The continuing fight for Sacramento Delta water

1,300 miles of ancient, earthen levees protect and encircle the Sacramento Delta.  Some say this leaves the area, and its crucial water supply vulnerable to an earthquake. Others opine that the levees are sturdy enough. That something seemingly as simple as agreement over the safety of levees can’t be reached is a telling indication of how politically contentious the Delta is. It’s been this way for decades too.

It’s all about the water, and who will control it and where will it go. Delta residents and environmentalists have somewhat overlapping interests. They want most of the water to stay in the Delta so the wildlife, fish, and birds will be protected and the area remains a natural resource. In opposition to them, but hardly allies, are farming interests in the Central Valley and the Los Angeles / San Diego water-devouring monsters to the South.  Everyone wants that water, and more than a few of the players are politically connected with major financial resources. Add to that a multiplicity of federal, state, and local agencies with regulatory power over the Delta and you get a rather complicated game indeed, and one which is played using brass knuckles. The politics of water in California has always been a barely disguised street fight.

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California’s Delta Water Blues

“Complaints are everywhere heard that the public good is disregarded in the conflict of rival parties.”
— James Madison, The Federalist, No. 10

Gilbert Cosio stands with his feet spread, one foot higher than the other, astride a sloping, 100-year-old levee surrounding Bouldin Island, 40 miles due south of Sacramento, Calif. We’re here to take a look at improvements that Cosio, a civil engineer, has made to this levee, part of a serpentine network of flood control infrastructure that was imposed piecemeal over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries on the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The levee was originally made from dirt that Chinese “coolies” dredged from the swamp to carve out cheap farmland for California’s new white settlers. Today, it and the hundreds of Delta levees like it must do more: They must — as they’ve been doing since the 1850s — keep the water out of the farms, many of which have fallen below sea level because of soil subsidence. But they must also keep San Francisco Bay, contiguous to the Delta’s western edge, from flowing into the Delta. The miles of levees surrounding Delta land also confine the estuary itself, creating a quasi-natural reservoir for freshwater that’s pumped to 28 million people and billions of dollars of croplands, from Silicon Valley to San Diego. And the levees don’t just protect farms and the estuary; they keep cities and suburbs and crucial infrastructure dry.

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Bay Delta conservation plan loses support

On the heels of the withdrawal of support for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan by Westlands Water District, the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority has voted to suspend continued funding for the plan. 

The authority, which serves 29 member agencies throughout the Bay-Delta, and other public water agencies that rely on water supplies pumped through the Delta, have invested almost $150 million and more than four years toward the plan’s development. It’s estimated it will cost another $100 million to complete the plan, according to the authority. 

According to the agencies, federal regulations have reduced California’s public water supplies by more than a third in the past three years and now the Department of the Interior is proposing even more regulatory restrictions.

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California looks for a way to save the delta, quench residents’ thirst

Nearly three decades after a proposed delta bypass was killed by voters in a divisive initiative battle, the idea is back in vogue.

Pumping water from the delta’s southern edge has helped shove the West Coast’s largest estuary into ecological free fall, devastating its native fish populations and triggering endangered species protections that have tightened the spigot to San Joaquin Valley farms and Southern California cities.

The mounting delta problems, along with the potential threats of a rise in sea level and a major earthquake, have turned the attention of state and federal agencies to an “alternative conveyance”: either a canal or, more likely, a 40-mile water tunnel system that would be the nation’s longest, some 150 feet beneath the delta.

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Viewpoints: Peripheral Canal can aid fish habitat

By John McCamman

In 1965 the director of the Department of Fish and Game, Walter T. Shannon, presented his annual report to the Fish and Game Commission. In that report, he noted the “significant accomplishment” of selecting the peripheral canal “as the best method of transporting water from the north to the south across the Delta.

This conclusion was the product of the “Delta Fish and Wildlife Protection Study,” a joint federal-state project that evaluated alternatives to enhance wildlife protections in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. In fact, that report concludes that the peripheral canal is “the only opportunity to both protect and enhance these resources.”

There has been no change in that position, or in the relative benefits of the peripheral canal when compared to other options for the export of water since that time.

If the state and federal governments continue to export water from the Delta, the fishery agencies’ obligation is to ensure that those exports will do the least damage, and may provide an opportunity to conserve and enhance natural communities, including the fish, wildlife and habitat that are a part of those communities.

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More Work Needed for Bay-Delta Conservation Plan

NOVATO, Calif., Nov. 19, 2010 /PRNewswire/ — Yesterday, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) Steering Committee received a document describing results of four years of work to develop a comprehensive habitat conservation plan to protect and recover endangered species and provide for a reliable water supply from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.  

The Bay Institute, which as a member of the Steering Committee advocated for transparent development of a plan based on science, expressed disappointment with the progress to date and the content of the document. 

While The Bay Institute believes that the BDCP has made substantial progress, the document received yesterday does not accurately reflect that progress as many sections describe plan elements that are not agreed to by Steering Committee members. Said The Bay Institute’s Executive Director and Chief Scientist, Dr. Christina Swanson, “Every chapter of this so-called ‘draft plan’ is prefaced by lengthy caveats and disclaimers, but even those can’t gloss over the very serious, systemic flaws with the document and its development to date. Development of a plan that will withstand scientific and regulatory review will require significant additional work.”

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REGION: Inland leaders explore remedies for uncertain water supplies

Twenty-eight years ago, Northern California voters killed a bond issue that would have paid for a canal to carry water from the big rivers in the north to fast-growing Southern California.

The Peripheral Canal, as it was called, is still being debated, and now officials are talking instead about building tunnels to carry the water more than 40 miles underground at a cost that could top $14 billion. The tunnels would carry supplies under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the pumps that feed the California Aqueduct.

The Delta may be hundreds of miles from Inland water taps, but its aging levees, declining fish populations and water pumping limitations have Southern California water purveyors again looking for a big fix.

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Money earmarked for Delta restoration

State officials have reached an agreement that will provide an estimated $188 million over 10 years to restore habitat for imperiled fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The deal between the state Water Resources and Fish and Game departments binds the water agency to certain restoration activities to satisfy state and federal environmental laws. State water contractors, who buy Delta water from DWR, will pay for those projects.

Among the first projects will be restoration of Prospect Island, near Rio Vista, as tidal wetland habitat. DWR acquired the 1,253-acre island from the federal government at no cost earlier this year.

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State agencies agree to try to help Delta fish

The California Departments of Water Resources and Fish and Game have agreed to jointly work on ways to restore the fish populations in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and Suisun Marsh.

The goal will be to mitigate State Water Project impacts on sensitive fish species in the Delta by improving habitat and favorable conditions to benefit key native fish species, including the Delta smelt, the agencies say.

“The signing of this agreement is a wonderful step for conservation in California,” says DFG Director John McCamman. “It will mean that we can step up our restoration efforts for endangered Delta species.”

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Brown calls for delta canal in Calif. water plan

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown hasn’t changed his mind about the peripheral canal, which voters defeated when he was governor in 1982.

A water plan he released Wednesday calls for building a canal or tunnel around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta as a way to more efficiently funnel water to Southern California and Central Valley farmers.

If elected governor, Brown says he would take action to restore the delta’s ecosystem while meeting California’s water needs.

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More Federal Water Headed To The Central Valley

More federal water will be on the way to valley farmers in the future thanks to a new project.

A number of federal and state leaders were on hand Thursday in Tracy, to break ground on the water system improvement project called “the intertie”.

The $28 million project will connect the Delta–Mendota Canal to the California Aqueduct, to help move water.

The distance between the canals is only about 500 feet, between the intersections of Interstates 580 and 205, which is where the intertie will be built.

State leaders say this is just the beginning of what farmers, and Californians, need to sustain an adequate water supply.

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Link between Two Canals Could Ease California’s Water Crisis

TRACY, California, October 14, 2010 (ENS) – A host of federal, state and local officials and business leaders today celebrated the start of construction on a $28 million underground link between two Central Valley canals south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.  

When complete in 2012, the Delta-Mendota Canal/California Aqueduct Intertie project is expected to improve water supply reliability south of the Delta, one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions, which relies on irrigation to grow fruits, nuts and vegetables.

The Intertie is located in an unincorporated area of the San Joaquin Valley in Alameda County, west of the city of Tracy. The site is in a rural agricultural area that is owned by the state and federal governments.

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San Joaquin Delta water users alarmed by salmon report

A state agency’s opinion on what salmon need to survive has water users warning of an economic disaster.

The State Water Resources Control Board has suggested greatly increased flows through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

That could mean a reduction of more than 40 percent in the amount of water that farms and cities take from the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers, one attorney involved in the issue said last week.

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Secret meetings over Delta canal enrage lawmakers

SACRAMENTO – Important players in the development of a plan that could lead to construction of a peripheral canal or tunnel are meeting behind closed doors, to the consternation of Delta-area lawmakers who signed a letter of protest late last week.

Meanwhile, a document to help spur discussion in those meetings contains details that some Delta advocates find alarming.

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Saving it For Later: Groundwater Banking

In early June, environmentalists and Delta water agencies sued the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the Kern County Water Agency (KCWA) over the validity of the transfer of the Kern Water Bank, a huge underground reservoir that supplies water to farms and cities locally and outside the area. The suit, which culminates a decade-long controversy involving multiple issues of state and local jurisdictional authority, has put the spotlight on groundwater banking – an important but controversial water management practice in many areas of California.

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Several Groups File Delta Lawsuit

The California Water Impact Network, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and AquAlliance has filed a public trust lawsuit in Sacramento County Superior Court to protect Delta fisheries and water quality from excessive Delta pumping.   

The lawsuit charges that the State Water Resources Control Board and the California Department of Water Resources: 

  • Fail to protect public trust fishery resources.
  • Divert water from the Delta wastefully and unreasonably.
  • Use water from the Delta wastefully and unreasonably.
  • Fail to enforce and comply with the State’s water quality laws.
  • Fail to enforce and comply with the flow and water quality requirements of SWRCB’s water rights decision 1641, adopted 10 years ago.
  • Fail to comply with the narrative fish doubling standard in the SWRCB’s 1995 Water Quality Control Plan.

Specifically, the suit alleges that the huge state export pumps near Tracy in the south Delta kill thousands upon thousands of Delta smelt, young salmon and other species every year, at different times of year, and are the main threats to public trust resources in the Delta.

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Californians need to see the real water problems

From Aguanomics:

A guest post from David Schurr:

Many Californians believe there is a water shortage, actually there is a water management shortage fueled by economics.* Studies conclude that water exports are the major stressor to the Delta Ecosystem, which is the most productive estuary on the west coast. Essentially water exports have exceeded what the Delta ecosystem can handle. The result is an interruption in the food chain beginning with losses in zooplankton populations that sent fish populations crashing.

Even though The State Water Board declares that 75% of the state’s water is needed to protect the environment, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) has allowed water contractors to deliver more water. This year environmental protections were overturned by Federal Court Judges to help farmers. Districts that received their water too late in the season simply used the surplus water to flush toxic salt and selenium from their fields, (no kidding) selenium that eventually ends up back in the Delta.

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Comment: Some good points, but the best way to allocate by price is through privatization. 

Some good points. And the best way to allocate a resource by price is to privatize it; which should be done with water.

DWR petitions to extend State Water Project permits

The Department of Water Resources, which holds permits to appropriate water for the State Water Project, has petitioned the State Water Resources Control Board to extend several of those permits for five years to December 31, 2015.  Last week, SWRCB noticed the petitions (PDF), allowing protest until September 20.  The relevant permits authorize diversions from the Feather River and the Delta, storage at Lake Oroville and San Luis Reservoir, and power generation at Oroville and Thermalito.

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Water report offers estimate, misses real effect

The State Water Board’s recent report suggesting that much of Northern California‘s water supply should be redirected to benefit fish underscores the importance of addressing the ecological crisis in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. But as the State Water Board itself cautioned, this report does not explain how to restore the delta ecosystem while meeting human water needs, nor how much water fish need if other factors affecting the ecosystem are addressed.

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Libertarians celebrate water freedom

A small group of libertarians created their own, floating vision of the future in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta recently. It was, as organizers billed it, a little like Burning Man on the water — minus the giant, flaming effigy and with a fraction of the number of event-goers.

The festival was almost canceled due to insurance problems, but in true libertarian fashion, the would-be attendees created a do-it-yourself substitute in its stead.

The would-be event, called Ephemerisle, was sponsored by The Seasteading Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to creating independent micro-nations in international waters.

“I heard about the cancellation and said, ‘In the spirit of self-organized nation-building, let’s get together anyways,'” said Matt Bell, who spearheaded the effort without any central leadership or organizational backing.

Supporters called their alternative, uninsured gathering “the not-Ephemerisle Floating Festival, or a Festival Formerly Known as Ephemerisle.”

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