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Delta conservation plan is only a piecemeal solution

What's needed is a statewide, or even regionwide, solution to the problem of limited water supply and burgeoning demand.

September 24, 2013|Michael Hiltzik
  • Water birds fly over the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which boasts a diversity of flora and fauna.
Water birds fly over the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which boasts… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

STATEN ISLAND, Calif. — The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is one of the most biologically diverse and ecologically sensitive areas in the country and the source of 30% of Southern California's water. It's also broken.

Those may be the only facts about the delta on which everybody agrees.

Because of oxidation of the area's unprotected peaty soil, the level of farm tracts on some of its 57 levee-ringed islands has dropped to as much as 30 feet below sea level. That makes them especially vulnerable to a rise in the water level, deterioration of the levees and contamination by saltwater flowing in from San Francisco Bay. Habitat for countless species of fish, bird and mammal has been destroyed. Before 1850, the delta comprised 540 square miles of freshwater wetlands and more than 300 salt marshes; today those ecosystems have been shrunk to a combined 48 square miles.

"The delta is one of the most degraded estuary and wetland systems in the nation," Chuck Bonham, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, told a group of journalists this week. He also said that fixing it "might be the most intractable natural resources problem in America."

Bonham was speaking from this 9,100-acre island owned by the Nature Conservancy, which operates a migratory bird refuge and demonstration farm growing corn and wheat on the tract. His audience was assembled to tour the delta, a filigree of winding waterways east of San Francisco Bay and west of Stockton, by the Metropolitan Water District and the state Department of Water Resources. Their goal was to promote the latest in a long sequence of delta fixes, the so-called Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

The massive scheme includes a pair of 30-mile tunnels to carry water from the Sacramento River upstream of the delta to an existing pumping station downstream, where it feeds into the California aqueduct serving the Central Valley and Southern California. The tunnels would be paid for by growers and urban water users in the south — the average bill for a Southern California resident served by the MWD would move $5 a month higher over several years, according to Jeff Kightlinger, the district's general manager. A final environmental impact statement for the plan is due to be published Nov. 15.

The second part of the plan is a large-scale rehabilitation program aimed at reclaiming 150,000 acres of wetlands and marsh after decades of destruction. The restoration would be financed out of the proposed $11-billion water bond issue that Gov. Jerry Brown hopes will prevail on the November 2014 ballot.

There are obvious virtues to shifting the aqueduct intakes 40 miles upstream from their current location in the south delta. The change would yield improvements in water quality and accommodate new technologies to keep fish out of the intakes — currently salmon fry and delta smelt get sucked into the pumping plants and mulched. The project's supporters say the tunnels would reduce the risk that earthquake or storm damage to the levees would interrupt the flow of water to users in the Central Valley and Southern California.

Yet the very nature of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan underscores its greatest flaw. The plan yokes a major infrastructure improvement to an environmental upgrade serving one discrete element of the state's water supply network. What's needed is a statewide, or even regionwide, solution to the problem of limited water supply and burgeoning demand.

"Our water use isn't planned, it's haphazard," says Peter Gleick, president and co-founder of the Pacific Institute and one of the most incisive analysts of water issues today. As he points out, every part of California's water supply system is connected to the whole. Yet state and regional water policy focuses on solving problems as though they occur in separate sandboxes.

Is there a dispute over Southern California's supply from the Colorado River? Then we solve it narrowly through agreements among the dozens of government bodies, Indian tribes and water districts with claims on the river. Corporate growers plant almond and pistachio trees in the Central Valley because they're hugely profitable. But the trees are exceptionally thirsty, and once they're planted they create a permanent demand for lots of water. Are thirsty almonds the best crop for a semi-arid region with lots of competing demands? Doesn't matter; they're planted because their owners happen to have access to lots of water — for now.

"If we took the amount of water we know we have reliably and divided it up in a logical, socially responsible fashion, it would look different from what we have today," Gleick observes. "But there's no overarching guidance about who can plant what where or how much water people use in their homes."

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