Dredging around the Delta

Today, McIntyre and Snow weigh the effects of building a canal on the Delta. Previously, they debated the political urgency of ending the state’s water crisis. Later in the week, they’ll discuss population growth, water desalination and more.

More water diversion alone isn’t the answer
By Mindy McIntyre

Many people look to a peripheral canal as the key to solving California’s water woes. While plumbing may be a piece of the equation, a more important fix must come in the form of new policies that will prevent a repeat of the same old mistakes.

Those who work on this issue are acutely aware that the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is in crisis, with many native fish on the brink of extinction and salmon also in steep decline. We are eager for solutions that will restore the Delta’s ecosystem.

A peripheral canal, which would divert much of the Sacramento River upstream of the Delta for delivery to the south, is touted as the solution to the Delta’s ecosystem woes. Yet we know that the Delta’s current crisis is in part because of policies and choices made by water project operators -- including the choice to maximize Delta pumping and increase exports by 1 million to 2 million acre-feet a year -- since 2000. This increase in pumping occurred despite the availability of water-supply alternatives and the collapsing fish populations. More disturbing was the complete lack of response to the growing crisis by the federal and state agencies charged with protecting the Delta ecosystem and the public trust of water. Rather, it took a lawsuit from environmental organizations and court intervention to achieve a reprieve for the Delta. Without changes in the policies that got us here, a peripheral canal would not prevent a repeat of the current situation in the future.

If we look at the history of upstream diversions, a canal may make our problems worse. We have major diversions on the San Joaquin, Owens, Trinity and Klamath rivers. In not one of these cases has an upstream diversion improved conditions in the downstream community and ecosystem. In each case, the agency in charge of operating the diversion has done so with one purpose -- maximizing water diversions. The result has been ecosystem disaster, long litigation and ultimately a court-ordered solution that forces operators to recognize some water limitations.

Still, environmental organizations, including the Planning and Conservation League, are willing to consider the possibility that a peripheral canal, if implemented with much-needed policy reforms, may not be so catastrophic for the Delta. Unfortunately, there is little information available on the viability of the canal and even less commitment to policy reforms that would ensure that a canal would be operated differently than past diversions. In initial analysis for a canal, the state has indicated that the canal could be operated to increase Delta water diversions. This does not recognize the critical state of the Delta and the chronic failure to meet water quality standards. But more disappointingly, it shows little interest in instituting policies that would balance water supplies and ecosystem health, and it shows that little has been learned from the current crisis and past failures.

To solve our water problems, we will need more than the same old policies applied to new plumbing. We will need to aggressively implement programs that will help regions in California increase the reliability of their water supply and decrease the intense demand on the Delta. We will need to optimize our water systems for resiliency, not collapse. We will need to implement polices that allow us to accommodate our people, economy and environment. We have the tools to do each of these tasks; however, it appears we still lack the will to reform our failing policies.

Ultimately, policy -- not engineering -- will determine whether a peripheral canal provides more benefits or creates more problems. Without commitments to reforming our dysfunctional Delta water policies, we can only assume that a peripheral canal would re-create the havoc we have seen on the San Joaquin River, the Owens Valley and elsewhere.

Mindy McIntyre is the Planning and Conservation League’s water program manager.

The canal can work
By Lester Snow

It’s true that a new Delta canal is not a silver bullet, nor can it solve the complex set of water challenges the state faces. But it seems doubtful that any Delta fix or statewide water solution can work without the canal being part of the comprehensive solution.

Today, there is a growing consensus by thoughtful scientists, water administrators and environmentalists that some form of alternative conveyance must be considered to protect Delta flows and safeguard fish, as well as to upgrade and fine-tune our water exports to accommodate future population growth. At the same time, we must take immediate steps to protect the Delta ecosystem, conserve more water and develop additional groundwater and surface storage facilities to meet our future needs.

Jerry Meral, former head of the Planning and Conservation League and a former deputy director of the state Department of Water Resources, was one of the first in the environmentalist community to propose and advocate for a modern peripheral canal.

In February 2007, the respected Public Policy Institute of California issued a report that shattered stereotypes and recommended a range of feasible solutions, including various kinds of Delta canals. The report indicated that some type of canal could offer the best chance to address water supply, water quality and ecosystem issues by returning the Delta to a more natural estuarine environment.

More recently, the Environmental Defense Fund reviewed the realities of the Delta’s situation and now believes a peripheral canal merits consideration. EDF analyst Ann Hayden said that “it’s time to take a look at” the canal and added an open-minded thought: “Until these and other key issues are evaluated based on the best available science and vetted publicly among key stakeholders, the discussion about the canal will likely continue to take place in the abstract, which is unlikely to get us any closer to a solution for the Delta.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has long been an advocate for a resurgent Delta. He has had a powerful effect on the discussion with his Delta Vision blue ribbon task force, plans for a comprehensive Delta conservation plan and statewide water conservation initiatives. He and many other leaders are convinced that an improved system to convey water around or through the Delta makes sense and should be built.

A well-engineered conveyance system -- whether a peripheral canal or one of several other concepts being considered -- has the potential to solve two major Delta problems: protecting its ravaged ecosystem and enhancing the quality and reliability of water exports.

Lester Snow is director of the California Department of Water Resources.

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