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Time May Have Arrived For Solving The Delta's Troubles

California's Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region produces many things: more than $650 million worth of agricultural products annually; billions of gallons of fresh water for cities and farms; recreational opportunities that generate millions of dollars for the region's communities.

It also generates studies, reports and white papers. Truckloads of them.

The largest estuary on the West Coast is one of the biggest ecological train wrecks in the nation, the focal point of a tectonic smash-up between human needs and natural dynamics. In consequence, it also has become perhaps the most-studied and squabbled-over body of water in the West. Task forces, commissions and think tanks concerned about the Delta have cranked out enough legal briefs, policy papers, scientific reports and newspaper op-ed pieces over the past two decades to fill a library.

The latest contributions to that voluminous body of work, the final report of a governor-appointed "Blue Ribbon Task Force," hit the streets in December, calling for a fundamental reshaping of the way California manages the Delta. That report was issued at about the same time a federal judge issued his final decision in a case that will result in significant reductions this year in Delta water diversions. Those milestones were followed, in turn, by new scientific assessments warning again of imminent ecological disaster in the Delta's convoluted waterways.

Ecological warning bells and buzzers have been going off so continuously and for so long in the Delta that they've taken on the quality of blaring car alarms in a congested urban neighborhood: part of the background noise, ignored by passers-by even though they're loud enough to wake the dead. But there's a good chance that 2008 will be the year, after more than a decade of policy paralysis, that California finally responds in a comprehensive and pragmatic way to the Delta alarms.

The Delta matters to California for many reasons, principal among them the region's role as a linchpin in two water-supply systems: the State Water Project (SWP), which pumps water from the Delta and sends it on its way to more than 20 million urban users in Southern California, and the Central Valley Project (CVP), which also pumps water from the Delta and delivers it by canal to irrigate several million acres of San Joaquin Valley farmland. Bay Area communities also rely heavily on Delta water, as do farmers cultivating about 600,000 acres in the Delta region itself.

And the Delta is at risk, as numerous reports have detailed over the past decade. Salt and pollutants threaten water quality. Most of the land in the Delta is below sea level and sinking, at the same time that sea level is rising. The 1,100-mile network of earthen levees protecting farms, pumping plants and other critical systems is poorly built and poorly maintained. If the levees fail and the Department of Water Resources concedes there is a two-in-three chance of multiple simultaneous failures during the next 50 years it could halt water exports and cost the state as much as $40 billion.

The native Delta ecosystem also appears to be collapsing, with several species continuing to decline despite years of study and an investment of millions of dollars in ecological restoration in the Delta and the rivers that feed it. Invasive species are believed to be partly responsible for the decline of native flora and fauna, along with pollution and climate change. But experts also point a finger at the operation of the SWP and CVP pumps, which suck up and kill fish directly, and which alter water flows to such a degree that fish become fatally confused trying to make their way between upstream tributaries and the sea.

The magnitude and persistence of that ecological trauma was underscored in early January by a pair of scientific reports. The first, issued January 9, found that populations of three key Delta fish species longfin smelt, Sacramento splittail and American shad plummeted to record lows last year, while two others (Delta smelt and striped bass) reached near-record lows. The data were gathered during the fall trawling survey conducted by the California Department of Fish and Game.

The second report, issued a week later, found the number of salmon returning to spawn in the San Joaquin River basin continuing to dwindle, dropping from 5,672 fish in 2006 to 1,158 adult salmon in 2007, according to the environmental consultant FishBio. Over the past seven years, counts on the Stanislaus River have dropped from 8,498 salmon in 2000 to 405 last year.

There have been numerous efforts over the past two decades to better balance California's demand for Delta water with the ecological needs of the fish and wildlife species that live there, starting with the 1994 ratification of the Bay-Delta Accord. That agreement committed the state and federal governments to a collaborative process known as Cal-Fed, which funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into ecological restoration projects but failed in its primary and perhaps unachievable goals of boosting fish populations while simultaneously improving water quality and stabilizing the export supply.

The Cal-Fed accord broke down amid escalating concerns about the failure of the ecosystem investment to produce tangible gains, as well as a growing frustration among urban and agricultural water interests over the lack of progress on increasing water yields from the system. That impasse became starkly visible during the 2007 legislative session, when proposals for bond measures to finance system improvements stalled during bitter arguments between Democrats and Republicans over how much money should be spent on dams and reservoirs, and who should foot the bill.

But 2008 is shaping up as the year the logjam may finally be broken, and it has nothing to do with any sudden outbreak of cordiality among the battling parties. Instead, it is more likely to be the result of desperation. In December, U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger finalized an earlier ruling ordering a significant reduction in Delta pumping to protect the threatened Delta smelt. As a result, SWP contractors are likely to lose as much as a third of their allocations this year, coming amid the likely continuation of below-normal precipitation that will further reduce supplies.

Lofty rhetoric and good intentions have done little to solve the Delta crisis. But rationing, skyrocketing water bills and thousands of acres of fallowed farmland may just provide the incentive California's leaders need to finally make the hard decisions they've been putting off for nearly 20 years.

Resources:
Governor's Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force report: http://www.deltavision.ca.gov/
Department of Fish and Game trawl data: http://www.delta.dfg.ca.gov/data/mwt/charts.asp
Judge Wanger's decision in Natural Resources Defense Council v. Kempthorne, No. 1:05-cv-01207-OWW-GSA: http://www.earthjustice.org/library/legal_docs/delta-smelt-final-remedy-order.pdf