The health of California’s Delta has become a hot topic, with plummeting populations of native speciesÂ (salmon, Delta smelt, etc) blamed on water diversions, habitat loss and water quality issues.
Last year, a federal judge dealt the final blow to “business as usual” by limiting the amount of water that could be pumped from the Delta, citing damage to the fast-shrinking Delta Smelt population.
Fueled by unchecked population growth (and a growing demand for water), a drought, and the specter of global warming, Judge Wanger’s decision ignited what had been brewing for years.
The moment Wanger issued his order, California’s modern water wars began.
Will California’s water wither in the face of population growth?
The real result of California’s water wars has been a kind of hyper-gridlock, with advocates for irrigators and SoCal residential users desperately trying to stave off reductions in deliveries while fisheries and environmental groups demand water be used to protect endangered/commercially compromised fish populations.
With proposals predictably spanning the spectrum (“More storage” says the farm lobby, “Use less” say the fish folks), little, if anything, has been accomplished.
Now a widely anticipated report from an independent study group says that the peripheral canal – a project whose very name brings epithets to the lips of Northern Californians unwilling to see any more water shipped south – is the best, most cost-effective strategy for ensuring California’s water supply and for saving the California Delta.
What They’re Saying
The only real constant in all this has been the wide-ranging coverage provided by the Aquafornia blog, which quickly threw together a post summarizing reactions to the report’s announcement.
They followed that with two cautionary pieces, one suggesting the problem isn’t conveyance, it’s that water’s going where it shouldn’t, and yet another SF Chronicle opinion piece cautiously endorsing the idea of the Peripheral Canal provided more than lip service is paid to salmon recovery efforts:
Any proposals for new infrastructure, whether a Peripheral Canal or new water storage, must go beyond lip service about restoring salmon, and actually do it. There must be a complete package that ensures sustainable restoration of the delta’s valuable fisheries. We need to provide the water that fish need when and where they need it. There must be money available to ensure that key restoration projects are not merely planned, but executed. We need to create financial incentives that will encourage everyone to do a far better job of conserving water. Most critically, we need guarantees that our waterÂ anagers will be held accountable to ensure that promises are kept.
For those not familiar with it, the Peripheral Canal would divert Sacramento River water before it even reaches the California Delta, reasoning that it’s far less environmentally damaging than using massive pumps to remove from the south end of the Delta.
Most experts agree in theory, but the environmental and fisheries communities – groups with little faith in those running the Central Water Project – can’t see past the potential for massive diversions of water around the Delta, which – combined with even limited pumping – would lead to the complete collapse of the ecosystem.
In essence, the Peripheral Canal issue could come down to trust – something the state’s water users haven’t exactly earned.
Can We Trust the Water Project?
Enviros – most of whom can’t forget the nightmare of the Trinity River, where a pair of dams – which were “guaranteed” to be operated so as not to damage the Trinity’s robust fishery – immediately began robbing the river of as much as 90% of its water.
(The majority of that water was shipped to Westlands Water District – the same politically-connected water district who now want to flood miles of trout streams by raising the Shasta Dam.)
After literally decades of litigation, groups like the Friends of the Trinity got a little water returned to the Trinity River, and the result has been steelhead fishing so good that fishermen can’t find places to park on weekends.
More recently, the water project’s massive pumping from the Delta and apparent disregard for the health of the Delta (and the state’s commercially viable fisheries) has pretty much soured the milk as far as enviros are concerned.
Yet Another Water Grab?
Where some see a Peripheral Canal as a solution to the state’s water woes, many environmentalists see yet another water grab, and sadly, history (see above) suggests they might be right.
Dan Bacher – well known writer and fisheries activist, said:
In spite of the hypocritical rhetoric that Feinstein and Schwarzenegger and the Public Policy Institute’s authors spin about â€œecosystem restoration,â€ the only purpose of the peripheral canal is to create the capacity to export more water from the Delta. We need increased conservation of water so that we can restore Central Valley salmon, delta smelt, longfin smelt and other fish to historical levels, not increased water exports.
Even those who believe the Peripheral Canal could be helpful fear its potential for shunting massive amounts of Sacramento River water south (that trust thing again).
Others – as quoted in this largely negative Stockton Record story about the Peripheral Canal – are even less interested in seeing it built:
One of the canal’s most outspoken opponents, Stockton attorney Dante Nomellini, had this to say: “The basic thrust of their effort is to try and maintain exports from the Delta and turn the Delta into a saltwater bay.”
Given the history and the potential for overwhelming political pressure to move water south, there’s not much faith that – should water supplies tighten even more – water interests would resist the intense pressure to “keep it flowing.
Interestingly, a Sacramento Bee writer (Dan Walters) wrote an opinion piece stating it’s time for everyone to abandon their agenda and get the peripheral canal built, and actually accused environmental groups of sacrificing the delta for their own causes, a startling statement given that environmentalists have not been pumping record amounts of water from the Delta the last five years:
While shedding public tears over the Delta’s plight, they have been, in effect, willing to sacrifice its environmental health for their other agenda.
Even more interestingly, a majority of the normally conservative SacBee commenters (on the SacBee Web site) weren’t in favor of the canal, a signal to proponents that they’ve got an uphill battle in front of them.
That’s fine with some environmental groups, who feel that rather than look for better ways to move more water south, California needs to seek real solutions to its problems, including residential conservation programs, taking marginal farmland (and the accompanying water rights) out of production, offering farmers incentives to grow less water-intensive crops, etc.
They too face an uphill battle; a water-hungry southern half of the state wants water, not sanctimony, and in several Southern California communities, calls for voluntary reductions in water use actually resulted in net increases in water use (fearing mandatory conservation, people used more water so a compulsory 20% reduction would hurt less).
Just yesterday (Friday, 7/19),Federal Judge Wanger ruled that pumping water from the Delta almost certainly imperils endnagered salmon populations, and though he hasn’t yet outlined a plan of action, he’s certainly set the stage for even more restrictions on water removal.
For the state’s water projects, this is yet another shove forward into the abyss.
Meanwhile, Governor Schwarzenegger and Senator Diane Feinstein have jointly floated legislation for a $9.3 Billion water bond, and opponents were quick to note the state has yet to spend all the money from a previous bond issue.
The plan includes some money for fisheries restoration efforts, but most will be directed at increased storage and infrastructure spending projects, so the bond carries the support of irrigators and the business community.
It’s tempting to look at the bond issues as long-overdue spending on badly needed infrastructure, but in truth, prospects for a solution that will make everyone happy are slim.
The Prognosis? Not that Good, Really.
To those looking to preserve and restore what’s left of California’s native fisheries, the problems are clear. Too many people are using too much water, and until now, nobody – save fish – has been asked to do without.
Yet the state’s political apparatus runs on money, and the money in CA lies in Southern California and with agri-businesses (often corporate farms) rather than in fisheries restoration.
That kind of pure political clout isn’t likely to result in limits to growth, radical conservation measures, or farmland retirement.
It’s easy to suggest that farming water-intensive crops in arid regions – and building cities in virtual deserts without their own water supply – is a bad idea.
Yet turning back that clock – and instituting draconian water use restrictions seems unlikely. The state hasn’t instituted much in the way of water usage restrictions for new construction, and even cities in dry regions are only now getting around to it.
Some cities still don’t even meter their water – not exactly a prod to conservation.
In other words, the political will to do the right thing – before we do the Peripheral Canal Thing – is apparently wholly lacking.
Some even point to desalinization of seawater as an answer to many of Southern California’s woes, but solutions like these are tightly linked to energy costs, which are not exactly falling.
It’s possible desalinization could make a dent in the water supply, but only if nuclear plants were built (nuclear power typically runs at a minimum of $.30/kwh) or large scale alternative energy sources were developed (like putting photovoltaic solar panels on the roofs of California’s typically sun-drenched houses).
Actually building the Peripheral Canal could solve some problems, but given the conclusions offered by the report’s authors, it seems clear that Delta recovery isn’t really part of the agenda.
In fact, much of the report was concerned with the danger posed to the state’s water supply by fragile levees in the Delta, and “restoring” the Delta was largely ruled out.
That larger reality can’t help but force us to ask some troubling questions about California’s problems with its hugely over-promised water supply.
Are we willing to compromise every last shred of what’s natural in the name of money and convenience – especially in light of looming challenges like global warming?
Stay tuned. The wars have really just begun.
See you in the water, Tom Chandler.