Delta conservation plan is only a piecemeal solution

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.”

On Gov. Brown’s order, the Department of Water Resources is developing a statewide water strategy to be issued next month. But it’s not yet public and is sure to be nothing like the ambitious program that’s needed for a future of limited supply. The vacuum is only getting more dangerous, since climate change is likely to make rainfall and snowpack in the American West more sporadic and unpredictable.

In the meantime, the best we have is piecemeal approaches such as the delta conservation plan. Proposals to divert southbound water intake around the most sensitive portions of the delta have emerged every 20 or 30 years since the 1930s. The last one was the peripheral canal, a $3-billion, 42-mile project that suffered a resounding ballot defeat in 1982.

The campaign over the canal pitted farmers against urban dwellers, and some farmers against other farmers, but the major split was geographical. Its 2-to-1 support in Southern California was swamped by voting in Northern California that in some counties ran 95% against.

The latest political strategy for the delta aims to circumvent the north-south split that doomed the peripheral canal. The tunnel project itself won’t go before the voters, since it’s part of a comprehensive delta stewardship plan approved by the Legislature in 2009.

The portion of the conservation plan that will need voter approval is the conservation and restoration scheme, which will be covered by a water bond of up to $11 billion currently scheduled for the November 2014 election. (Voters are thought to be more amenable to spending on conservation than, well, water tunnels.)

The tunnel plan still isn’t a slam-dunk. The release of the environmental impact report is certain to prompt many rounds of questioning and dickering by stakeholders on all sides of this multifaceted debate. That process will last another year at least. The plan has already been scaled back to meet objections from local residents and government environmental regulators, and the likelihood that it will evolve further is therefore 100%.

Southern California has achieved wonders through conservation and renewable uses. MWD’s water sales have gone down over the last two decades despite a growth of 3 million residents in its service area, and Kightlinger says the district thinks it can fulfill demand through 2050 or even 2075 without expanding the supply it has today.

But make no mistake: Water will continue to be taken out of the delta to serve the Central Valley and Southern California, if only for the simple reason that 75% of precipitation in the state falls north of Sacramento, and 75% of demand is south. Finding a way to do it better is essential. Whether the tunnel plan is that way will be hashed out over the coming months by stakeholders who see the situation through their own lenses. The conflict over their rights is bound to become more intense.

At every stop the journalists on tour this week were shadowed by representatives of local delta landowners and farmers, who maintain that the tunnels will destroy their way of life.

They have a right to be heard. As Bonham put it, “You can’t do delta restoration on the backs of the local community.” But their interests, and everyone else’s, also need to be measured against myriad other statewide interests — salmon fishermen, dairy farmers, semiconductor manufacturers, San Franciscans, Angelenos — and balanced against the immutable realities of supply.

As Gleick puts it, California and the West have reached “peak water.” He says, “We’re at the limits of what we can do.” In the Delta, “we’re taking out too much water and the consequences are disputes over allocations and devastated ecosystems.” But that’s not the only place where more water has been promised than can be responsibly delivered.

“It doesn’t solve our problems if we fix only a piece of them at a time,” he says. “The delta tunnel is only one piece.”

Michael Hiltzik’s column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at, read past columns at, check out and follow @hiltzikm on Twitter.