Advertisement
Share

$100 Million to Begin Bay-Delta Restoration

TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

Officials of the Clinton and Wilson administrations on Wednesday announced the first major funding--a $100-million down payment--for the long-promised environmental restoration of the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary and the rivers that feed it.

Billed as the largest ecological restoration yet undertaken in the United States, the project, with an ultimate price tag of $2 billion, is designed to repair 100 years of damage--caused by man-made erosion, pollution, dams and diversions--in the watersheds that provide 60% of California’s fresh water.

The project came about as part of the 1994 Bay Delta Accord, which was supposed to end the Bay-Delta water wars that had raged for years among agricultural, urban and environmental interests. But those groups are still at odds over key issues--including how much water will be permanently available for environmental needs in the delta--and, until Wednesday, little money had been allocated for the restoration work.

The $100 million will pay for a first phase including the rehabilitation of marshes and wetlands, the replanting of riverside forests, the construction of fish ladders to help migrating salmon and the installation of screens to prevent fish from being drawn into irrigation canals.

Advertisement

Through a proposition, Congress and California voters have earmarked an additional $720 million to be spent on the restoration over the next 25 years. The remainder of the funding still must be found.

The boundaries of the project extend from Fresno 350 miles north to Redding, and from the headwaters of the San Joaquin River in the Sierra Nevada to the origins of the Sacramento River in California’s Cascade Range.

The ultimate goal is to repair the damage, including a dramatic decline of fish and wildlife, caused by the diversion of massive amounts of water for agriculture and urban use. The hope is that a restored delta will mean cleaner drinking water, a healthier habitat for fish and wildlife and better flood control.

The $100 million in federal and state funding, which will pay for 50 separate projects, was announced by U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Commerce Secretary William Daley, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner and Gov. Pete Wilson. At the same time, the officials granted a one-year extension of the 1994 agreement, which was to expire this week.

Advertisement

“The extension of the historic accord gives us the chance to craft a long-term plan that works for everyone, including business interests, farmers, environmentalists and communities,” Browner said in a statement.

The optimistic pronouncements, however, masked official concern over the continuing discord between environmentalists and the other interest groups over how to divide the water that flows into the delta from the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems.

Many government officials, along with representatives of agribusiness and cities, believe environmental conflicts could be best avoided by building a 60-mile long diversionary canal that would capture most of the water for Central Valley agriculture and Southern California cities before it flows through the delta.

Environmental groups, however, see the canal, which could cost $3 billion or more, as an opportunity for rival users to take even more water from the rivers without having to justify the increased diversions, as they must do now.

Advertisement

“The environmental community still supports the principles of the accord, but we think there has been serious backsliding on the deal,” said Ann Notthoff of the Natural Resources Defense Council

“Over the past year,” Notthoff said, “the Wilson administration and Central Valley water users undermined the agreement by relaxing water-quality standards agreed to in the accord, by trying to authorize massive new agricultural diversions and by continuing to attack the federal legislation that underpins the accord.”

The intent of the accord was to lay the groundwork for a long-term, equitable apportionment of the state’s largest fresh water supply. With the agreement, urban and agricultural interests for the first time acknowledged that the environment was an equal partner in negotiations over delta water allocation.

It was also an acknowledgment of the delta’s value as the largest wetland habitat in the Western United States, the home of nearly 120 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish. By the time the accord was signed, more than 20 other species of native plants and animals once found there had become extinct. Nine more were endangered.

Advertisement

According to environmentalists, up to two-thirds of the delta’s natural flow was being diverted for farming and other uses in some years. The reduced flows, in turn, were allowing salt water to move upstream from the ocean, ruining freshwater habitat. The reduced amount of water also cost the delta some of its ability to dilute chemical pollutants, they said.

Meanwhile, higher up in the river systems, erosion from deforestation and development filled streams with sediment that destroyed salmon spawning grounds.

Leading up to the 1994 accord, environmental groups forced a showdown by invoking the Endangered Species Act in a series of lawsuits that disrupted diversions of water out of the delta. The interruptions led business leaders to warn that California’s economy would suffer if the state could no longer count on reliable deliveries of delta water.

That is still the case, according to Timothy H. Quinn, deputy general manager of the Metropolitan Water District, the primary supplier of water to Southern California communities. “The ominous warnings are as relevant today as they were three years ago,” he said.

Advertisement

The water district gets one-third of its water from the delta--the rest comes from the Colorado River--and can ill afford disruptions in the delivery systems. The city of Los Angeles receives most of its water from the eastern Sierra Nevada, but in dry years has turned to the water district for 50% of its supply.

The future course of the environmental restoration hinges on an amicable division of the delta’s freshwater supply.

Quinn is among those who say the best way to do that is to build the diversionary canal, which would bypass most of the delta and link up with the aqueducts that move water south.

The canal, which would be funded separately from the environmental project, would increase the reliability of water deliveries, he said, and improve the quality of water shipped south, because water taken from above the delta is less polluted.

Advertisement

But Quinn said that any proposed fix will fail if any one of the interest groups does not endorse it.

“In this case, environmentalists have to have the assurance that the facility would be operated in an equitable fashion. The challenge is to incorporate environmental values as part of the day-to-day governance of water in California.”

Environmentalists see the issue in mathematical terms. The accord guaranteed an additional 1.1 million acre-feet of water to improve water quality in the delta. But it left open the question of how much more water would be needed to revive declining fish species, such as Chinook salmon, steelhead and delta smelt.

For the extra water, environmental groups now look to the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act, which redirected 800,000 acre feet of delta water from agriculture to fish.

Advertisement

But one of the largest Central Valley water authorities last month filed a lawsuit to stop the federal government from allocating any more water to the environment.

John Garamendi, the deputy secretary of the Interior Department who tried unsuccessfully to broker a compromise over the contested water, said that dispute could imperil the delta accord.

“If the federal government should lose the suit over that 800,000 acre-feet, I think the accord is in serious jeopardy,” he said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Advertisement

Restoring the Delta

An initial $100 million from state and federal sources will start restoration of the San Francisco Bay-San Joaquin Delta, the heart of which is shown here. The project eventually will be the largest of its kind in the United States.

Key points of the plan:

* Estimated total cost: $2 billion for the purchase and “rehabilitation” of thousands of acres of wetlands, marshes, islands and other wildlife habitat.

Advertisement

* Construction of fish ladders to help migrating salmon make their way past dams.

* Installation of screens to prevent fish from being sucked into the giant pumps that divert water out of the delta for agricultural and urban uses.

* Replanting of trees along streams to help prevent erosion.

The goal: To restore conditions that fish and wildlife need to again thrive in the delta and the rivers that flow into it.

Advertisement


Advertisement