central Valley, Los Angeles and Santa Clara.
The canal plan has been kicking around for decades. Brown’s original peripheral canal project was voted down in a referendum in 1982, but he is back in the saddle again. “We’re going to take into account the opposition,” Brown vowed, “but we’re not going to sit here and twiddle our thumbs and stare at our navel. We’re going to make decisions and get it done.”
But it’s unclear what Brown is trying to get done. The project would continue to move water from one part of the state to another, with questionable benefits for citizens, farmers, fish, fishermen and even state and federal water contractors, who have funded the project thus far. The differing perspectives of a Delta farmer, a seasoned environmentalist and a Republican supervisor show the complexities and contentiousness of what lies ahead.
“The Delta is the largest contiguous acreage of prime farmland in California,” said Baker. “It has a naturally reliable supply of high quality water and sufficient drainage. Basically, you are taking water from land that has proven to be sustainably productive for over 150 years and moving it to lands with toxic drainage impairments.”
Acre to acre, Delta land is one the most productive farm areas in the state.
The toxic land that Baker refers to is on the west side of San Joaquin River in the Central Valley. The area has long had problems with salinity and selenium, and it’s also a primary importer of Delta water. Salinity on the west side can be flushed out with water, provided there is drainage. But there isn’t excess water or drainage, and there may never be. The taxpayer cost of fixing the drainage problem is $2.6 to $7 billion. Only $346 million in funds are currently allocated.
Selenium presents a more significant problem for the west side. It cannot be safely dispersed into the environment. It bio-accumulates and in large quantities is toxic to wildlife, livestock and humans. In the 1980s, Kesterson Reservoir had to be closed, because of the mass bird and livestock deformities that were discovered there due to selenium build-up. The area has since been cleaned up, but pollutants are still flowing into the San Joaquin River, and more water will not fix the problem.
So why construct a canal or tunnel conveyance system and route water there?
A portion of that water flows elsewhere, to the Metropolitan Water District and the Kern County Water Agency, for example. The giant pumps that sit in the southern part of the estuary entrap and kill thousands of fish annually. The pumps also alter the habitat of the estuary by creating a north to south flow across a tidal ecosystem, which would naturally flow east to west. The proposed tunnels would move the intake upstream to locations that might be less harmful to smelt, salmon and other endangered species. They also might avoid delivery disruptions associated with salt water intrusion and climate change.
But under the microscopes of science and regulation, even those benefits begin to look dubious. And that’s because moving intakes upstream will affect water quality for fish and farmers downstream. “If we allow the canal to be built it will ultimately result in the salting up and ruination of one of our state’s most valuable assets,” Baker said. “Research has continued to reveal that shunting more water from the system stands to condemn the canary in the coal mine.”
And Baker is right. The birds are in trouble too. Although endangered fish species get more attention because of their effect on water exports, the Delta is a primary habitat and migratory stop for millions of birds, like tundra swans and sandhill cranes. Nearly 50 percent of the Pacific Flyway’s migrating or wintering waterfowl depend on it.
Altogether, the Delta is home to more than 750 species of plants and animals, 33 of which are endangered, and likely to go extinct within the next 25 to 50 years, if not sooner. Those species includes chinook salmon, smelt, steelhead, splittail, sturgeon and river lamprey, all of which are supposed to be protected by state and federal agencies.
And California hasn’t left much breathing room for its once abundant wildlife, particularly in the Central Valley and the Delta, where most of the land is privately held and about 95 percent of natural wetlands are gone. And water, the other primary habitat, has been over-allocated to such a high degree that little is left for plants and animals. All total, water rights exist for 531 million acre-feet, which is nearly 10 times as much as is annually available (63 million acre-feet).
Leo Winternitz, associate director of Delta Restoration and Policy for the Nature Conservancy, has been living amidst these water wars for the past 30 years. He has worked for CALFED, the Sacramento Water Forum, the Department of Water Resources, and the State Water Resources Control Board—all major players in water management.
As to how things are going – he says simply, “The situation is more acute. The environment is really suffering from the overuse. We need to think in terms of migratory corridors,” he continues. “If you acquire any piece of property, without a strategic plan then you have postage stamp approach and that doesn’t work. You need to have a corridor of different habitats interconnected.”
But putting that into action is no easy task. The Delta region has more than 500,000 acres of agricultural land, most of which was formerly wetland habitat. About five percent of the original environment is left.
To restore a portion, the Nature Conservancy acquired a 9200-acre tract in the Delta, called Staten Island. The area provides prime habitat for sandhill cranes and other migratory waterfowl. But the $35 million land purchase has been criticized. Half of the money for the acquisition came from the state funds for flood protection, and today, it’s managed primarily as a farmland and wetland—not as a flood plain. The island is below sea level, and it isn’t ideally located for tidal marsh restoration. Still, 15 percent of the Sacramento Valley sandhill crane population and thousands of birds use the area as a winter habitat.
The BDCP, at least, has a cohesive plan for restoration. It may include 80,000 acres of tidal marsh habitat and up to 45,000 acres of agricultural and grasslands habitat. But that makes Delta farmers nervous, as does changing the position of the water intake system and increasing exports, which was originally part of the plan.
And that’s where the project starts to hit serious trouble.
The BDCP sets off a series of agency interactions between the Department of Water Resources (DWR), the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), the California Department State Fish and Game (DFG), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Delta Stewardship Council (DSC). Each agency is tasked with a particular aspect of protecting and managing the state’s natural resources. And there is a lot to protect:—California is one of the most bio-diverse places in the world.
Among these water agencies, there is a confusing array of regulations and interactions. But there are clear guidelines. “It is now state policy that we have co-equal goals of ecosystem restoration and water reliability,” Winternitz said, regarding the Delta Reform Act of 2009. “Any solution has to include environmental consideration. That is a big positive. We just have to communicate better about what this means and how to implement it.”
But what’s being communicated is tough medicine for everyone.
The public trust recommendations for the Delta are the hub of public policy, and the agencies are circling around it. To resuscitate the system, scientific research indicates the need to increase river flows and decrease Delta water consumption by nearly 50 percent, or 13.7 to 14.6 million-acre feet. Those recommendations are supposed to play a primary role in water planning and policy—and to some extent they have.
In July, when Brown made his public announcement, he endorsed a 55-page joint set of agency recommendations for the BDCP. The latest version includes a smaller intake system and no guaranteed export amount; instead, continued scientific studies over the 15-year construction period will determine whether exports are higher or lower than they are today. But notably, the joint recommendations also state: “Only a small percentage of research in the Bay Delta is controversial.”
Right now, what keeps the Delta ecosystem intact are court-ordered flow criteria. The current rulings limit south of Delta exports to an average of 4.9 million acre-feet. If you applied the public trust recommendations exports would drop to 3.7 to 3.9 million acre-feet, about 25 percent. That also means that the rest of the state, including cities, irrigation districts and farms, would have to reduce use and put water back into the system.
What would we gain?
Winternitz explains, “The species we are concerned about evolved in the habitats we need to restore. Those ecosystem processes, which provide for water quality and other important benefits, are the same ones that we humans need. And that’s why there is this whole effort to get these species turned around. If we can repair their world, we can repair our world. We’ll have better air, better places to swim and play, better places to live. It’s really our own system that we are trying to clean up.”
But can California clean up? The quick and easy answer is yes. With water recycling, conservation, efficient technology and better water management, California can meet the needs of the environment, agriculture and a growing population. There is a mountain of data, coming from nearly every water agency, suggesting that improvements can be made. Conservation is the cheapest and easiest way to create to a new supply. There is more new potential water from these investments than California regularly exports from the Delta, and they come without the damage to fish or farmers.
But the long hard truth is that change is difficult.
Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini knows first-hand just how difficult. In his office in Modesto, just south of the Delta, pictures of George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger hang from the walls. DeMartini is a Republican farmer pushing to preserve prime farmland from sprawling development.
“There is no other place in the world like this; we can grow 200 types of crops here,” he said. “We have good access to water, and right now, there is no permanent protection of agriculture.”
DeMartini owns 1200 acres between Ceres and Patterson and grows a mixture of almonds, walnuts, peaches and grapes on the east side of the Central Valley. Three miles of his land borders the Tuolumne River, a primary tributary to the San Joaquin River, which flows into the Bay-Delta. He has voluntarily remediated about 120 acres and turned it back into wetlands. “Wilderness and agriculture can co-exist; there is no reason we can’t work it out,” he said, “We have 43 species of birds out there, and I want to keep it that way. It’s beautiful.”
Stanislaus County has adopted a land use plan for agriculture, but the cities within the county haven’t come up with their own plans and agreed to control sprawl. “They just want to keep growing out,” DeMartini said. “You can’t keep eroding the farmland and stay self-sufficient. The building association doesn’t want any policy adopted at all. They don’t want any restrictions.”
DeMartini planned a workshop with the Mayor’s Association to create a land use policy for each of the nine cities. “Everyone had a scheduling problem, and I never did hear from them again,” he said. “It’s been more than a year now.” It’s surprising, since sprawl has never worked for the region. Stanislaus County has double-digit unemployment and high foreclosures—all remnants of the housing crisis.
Still, the area is on the forefront of innovation. The Oakdale Irrigation District is improving its water delivery system, and the Patterson Irrigation District is building a cross-valley channel, which could transport water east to west without going through the Delta. More recently, Modesto farmer Bill Lyons sold 1,603 acres along the Tuolumne River, to be used for wildlife and wetland restoration.
In general, what DeMartini is advocating has little to do with the peripheral canal or the tunnels. But his plans aren’t far from what’s likely to become state law. His proposals mirror the legally-mandated policies set forth by the state’s overarching water plan. California’s 88-year Delta Plan focuses on wetland preservation, habitat restoration, farmland protection and reduced reliance on Delta water. The agency putting the plan together, the Delta Stewardship Council (DSC), has an appellate role regarding the canal and conveyance system. If the BDCP is approved, it will automatically be folded into the Delta Plan without review, unless someone makes an appeal.
Regarding the peripheral canal, DeMartini remains skeptical. “I don’t think the plan is going to make it past environmental review,” he added. “I don’t know how they will pay for it either. It seems like it’s come out of nowhere.”
The question remains: Where will it go?
Note: This South of Delta Exports chart was updated on August 30, 2012 for clarity. The tunnel intake capacity is 6.5 million acre-feet. The total physical capacity to export water is 11 million acre-feet. A detailed explanation will follow in a forthcoming article.