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Delta: Wearing Thin

November 18, 1987

The delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers too often is likened to a piece of plumbing hardware--an ugly gadget through which water flows in here and goes out there. To Southern Californians, the "there" is terribly important. An estimated 13 million of them rely to some degree on the water that is pumped from the southern rim of the delta for shipment up to 400 miles south to the desert and coastal plain.

Southern California politicians are reluctant to approve $100 million in state funds over 10 years to rehabilitate the miles of levees that make the delta the delta and not just another giant tidal marsh. They do not want to spend the money unless northerners agree to new delta facilities that will permit an increase in the amount of water pumped to the south.

But the delta is much more than a plumber's tool or a pawn in California's tangled water wars. It is a rich, varied and unique estuary the size of Rhode Island where the waters of the Sacramento, San Joaquin, Mokelumne, Cosumnes and Calaveras rivers wander, mingle and combine to flow out through Suisun, San Pablo and San Francisco bays to the Pacific.

As staff writer Dan Morain described in Monday's edition of The Times, the river arms and sloughs create 60 major islands and countless smaller ones, all separated from the waters by levees of peat that are highly vulnerable to erosion.

Since many of the islands are below sea level, a levee break results in a flooded island, something that has happened to part or all of about a dozen islands since 1980. This is particularly serious in the western delta, because flooding allows salt water to penetrate further into the delta, thus jeopardizing the quality of the export water. Current spending is not sufficient to maintain the levees, much less to rehabilitate them to protect against further flooding. Depending on whose estimates are used, reconstruction of all the levees could run more than $3 billion.

But maintaining an adequate levee system is more than just an argument of water politics. The delta is a resource of statewide and national significance, the western equivalent of Chesapeake Bay. It has two major shipping channels to deep-water ports, in Sacramento and Stockton; 200 species of birds, 45 of mammals and 45 of fish; 8,500 pleasure-craft berths and marinas valued at $100 million; a rich cornucopia of agricultural products, and historic significance as the original passageway into the California gold fields.

An estimated 1.3 million ducks, geese and swans winter in the delta and nearby Suisun Marsh. Twelve million visitors a year fish in the delta or pursue other recreational activities. An increasing number of commuters are building or buying homes in the region.

Local, state and federal authorities need to work toward a cooperative delta maintenance and rehabilitation project in which local landowners would bear a reasonable share of the burden. The long-range cost may be high, but nothing like the expense of emergency restoration of flooded islands. At the same time, the agencies might consider the need for protection of the entire delta environment as a unique natural, cultural and recreational resource.

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