By Paul Shigley
Almost from the moment of statehood in 1848, California has used, abused, and manipulated the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta with little regard for long-term consequences. For most of this time, California public policy makers and the state's citizens had little concern that water systems, agricultural practices, and urban development patterns were remaking the Delta into an entirely unnatural and unsustainable place. Local, state, and federal policy makers; farmers; builders; and seemingly everyone else were more interested in exploiting the Delta's freshwater and rich soils in the name of progress and profit. Although it still provides some remarkable habitats and remains an enjoyable place for people to fish, boat, or watch birds, the Delta has been created and managed for the benefit of large-scale agriculture and rapidly growing cities across the state. Today, roughly two-thirds of water delivered to California cities and farms flows through the Delta.
California's Delta is failing, and no entity seems able to change this. The sweeping economic, governance, resource management, and land-use planning changes that are needed to reverse the trend are simply not politically feasible — at least not until a calamity makes a continued stalemate less desirable than decisive action.
Some scientists recognized the direness of the situation as early as the 1970s, but only with the recent marked decline in several fish species has it become widely acknowledged that nearly every Delta management practice has had significant, often unintended, drawbacks. Business interests, especially large agricultural landowners, argue that these impacts are simply the trade-offs for maintaining a state of nearly 40 million people. Still, the notion that the Delta's ecosystem is in collapse, and that everything dependent on it — which includes much of the state's economy — is extremely vulnerable, is accepted now as conventional wisdom. This recognition of a Delta in crisis has spurred volumes of scientific research, policy proposals, state and federal legislation, ballot initiatives, and news stories, in addition to seemingly endless lawsuits and countless court rulings. Despite it all, the overall situation is policy paralysis.
The Delta is at the center of California's elaborate system for managing and delivering water. The massive State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project pump freshwater — about 6.3 million acre-feet in average years — from the Delta to San Joaquin Valley farms and Southern California cities. In addition, two large San Francisco Bay Area water districts divert water from the Delta, as do the owners of about 500,000 acres of farmland lying within the legal boundaries of the Delta. The entire water system relies on a static — and highly artificial — condition in which a substantial portion of the Delta exists as something of a freshwater reservoir. Instead of functioning as an estuary in which water levels and water quality fluctuate with the tides and seasons, the manmade Delta is one of tidal canals and subsided islands on either side of 1,100 miles of levees. The system counts on freshwater being available in the Delta's eastern section for export to farms and cities at all times of year. Saltwater must be kept away from the giant pumps of the State Water Project and Central Valley Project, even as those powerful pumps cause entire rivers to flow in reverse and suck saltwater inland.
The Delta's ongoing problems are compounded by conditions related to climate change, as well as by the urban growth pressures of a state that reliably adds about 500,000 new residents annually. Climate change on the regional level is causing different patterns of precipitation — patterns that the present system of managing the Delta, and California water in general, appears incapable of adapting to. Meanwhile, the presence of ever more housing subdivisions in and around the Delta limits policy options by making flood control (i.e., the protection of property) a higher priority than water management per se. In addition, because most water for California cities flows through the Delta, urban development almost anywhere in the state has consequences for the Delta. Amazingly, city councils in the high desert east of Los Angeles approve housing subdivisions — and developers build the houses — that are dependent on water pumped from the Delta, more than 400 miles away.
In the popular mind, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is a regional playground. With 290 shoreline recreation areas, 200 marinas with 12,000 in-water boat slips, 635 miles of boating waterways, and 61,000 acres of open water, the Delta draws upward of seven million visitors annually. Boating, waterskiing, wind surfing, fishing, sightseeing, birding, biking, and camping are among the activities that help generate about $1 billion annually in economic activity and support about 8,000 jobs, according to a state analysis. No solution to the Delta's woes can ignore the economic impacts of recreation and tourism.
Nor can any solution ignore the economic plight of the San Joaquin Valley, which is the poorest region in the country, pockmarked by towns with little better than Third World living conditions. Water exported from the Delta or diverted from rivers that would otherwise flow into the Delta is crucial to the valley's $25 billion-a-year agriculture industry and, therefore, to the region's overall well-being. University of California law school professor Richard Frank, who has been involved in Delta policy from several perspectives, sums up the challenge: "It's the perfect law exam question, because every environmental issue is implicated in the Delta."
Lay of the land
The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is not really a delta. A true delta is formed where a river disgorges sediment into an open body of water, creating a triangular shape similar to the Greek symbol, with the river at one corner of the triangle and open waters at the widest side. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is inverted, with major rivers flowing from the north and south into the triangle's widest side, and open water found at the triangle's point, located between coastal hills at the neck of Suisun Bay. What Californians call the "Bay Delta," or simply "the Delta," is actually the eastern portion of the San Francisco tidal estuary.
The word "delta" is not the only misnomer. The current Bay Delta was created with the construction of what are termed "levees." However, true levees are earthen embankments that hold back floodwaters and remain dry the rest of the time. What California's Delta has are actually dikes, which restrain water at all times. The Delta also is said to be full of "islands," about 70 in all. But unlike a real island that rises above the surrounding water level, the Bay Delta's islands are actually depressions of dry land surrounded by levees (rather, dikes). The Bay Delta islands are what the Dutch call polders.
The greater San Francisco Bay is composed of three interrelated units: the mostly open water San Francisco and San Pablo bays, the much smaller and more inland Suisun Bay, and "the Delta," the estuary that stretches for about 25 miles west to east from Suisun Marsh to the edge of fast-growing cities in California's fertile Central Valley, and for nearly 50 miles southward from the outskirts of the city of Sacramento. And what an estuary California's Delta is. Spread across about 1,300 square miles, it is the largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas. The legally defined Delta covers portions of five counties: Sacramento, Yolo, and San Joaquin counties in the Central Valley, and Solano and Contra Costa counties on the edge of the San Francisco Bay Area. It provides habitat to 50 species of fish and 300 species of birds, mammals, and reptiles. A healthy Delta is crucial to the charismatic salmon, ancient species of sturgeon, and millions of birds that migrate along the Pacific flyway.
The watershed for 40 percent of what is now the state of California drains into the Bay Delta. For about 6,000 years, rivers washed sediment from the Sierra Nevada, the southern Cascade Mountains, and the Coastal Range into the Delta. Exactly what the aboriginal Delta looked like is not clear, but it encompassed tidal channels and placid waters, freshwater lakes and saltwater marshes, forests and grasslands, vernal pools and sandy hills. Before Europeans arrived in the 19th century, tides submerged 60 percent of the Delta daily. The vast quantities of sediment and organic matter from decaying marsh plants created volumes of extremely fertile soil that was capped by the tidal marsh. Massive floods and lengthy droughts struck the region at different times. For centuries, somewhere between 3,000 and 15,000 Native Americans lived in small villages bordering the Delta's eastern edge. The native peoples fished, hunted, and made great use of the tules — marshland plants — for clothing, boats, and building materials. Reports from late 18th and 19th century Europeans mention salmon, sturgeon, and waterfowl in abundances difficult to imagine today. Grizzly bears, black bears, antelope, and elk were common.
Virtually no aspect of the Bay Delta's pre-European settlement landscape remains. Species of large mammals are long gone. Salmon and sturgeon are so rare that the government has been forced to ban commercial and even recreational fishing for periods. Rather than tules, nonnative species such as water hyacinth now dominate some marshes. But the biggest change in the Delta since Europeans arrived has been the conversion of 441,000 acres of freshwater tidal marsh — a bit more than half of the entire Delta — to farmland. Nearly all of that "reclaimed" land now lies 10 to 25 feet below sea level as the result of subsidence. Two-thirds of today's California Delta is agricultural, with three-fourths of that farmland devoted to low-value pasture and field crops such as alfalfa. Although farming has dominated in the Delta for more than a century, the best farmland lies in a shelf a few feet above the Delta in locations such as northern Contra Costa County and Yolo County. There farmers raise high-value crops such as pears, wine grapes, and sweet corn. Much of that land, however, is threatened by a sea level that the state officially expects to rise 55 inches within 90 years.
One-tenth of the Delta is urbanized. In 2000, about 515,000 people lived in the Delta and Suisun Marsh, mostly in communities of modest means where the jobs are in agriculture or visitor service industries. Most people commute 30 to 60 minutes each way to the Sacramento metropolitan region or the Bay Area. The cities of Sacramento (pop. 486,000) and Stockton (pop. 292,000) lie just outside of the Delta. Stockton lies so low that ocean tides influence a water channel in the middle of downtown.
Gold rush and beyond
In 1841, California pioneer John Sutter became the first foreigner to receive a land grant in the region, near what was to become Sacramento. Although Sutter envisioned earning riches from California's abundant natural resources, he could never have imagined what was to come. While building a sawmill for Sutter in early 1848, only months before California was admitted to the union, John Marshall discovered gold in the Sierra Nevada foothills (along the South Fork of the American River, a tributary of the Sacramento River).
The Gold Rush transformed the California landscape, as tens of thousands of people moved to the mountains surrounding the Central Valley, especially the Sierra Nevada. Prospectors set up heavy-duty dredges in the rivers and creeks. They diverted waterways to locate gold in the soil. And they used hydraulic mining — a process by which creeks are diverted into ditches and then into narrower and narrower pipes and finally, under very high pressure, into water cannons — to blast away entire hillsides and dig craters in the earth's surface. While all of this industrious activity exposed flecks and nuggets of gold, it also washed torrents of sediment into the Delta. Between 1860 and 1914, an estimated 800 million cubic yards of mining debris flowed into the Delta, mostly as a result of hydraulic mining.
As soon as the Gold Rush commenced, people began farming in the Delta because of its rich soils and plentiful freshwater. However, the sediment and mining debris flowing from the hills raised and constricted the Delta channels that had been created to enable shipping and to "reclaim" land for farming. The never-ending flow of mud and debris caused transportation problems and increased flooding. By the 1870s, the Central Valley and Delta farmers were fighting with the upstream miners. Soon enough, the fight was taken to the courtroom, and in 1884, Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal judge Lorenzo Sawyer ruled in Woodruff v. North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company that hydraulic mining was an increasingly destructive public and private nuisance that must be halted. As a result of the Sawyer decision most mining operations moved underground. Flood control in the Central Valley and Delta became a priority of the state and federal governments. Still, the massive siltation caused by hydraulic mining had done its damage, forever altering the downstream habitat. Among the casualties were the Delta's once prominent thicktail chub and Sacramento perch, neither of which could survive the Gold Rush's muddy waters.
Coinciding with the Gold Rush was the start of an 80-year effort to "reclaim" California's Delta. The 1850 Arkansas (or Swampland) Act gave federal swamplands to the states, including 7.7 million acres to the new state of California. Nearly 500,000 of those acres were in the Delta. Within eight years, the state was selling land in the Delta for $1 an acre, limited to 320 acres per buyer. In 1868, state officials repealed the 320-acre limit and speculators began buying huge tracts. By digging water channels and building dikes (often by doing little more than piling up dredged material), the new owners undertook large-scale reclamation and began selling the newly dry land. Numerous reclamation districts were formed during this period to build levees; 93 districts remain in place today. By the time the reclamation era ended in 1930, some 441,000 acres of freshwater marsh had been converted to farmable land.
While the naturally rich soil was extremely beneficial to farmers, their activities quickly reversed the previous 6,000 years of natural history. The conversion of wetlands to dry farmland altered the natural system in a way that prevented the soil from being renourished. To compound the situation, topsoil blows away during plowing. The result is that much of the land reclaimed for farming during the 19th and early 20th centuries has sunk between 10 and 25 feet below sea level, and some of the best soils are being depleted. This subsidence problem is compounded by the rise of the sea level. During the 20th century, the mean sea level measured at San Francisco Bay's Golden Gate rose eight inches, and the state now assumes that the sea level will rise twice that amount over the next 40 years. Rising sea level is one more stress on levees already under threat from storm surges and earthquake. Unless levees are both raised and strengthened, the rising sea could inundate most Delta islands.
Reclamation of the Bay Delta turned a vast swath of tidal-influenced freshwater marshes and floodplains into a network of channels and subsided islands. In the 80 years since the reclamation effort concluded, nearly all public policy and private investments have intended to freeze in place this artificial, levee-dependent freshwater system. However, the Bay Delta is historically a very dynamic landscape, and scientists largely dismiss the concept of maintaining a static delta. A white paper prepared for the state's Delta Stewardship Council in 2010 did not hedge: "The Delta as it is today is not sustainable, particularly if we continue to use current policies and commitments of resources. The number of levees in the system, their general condition, the practices used to maintain and rehabilitate them, and the level of investment are simply not adequate to counter the number, severity and likelihood of risks they currently face."
Levees are not the only controls on the Delta. Federal and state agencies manage upstream dams to ensure that freshwater flows into the Delta suffice for the ecosystem and for water deliveries. Flood control mechanisms upstream are used to manage storm surges into the Delta. And then there are the shipping ports in Stockton and Sacramento. In California's overall economy, those two ports are extremely minor players. The Port of Sacramento, in the city of West Sacramento, has nearly closed several times for lack of business. Yet the ports are ecologically significant — and not in a positive way. The initial shipping channels carved during the 19th century were quite shallow. As ships grew larger, the channels were deepened. The Sacramento channel is now about 30 feet deep, while the channel to Stockton is 37 feet in depth. Water moves slowly through these unnaturally deep channels, which changes the environment for fish and other aquatic life. The slow-moving waters favor exotic species that thrive in consistent conditions at the expensive of native plants and aquatic species that can adjust to changing water conditions.
Before humans began altering the natural systems, Bay Delta salinity varied seasonally. The highest salinity levels occurred during late summer, when the Sierra snowpack had melted and rivers were running at their lowest. Upstream diversions of the Sacramento River reduced the flow of freshwater into the Delta, especially during the dry summer months. The lower river flows invited saltwater eastward.
As farmers and cities in the region increasingly depended on the Delta for freshwater, control of salinity levels became a larger issue both in the courtroom (as cities and farmers sued to block upstream diversions) and in water projects. Construction of a saltwater barrier in the Carquinez Straights, the western pinpoint at which the Delta's waters meet San Pablo Bay, was first proposed during the 1920s. More recently, barriers either permanent or adjustable have been mentioned as a possible Delta remedy for freshwater quality problems near the state and federal water project pumps that extra freshwater from the Delta. Although the idea of a seawater barrier was mostly recently dismissed by the Bureau of Reclamation in 2009 because it lacked a sound scientific basis, the concept — like numerous other Delta remedies — refuses to die. Holding back the rising seas in order to maintain an artificial ecosystem is still considered a realistic policy option in some quarters of California.
For water purveyors, the primary Delta problem has become the lack of reliability of water exports due to environmental considerations, such as the halt of water pumping to protect endangered fish species. This uncertainty over the amount of available water causes problems for the San Joaquin Valley's $25 billion-a-year agriculture industry, as well as for developers and growing cities that, under state law, must prove they have a 20-year water supply to serve large tracts of new homes and businesses. Farmers have fallowed fields and abandoned orchards because of decreased or inconsistent water deliveries. Meanwhile, developers and some cities in the Los Angeles area have fought legal and political battles with slow-growth advocates over what constitutes proof that water will be available in the future from the Delta for new neighborhoods and large commercial developments.
The Delta dominates
Understanding the Delta requires a grasp of California's climate and geography. The state has a Mediterranean climate in which nearly all precipitation falls from October through March. Late spring and summer are very dry and warm. Much of the precipitation falls as snow in the Sierra Nevada and southern Cascade and Klamath mountain ranges. Most rain and snow falls to the north and east of the Bay Delta in a watershed that covers about 40 percent of California's land area. As a result, this is the wettest part of the state. A snow pack of 20 to 30 feet is commonplace by late winter in the High Sierra, while foothills locations average 35 to 50 inches of rainfall annually. In all, nearly half of California's precipitation falls in the Delta's watershed. The Sacramento River watershed provides 85 percent of the freshwater flow into the Delta.
Fully one-sixth of the irrigated farmland in the U.S. lies within the Delta's watershed, in the 400-mile-long Central Valley: the Sacramento Valley in the north, and the San Joaquin Valley in the south. It is some of the most productive farmland in the world, but only because it is irrigated by water diverted from rivers upstream from the Delta or directly from the Delta itself. During the growing season, rainfall in the Central Valley usually is insignificant.
Most of California's residents live south and west of the Delta in the San Francisco Bay Area (with a population of about six million) and metropolitan Southern California (with a population approaching 22 million). These areas are much drier than the mountains to the north and east. San Francisco averages 19 inches of rainfall per year, Los Angeles only 12. Nearly all of the San Joaquin Valley's $25 billion-a-year agricultural industry also lies south of the Delta and is drier still, with areas south of Fresno receiving only six to eight inches of rainfall during an average year.
With all of this freshwater flowing into the Delta — generally toward San Francisco, Los Angeles, and productive farmland — it is understandable that designers of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project decided to make the Delta the hub of a water conveyance system. The water projects could also tap into plumbing infrastructure that was built decades earlier when the Bureau of Reclamation enabled the draining of Delta marshland so that it could be farmed.
California voters approved the massive water projects in 1933 (the Central Valley Project, or CVP) and in 1960 (the State Water Project, or SWP). When the water projects were moving forward, the development of surface water sources was considered an unquestionably good thing. The Central Valley Project was designed largely to provide irrigation water to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley (the southern half of the Central Valley). A centerpiece of the CVP is Shasta Dam, a 600-foot-tall structure on the Sacramento River — the state's largest river — located about 200 miles north of the Delta. Folsom Dam is located on the American River, which flows into the Sacramento River just upstream from the Delta (and within two miles of the state Capitol). South of Sacramento, a number of sizable federal dams control tributaries to the San Joaquin River.
The State Water Project was designed to serve Southern California cities and agricultural lands in the Tulare Basin between Fresno and Bakersfield. The largest facility in the State Water Project is Oroville Dam, located on the Feather River some 75 miles north of Sacramento. Completed in 1968, Oroville Dam is one of the largest earthen dams in the world. The East Bay Municipal Utility District, which provides water to some of the Bay Area, also operates a few large dams upstream of the Delta.
For decades, the federal government held sway in the world of California water. It established most of the water use policies and built many of the largest systems. However, by 1980, the Bureau of Reclamation had completed New Melones Dam on the Stanislaus River (a San Joaquin River tributary) and many other components of the Central Valley Project. Although the bureau was still trying to move forward with the giant Auburn Dam in the foothills above Sacramento (a project that stalled because of earthquake concerns during the 1970s but officially died only in 2008), the federal government's influence was beginning to wane by 1980. Federal agencies were dropping out of the business of building new water infrastructure in California. The state government and local and regional water agencies were assuming more responsibility for building major infrastructure, even though these agencies lacked the federal government's financial resources. Today, no single entity or even level of government is "in charge" of California water or the Delta.
After approving the CVP in 1933, the state promptly handed the project to the federal government, which finally completed the construction of the system's numerous dams and canals during the 1980s. Some would argue the CVP was never "completed," and that the federal government simply stopped work as money ran short and environmental opposition overran new dam development. Nevertheless, there are no serious plans to expand the CVP because there is no political appetite or funding for new dams. For similar reasons, the State Water Project has never been completed either.
Still, the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project together supply 22 million people with drinking water and irrigate seven million acres of farmland. In 1985, the CVP and SWP for the first time pumped a combined five million acre-feet of water out of the Delta. By 2000, the total surpassed six million acre-feet.
The system of dams evens out seasonal flows into the Delta and limits some natural flood flows, although major events still inundate areas of the Central Valley and Delta. However, combined with upstream diversions to farms and cities, the water system pumping reduces the Delta's freshwater outflow into San Francisco Bay by 25 to 65 percent, depending on annual precipitation.
While Shasta, Oroville, Folsom, and other reservoirs of the CVP and SWP impound millions of acre-feet of water for agriculture and human consumption, most of that water does not run directly into delivery systems. Instead, dams release water into rivers that flow into the Delta. At the extreme southeastern corner of the Delta, gigantic pumps housed in structures the size of large parking garages suck water from the Delta into concrete canals for eventual delivery to agricultural irrigation districts and urban water agencies that may be hundreds of miles away. This design requires the Delta to flow north to south from freshwater source to CVP and SWP pumps, rather than east to west from freshwater source to the sea. In fact, because the pumps are located adjacent to the lower flowing San Joaquin River rather than the much larger Sacramento River, the pumps can actually force water to flow uphill.
One result of these unnatural flows is that anadromous fish become confused and are unable to find their way from tributaries to the sea. Those fish, including endangered species of salmon, die. Another result is that natural tides and river flows do not "flush" the Delta, causing a buildup of salt, nutrients, and pollution in its eastern reaches. To combat this situation, CVP operators try to control salinity levels in the eastern Delta by releasing water from Lake Shasta into the Sacramento River. The idea is to pulse freshwater through the Delta for the benefit of both CVP customers and Bay Area water providers that take water from the Delta.
Eastern Delta water-quality concerns have existed since the very early days of CVP construction. Early on, the Bureau of Reclamation proposed avoiding the Delta altogether and building a canal that would draw Sacramento River water from Freeport, just south of the city of Sacramento, to the start of CVP canals in the Stockton area. Although the canal was never built, the idea of a peripheral canal, or "isolated conveyance facility," persists. (See below.)
University of California, Davis fisheries biologist Peter Moyle argues that for many years there was a basic misunderstanding of how the Delta's natural system worked, and of how manmade alterations affected the natural world. The foremost misconception was that the Delta was truly a delta that was created by river deposits, rather than an estuary nourished by deposits of decaying marsh plants and supplemented by river sediment. In other words, California's Delta is not a linear, river-driven natural system. However, for decades the Delta has been treated as such by the State Water Resources Control Board, which determined how much water could flow from the Delta into the water systems without harming the Delta ecosystem. The fact that the ecosystem today faces a possibly irreversible crisis proves Moyle's point. Using the Delta as the primary valve in a linear water system may have been convenient for a period, but that convenience has come at a high price for the environment.
Change of heart
Whether all of this water engineering may be deemed "successful" depends on one's perspective. There is no question the water system and its management have provided for California's growth from eight million people when World War II ended to about 39 million today. The water system has enabled California's people, trend-setting businesses, and world-renowned farms to survive numerous multi-year droughts.
One problem is that the system was designed with a focus exclusively on extracting water for human use. The Central Valley Project even moves water from the Trinity River on one side of the Klamath Range through 14-mile-long tunnels to Whiskeytown Reservoir and, eventually, the Sacramento River on the other side of the mountains. "The flows of two watersheds can now be regulated for the benefit of the farms and cities of the lower valley," President John F. Kennedy said when he dedicated that portion of the CVP in 1963. "For too long, this water ran unused to the sea."
Even Tim Quinn, the current executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, whose members benefit greatly from the system, notes that "the environment itself did not count" when the systems were designed. During public speeches, Quinn likes to use as an example the 1957 State Water Plan, which called for damming every river on California's North Coast — an unimaginable proposition today.
Federal legislation approved during the early 1970s forced a change in mindset. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Water Act were approved during an unprecedented wave of bipartisan concern for the environment. Californians began looking at the way they managed water — and the Delta — differently. The nature of the Central Valley Project changed to some extent in 1992 with approval of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act. Endorsed by the first Bush administration, the law attempted to make environment restoration and maintenance a co-equal priority with the delivery of water for agricultural purposes.
Still, new attitudes and evolving science did little to change actual management of the Delta itself. Not until 1992 did state lawmakers approve a Delta Protection Act, and even that measure amounted to baby steps. The statute designated the Delta's "primary" and "secondary" zones with the idea of prohibiting nearly all new development in the primary zone while permitting limited urban growth in the secondary zone. These legal boundaries, however, were not based on geography or anything related to the natural world. Instead, they were arbitrary lines based on political compromise. Thus, for instance, Suisun Marsh — an integral part of the western Delta — was left outside the legal boundary for the Delta because the designation would have conflicted with local plans for urban development in growth friendly Solano County. And although the Delta Protection Act may have intended to protect the Delta, the act's lack of strong controls in the secondary zone served as a bright green light for development there; housing subdivisions soon flourished.
In more recent years, the Delta Protection Act's author, Patrick Johnston, a former lawmaker from Stockton who has remained engaged in Delta policy, has conceded that the 1992 boundaries were entirely political and that the primary zone should be made much larger to prevent the sort of urban encroachment that the secondary zone has seen. Much of this urban encroachment into the Delta has occurred because the land is cheap, and because cities such as Lathrop, Stockton, and Oakley have been eager to approve large housing tracts. However, there is a reason why the land is cheap: The real estate is flood-prone and the weak levees are in need of expensive repairs.
But the Delta Protection Act was more than symbolic. The 1992 legislation also created the Delta Protection Commission with a 19-member board composed of local and state government appointees. By 1995, the commission had adopted a compromise-oriented management plan, and local governments adopted the plan's policies into their local general plans. Despite the contentious nature of the Delta, the commission for years maintained a fairly low profile while carrying out its legally mandated mission of preserving, protecting, and enhancing the Delta's agriculture, habitat, and recreation. And the legislation did provide the commission with a measure of land-use authority: The commission could review proposed development projects in the secondary zone, but only for their potential impacts on the primary zone, and the commission could serve as an appeal body for development approved in the primary zone.
It was in this latter role that the commission gained its highest profile and had, perhaps, its greatest moment, when it considered an appeal from environmental groups concerning a project in the unincorporated town of Clarksburg, about 10 miles south of Sacramento. Yolo County had approved development of 162 homes and a number of commercial uses, such as wineries and art galleries, on the site of a shuttered sugar beet processing plant along the Sacramento River. Project developers and Yolo County representatives argued the project was exactly the sort of industrial site reuse that could boost the Delta's local economy. The new houses would simply help pay for the economic development component.
However, after hearings in 2007 and 2008, the commission blocked the project's residential component because of the flood risk to the proposed homes. The decision was pivotal, because the Old Sugar Mill project would have been the most substantial urban development in the primary zone since the Delta Protection Act was approved. Had the commission approved the project, it could have opened an entirely different sort of Delta floodgate — a housing development floodgate. Proponents of the Delta Protection Act argued that the Old Sugar Mill saga proved that the process, however flawed, worked when it most mattered.
Despite the Old Sugar Mill decision and the Delta Protection Commission's preparation of a more environmentally aggressive management plan, the notion that the commission was toothless persisted. The real issue, though, was that the commission's charge simply was not broad enough to satisfy its critics. In 2009, state lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger approved a package of bills that, among other things, reconstituted the Delta Protection Commission by eliminating most state appointees to the commission and giving the panel an "economic sustainability" mission. More importantly, the legislation created a Delta Stewardship Council that would exercise broader oversight while advancing the co-equal goals of environmental restoration and improved water supply reliability.
Council Chairman Phil Isenberg, a former Sacramento mayor and state lawmaker who has been involved in Delta policy for decades, has called the co-equal goals "pretty dramatic and very, very difficult to achieve." The 2009 package of five bills was arguably the most important water legislation in half a century, but it is too soon to tell if it amounts to more than additional baby steps for improving Delta management.
In the meantime, the Delta remains significantly imperiled, with potentially dire consequences for the state, its economy, and its people. Perhaps the most fragile portion of the Delta is the system (if it can be called that) of levees that makes the Delta what it is today.
The Delta in Peril
Geologists have warned for years about the instability of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta levees (the dikes that are known locally as "levees"). The warnings were mostly background noise in California until the summer of 2004. On a typically dry and warm June day, with no precipitation falling and no unusual river flows or tides, a levee protecting the Jones Tract simply gave way without warning. Because the Jones Tract is like most of the 69 other "islands" in the Delta and lies below sea level, water rushed through the 200-foot-long levee break, and soon 12,000 acres of farmland were covered by 12 feet of water. Emergency repairs to the levee and the immediate buttressing of a nearby levee protecting Highway 4 cost state taxpayers $90 million. The shocking Jones Tract levee failure focused new attention on the condition of the Delta's levees.
One year later, levee failures caused half a continent away by Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the fragility of a system dependent on manmade dikes. Although hurricanes do not get anywhere near California's Delta, five substantial earthquake faults run through and near it. Moreover, the region is due for a major temblor. Geologists estimate there is a two-in-three chance of a major earthquake striking the region by 2050 and causing multiple and simultaneous levee failures and $40 billion worth of damage in the Delta. Such a disaster could also entail loss of human life and enormous public safety costs.
The devastation wrought to the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina forced a re-evaluation of California's Bay Delta by local, state, and federal agencies, as well as academics. Three years later, in 2006, state voters approved an unprecedented $4.1 billion worth of flood control bonds. However, exactly how a state with flood control issues both inside and far from the Delta would allocate the money was far from clear in the bond language.
Although the last century's worth of farming, urban development, and recreational uses in the legally defined Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and adjacent Suisun Marsh would not be possible without 1,300 miles of levees, there is surprisingly little coordination of levee maintenance. The state of California maintains about 400 miles of "project" levees, while small, local reclamation districts and property owners are responsible for 700 miles of "private" agricultural levees. (The other 200 miles of levees in the Suisun Marsh are mostly local responsibilities; they are not counted in most discussions of the Delta because they lie outside the Delta's legal boundary.) Because of poor maintenance, these private levees are "a particularly weak link in the system," the Public Policy Institute of California has warned. Many of the levees were minimally engineered and constructed of native materials.
Common wisdom has held that the levees must be maintained at all costs not only to protect the farms, buildings, and infrastructure behind them but to maintain the quality of freshwater that the State Water Project and Central Valley Project export from the southeastern corner of the Delta. When a levee fails, especially in the eastern part of the Delta, the resulting island inundation can draw saltwater eastward, toward the giant water system pumps. Meanwhile, huge amounts of fine sediment and decades' worth of pesticide residue and waste on the flooded island float away and often into the same stream from which pumps are sucking water. Thus, a levee failure is deadly for wildlife and plants, and very expensive for agencies that must deliver and treat water. Levee failures are seen as disasters from almost every angle.
From 1988 to 2005, state and local agencies invested $200 million in the Delta's levees. However, the intent of this investment was modest: Raise the levees one foot above the predicted 100-year flood stage. This focus ignored the fact that Northern California had been experiencing "100-year floods" about every five to 10 years since the 1950s, and that Department of Water Resources officials were on record predicting that floodwaters would get deeper because of alterations in precipitation patterns caused by climate change. Further, the levee improvements involved few upgrades to the interior or foundations of structures, meaning the improvements left seepage as an unresolved issue. Meanwhile, the "islands" in the Bay Delta continue to sink, some by as much as one to two inches per year. The lower the island, the greater the pressure on the levees.
Delta levees have failed about 160 times since 1900. Without substantial investment, the levees will fail more regularly — all without the impacts of climate change. In more recent years, experts and policy makers, led by economists, have questioned the save-every-levee assumption. For one thing, it would cost $1.4 billion to upgrade the 700 miles of reclamation district levees to federal standards. In many cases, the cost of upgrades is greater than the value of the land and improvements protected by the levees. A larger issue, though, is that an upgrade to federal standards would do little to boost levee reliability, especially in light of predicted sea level rise of 55 inches by 2100.
State lawmakers approved the Delta Protection Act in 1992 in an attempt to get a handle on urbanization of the Delta. Although proposals to build new towns in the heart of the Delta had never gotten off the ground, cities and counties along the fringe of the Delta were permitting subdivisions to encroach farther and farther into wetlands and flood-prone territory. The Delta Protection Act was one response to this urbanization, but the law had a rather limited impact because, even though the Delta is of statewide significance, land-use authority remains fragmented among local agencies. Thus, the state government lacks any significant ability to manage development patterns in and around the Bay Delta.
This situation is simply a reflection of California's home rule system. In incorporated areas, cities have virtually complete control over land use, and in unincorporated territories, counties exercise the same level of autonomy. There are state-appointed appeals boards with some control over development in California's coastal zone and along the edge of San Francisco Bay. There is also a bi-state agency that tightly regulates development in the Tahoe Basin. But no similar board exists for the Delta, despite its statewide importance. In 2009, the Schwarzenegger administration and state lawmakers created the Delta Stewardship Council to adopt and enforce an overall Delta management plan, yet the council will not serve as an appeals board or have land-use authority. It is unclear what the ramifications would be if a city chooses to ignore the Stewardship Council's management plan and permit development that is inconsistent with the plan.
Academics, environmentalists, and some stakeholders have urged creation of an authority for the Delta, modeled on the California Coastal Commission. That board, established during the environmental movement of the 1970s, certifies local land-use plans for the coastal zone and hears appeals of proposed development within the zone. However, the commission is something of a lightning rod, especially for property rights advocates and development interests that have long chafed at the commission's lengthy review process, strong protections of environmentally sensitive habitats, and eagerness to impose expensive conditions on new development. The U.S. Supreme Court's famous Nollan decision requiring a "nexus" between a project's impact and a government's exaction stemmed from Coastal Commission conditions of approval for reconstruction of a Southern California beachfront house. Hence, creation of a Coastal Commission-style panel for the Delta has faced a difficult political fight in Sacramento, where the homebuilding lobby is extremely well funded.
Appointed by Gov. Schwarzenegger in 2006, the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force urged restrictions on urban development in the Delta because of the need to protect existing floodplains. It is "irresponsible" to permit construction in the Delta in the face of flood hazards, the task force concluded in surprisingly blunt language. In fact, the number one near-term action the panel recommended in its final report was acquisition of additional floodplain to ensure it is not developed. The task force essentially echoed the recommendation of academics and some environmentalists who have argued for years that the Delta's landscape should be dominated by agriculture, habitat, and recreation, not by housing tracts. The Delta Vision task force recommended that urban development decisions be made by a body of local representatives working to implement a parent agency's policies. Furthermore, the task force said, the area over which this new body has jurisdiction should be expansive, and not limited to the politically driven legal definition of the Delta adopted by state lawmakers in 1992.
Despite the numerous proposals over the years for gigantic urban developments within the Delta, very little has actually been built. The real urban growth pressure lies on the fringe of the Delta, especially in the Stockton region and in northern Contra Costa County, where farms and floodplains have converted to new towns during the last 30 years. Yet these edge lands are the ones most needed to accommodate rising sea level and the bigger floods that are likely to result from climate change. The State Board of Reclamation estimated in 2007 that 130,000 houses were in some stage of planning for the Delta, nearly a doubling of the Delta's built environment. Although it could take many years for those houses to become reality, especially considering the real estate market crash, the consequences of such urbanization are predictable. Flood control would become the central tenet of resource management at the expense of water quality, water supply, and natural habitat.
The intense urban development pressure on the Delta's edge is partially the result of an extensive and relatively free-flowing highway network that provides good access to employment centers in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Sacramento region. In addition, land in the Delta is typically much cheaper than in the Bay Area or Sacramento proper. In other words, a flood-prone tidal estuary, if not managed carefully, could convert to a giant bedroom for Northern California commuters.
If one project epitomizes the problems with land-use planning in the Delta, it is River Islands in the city of Lathrop. Located near Stockton and about 50 miles south of Sacramento, Lathrop was a nondescript Central Valley farm town of about 6,500 people adjacent to a U.S. Army depot when it incorporated in 1989. The new city's leaders, however, had grand visions. In 1996, the city approved Gold Rush City on the 4,800-acre Stewart Tract, an agricultural island in the far eastern Bay Delta. A project that promised to make the young city of Lathrop rich and famous, Gold Rush City was a pipe dream of four theme parks, 5,000 hotel rooms, three golf courses, shopping malls, and 8,500 housing units. As with countless other real estate development schemes, the project went nowhere. Seven years later, though, the city approved a completely revamped proposal for Stewart Tract. That proposal, ironically renamed River Islands, called for 11,000 housing units and a 325-acre employment center, all of which would be protected by 100-yard-wide super-levees that the developer, the United Kingdom's Cambay Group, called "high ground."
The flood protection component was essential to the project, because Stewart Tract lies in the 100-year floodplain and had in fact been inundated on a fairly regular basis. City officials, though, made clear that new housing and economic development, not flood management, were their priorities. Flood concerns were for the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Still, the project could not go forward without permits from the State Board of Reclamation, an obscure and poorly funded entity charged with overseeing flood protection in the Central Valley. Separate from other agencies with their fingers in Delta policy, the Board of Reclamation had been around since the early 1900s, and one of its primary tasks was to regulate changes to levees and other aspects of the flood control system. Members of the governor-appointed board and staff engineers questioned the "high ground" concept of flood control. More worrisome to them was the removal of 4,800 acres of flood storage area and the downstream impacts from the channelization that would be created by River Islands. The Board of Reclamation knew the water had to go somewhere.
The River Islands project and other proposals forced the Board of Reclamation to reconsider its benign — accommodating, really — approach to development. In 2005, the board adopted a policy under which it would comment on all development proposals in areas protected by levees. The state's flood control experts decided they could no longer remain silent as cities and developers built in high-risk areas with no consideration of downstream impacts. The board's newfound assertiveness did not last long. Two weeks later, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger removed all Board of Reclamation Board members and appointed replacements. The governor's Board of Reclamation housecleaning was not coincidental. The developers of River Islands, essentially a new town on a floodplain in the Delta, would receive full cooperation from the state of California.
Even as concern over the Bay Delta ecosystem rose during the 1970s and 1980s, smelt and split-tail fish species were paid little heed. Pelagic (open water) species that grow to barely two inches in length, smelt and split-tail were commonly considered "trash" fish. Clear into the 1990s, the focus of many public agencies and Delta defenders was non-native sport fish, such as bass, which are favored by the fishermen and, therefore, the recreation industry.
The Delta smelt was listed as a "threatened" species under the Endangered Species Act in 1993. The Fish and Wildlife Service, environmentalists, and water agencies have fought for years over whether the smelt warrants an upgrade to "endangered" status. While the listing status remained unresolved, Delta smelt populations crashed starting in 2004 — at roughly the same time that water exports from the Delta reached record levels. Exporters blame other factors for the smelt's decline, ranging from municipal wastewater discharges to scorching summers and three years of below-average rainfall. Still, it is impossible to rule out the high levels of water export as a major factor in the smelt's decline and potential demise.
Despite their reputation even among environmentalists as bait or trash fish, the smelt and split-tail are now seen by biologists as "indicator" species. This is because the pelagic species spend their entire lives in the Delta (unlike salmon and steelhead trout, which only pass through on their way to and from the open ocean) and may be most susceptible to an unhealthy Delta ecosystem. When native pelagic fish species suffer, as they have during recent years in the Delta, they serve as an alarm bell of a sick ecosystem. Although ecological warnings have sounded loud and clear in the Bay Delta for many years, the smelt's emergency siren has been ringing louder than ever recently. Some important people, especially a federal judge, have heard the alarm.
That judge is Oliver Wanger of the U.S. District Court in Fresno. Judge Wanger (pronounced Wayne-jur) changed the Delta water game during 2007, when he ruled that the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project were violating Endangered Species Act protections for the Delta smelt. Wanger ruled that water system pumping had to halt during times when the pumps were most likely to suck up and kill smelt. This invalidated Bush administration biological opinions that found continued water pumping operations would not harm wildlife or habitat. The ruling rocked the water world and forced a cut in water exports from the Delta of 22 percent to 30 percent. A water system that was based largely on a conflict between man and nature — which man won nearly every time — would have to dedicate water capacity for environmental purposes.
The situation was compounded two months later when federal officials listed the longfin smelt, another pelagic species, as a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Since Wanger's 2007 ruling, the situation has not stabilized and all sides in the Delta debate continue to battle in state and federal courtrooms. Both in court and in political debates, farm interests seek to portray the battle over Delta water as one between humans and fish. Those who make their living from fish, especially coastal California salmon fishermen who had seasons canceled entirely in 2008 and 2009 because salmon stocks were so low, insist the humans-versus-fish argument is bogus. One study found that the closure of the two consecutive commercial salmon fishing seasons came at a cost of 23,000 jobs and $2 billion in economic activity. Those who supply the huge recreational fishing market with boats, guided trips, supplies, and lodging also feel left out in the humans-versus-fish argument.
While native species suffer in the Bay Delta, invasive species, including mussels, fish, and various exotic plants, are thriving. From the late 19th century until well into the 20th century, exotic game fish — striped bass, American shad, catfish, carp, sunfish — were introduced purposely to the Delta for sport fishing purposes. Today, the Delta supports about 50 species of fish, roughly half of which are exotic.
One of the unforeseen results of the artificial system in the Delta is the creation of a friendly environment for invasive species. In the past, the Delta's natural fluctuations in salinity prevented most exotic species from taking hold, because only the natives could survive the variable waters. A static Delta that seeks to prevent salinity fluctuations is actually harmful to the native species and favorable to exotics. The water hyacinth and Egeria that dominate portions of the Delta are both exotic plants that likely could not survive the Delta's natural fluctuations in water flow and salinity. University of California, Davis, scientist Bill Bennett is widely quoted as saying that today's Delta is "full of species that thrive in lakes in southern Arkansas." The most successful exotic species out compete natives for nourishment. The infamous quagga mussel, which likely arrived in ship ballast, not only alters the food chain to its own benefit, it clogs water intake valves.
This picture of suffering natives and thriving exotics came into focus during the administration of George W. Bush. However, the Bush administration did almost nothing that satisfied environmental advocates, including defenders of California's Delta ecosystem. The administration was openly hostile to the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act, which called for at least doubling salmon populations. In 2003, the administration outraged environmentalists and shocked biologists by removing the Sacramento split-tail from the endangered species list. The small fish is native to the Delta and spawns in flooded vegetation, including the Yolo Bypass a few miles west of Sacramento. The Fish and Wildlife Service had listed the fish as "threatened" in 1994.
Evidence that the Sacramento split-tail had recovered enough to warrant delisting under the Endangered Species Act was scant indeed, and it later came to light that Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald had pressured scientists to alter their findings on the split-tail and other rare species in order to remove them from federal protection. The Center for Biological Diversity sued the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2009, but, after undertaking a new review, the agency stood by its decision.
While biologists and hard-core environmentalists can generate enthusiasm for the Sacramento split-tail, the species hardly qualifies as the "charismatic mega fauna" that typically helps frame public debate of environmental issues. In the Delta, it is the salmon that produces strong feelings among the general public. And there is no doubt that salmon that migrate through the Delta are in deep trouble. In 2002, 768,000 fall run chinook salmon traveled through the Delta and into upstream spawning grounds of the Central Valley and surrounding foothills. By 2009, the fall run chinook salmon in the Central Valley had diminished to only 39,000, the lowest number on record.
Yet the Delta's role in the salmon's lifecycle is not entirely understood. Salmon spawn in freshwater creeks and rivers above the Delta, and live much of their lives in the open ocean. The fish merely come and go through the Delta. However, the state's heavily engineered water system dramatically affects salmon health, especially when the gigantic pumps of the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project cause rivers to flow in reverse, confusing the salmon about which direction they should be swimming.
Animal, vegetable, money
Much of the recent litigation over the Delta has concerned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's biological opinions supporting Endangered Species Act listing of species. Included in this litigation are lawsuits from the powerful Westlands district, the largest agricultural irrigation district in the country. Westlands has vigorously fought every proposed and actual reduction in water delivery from the Delta.
The 2008 biological opinions by the Fish and Wildlife Service raised contentions to a new level. The Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that traditional water pumping from the Delta threatened the existence and habitat of the Delta smelt. The National Marine Fisheries Service followed up the following year with a biological opinion that reached a similar conclusion about pumping's impact on Central Valley salmon and green sturgeon populations.
To environmentalists, the biological opinions only concluded the obvious: Pumping by the CVP and SWP reached record levels during the 1990s, and then increased more during the following decade. During that same period, fish populations declined dramatically. But agricultural interests refused to see a direct correlation. U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a longtime ally of Central Valley farmers affected by the reduced water deliveries, demanded that the National Academy of Sciences review the biological opinions. Feinstein redoubled her efforts even before the National Academy released its review when she introduced legislation to establish minimum Central Valley Project deliveries to farmers.
"Water is jobs in California," Feinstein wrote in a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed piece. "More than 2,700 growers rely on water from the Central Valley Project to stay in business.… The Endangered Species Act is a vital yet inflexible instrument, and we must consider the human condition. I can't sit by as farms, jobs and entire communities in the valley disappear."
The biological opinions of which Feinstein complained were mandated by the 2007 Wanger decision, and they prescribed use of "reasonable and prudent alternatives" to the usual pumping program. In its initial review, a 15-member National Academy panel essentially supported the new biological opinions but recommended more of an adaptive management approach to the water resources.
While the National Academy scientists seemed largely satisfied with the revised biological opinions, Judge Wanger was not. In an apparent reversal of years of his own jurisprudence, Wanger during the spring of 2010 referred to water management recommendations in the biological opinions as "guesstimations" that could hurt more than 20 million people who rely on Delta water exports. Within days of Wanger's May 2010 ruling, the California Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation quadrupled exports from the Delta to nearly 6,000 cubic feet per second. In 2011, Wanger invalidated parts of a recovery plan for winter- and spring-run chinook salmon, although he upheld the plan's conclusion that the species were in jeopardy.
In the longer term, Wanger's unexpected rulings for Westlands and other water exporters might have started the pendulum the other direction. As with all legal battles over the Delta, however, it is impossible to tell when the pendulum might swing back.
Species in the Delta also suffer from polluted runoff from urban areas and agricultural operations. In addition, numerous municipal wastewater treatment plants dispose of effluent into Delta tributaries. Many of these plants employ sophisticated and expensive "tertiary" treatment, but Sacramento's regional wastewater treatment plant provides only "secondary" treatment, which leaves ammonia in effluent that is disposed directly into the Sacramento River. The treatment plant is the largest source of ammonia in the Delta, and the presence of unusual amounts of ammonia is one factor in the decline of some species' decline. The polluted runoff and treated wastewater could become even more of a concern, some scientists argue, if a portion of the Sacramento River is diverted away from the Delta via a peripheral canal, because there would be less freshwater to dilute the polluted waters. If anything with regard to native species in the Delta is clear, it is this: Although some factors are greater than others, there are many manmade reasons for native plant, animal and fish species populations to suffer.
No better example of the endangered species conundrum exists than the Cal-Fed experiment.
In 1989, the winter-run chinook salmon was listed as "threatened" under the federal Endangered Species Act, and as "endangered" under the California Endangered Species Act. Four years later, the Delta smelt gained protection under the same laws. Other species listings followed during subsequent years. The threat that heavy-handed regulation based on the endangered species laws could drive Delta management and water policy in general forced many Delta stakeholders to join the 1994 San Francisco Bay Delta Agreement. Signed by representatives of 12 state agencies and 13 federal agencies, the agreement provided the basis for what became the California Federal Bay Delta Accord, better known as Cal-Fed.
Cal-Fed was often described as "a fragile truce" amongst warring parties. It would eventually test the limits of a consensus-based approach. For more than five years, Cal-Fed participants worked on a plan — obviously unrealistic, in retrospect — in which everyone would get better together. Adopted in 2000, the final 30-year Cal-Fed plan contained four co-equal goals: improved water supply reliability, better water quality, ecosystem restoration, and levee upgrades.
After three decades of adversarial water policy debates in California, the concept behind Cal-Fed was enticing: Instead of making difficult, expensive, and unpopular decisions about Delta management, everyone could get what they wanted if everyone worked together. Cal-Fed promised to end years of winning, losing, litigation, and ballot initiatives.
Quite clearly, Cal-Fed promised too much. For example, one of the underpinnings of Cal-Fed was a conservation agreement under which exports of freshwater from the Delta could not be curtailed as long as Cal-Fed complied with the Endangered Species Act. But that promise appeared doomed on its face, as many biologists have argued that compliance with the Endangered Species Act is impossible unless water exports are reduced.
From 1995 to 2005, the Cal-Fed program spent about $3 billion, with most of the spending occurring from 2000 through 2004. But that was only one-quarter the amount that had been ultimately envisioned, and, importantly, only $78 million was spent on what many people identified as the biggest priority: Delta levee improvements. Instead, significant amounts were allocated for projects many miles from the Delta, such as the removal of small dams on tributaries to the Sacramento River in order to improve spawning habitat for anadromous fish that pass through the Delta. "It's sort of odd to me that you could get Delta grant money for a water conservation project in downtown San Diego," says Jeff Loux, a longtime water policy analyst who runs a University of California, Davis science, agriculture and natural resources program.
These far-flung projects were the result of one of Cal-Fed's basic principles, which was that while the Delta was the "problem area," the solution could lie almost anywhere in the state. The principle stemmed from the fact that the Delta serves as the primary valve in California's water delivery system. The notion behind Cal-Fed's approach was that if you could recover threatened or endangered species upstream, or prevent species from becoming threatened and endangered in the first place, then you could avoid reducing Delta water exports. The ecosystem would recover while farms and cities still received plentiful deliveries of freshwater extracted from the Delta.
Although Cal-Fed was approved as a way to govern the Delta for the long term, it took only a few years for the fragile truce to fall apart. It did so largely because it never delivered the money or the systemic remedies that it promised. As an effort involving many different government agencies, Cal-Fed moved slowly. However, the Delta problems were and are urgent. During the Cal-Fed era, pelagic fish species populations were declining so sharply that even biologists who had been studying the region for years were shocked. The unexplained crash of pelagic fish species during the fall of 2004 cast doubt about Cal-Fed's effectiveness and priorities. Although Cal-Fed was hardly to blame for the decline of the species, it seemed as if Cal-Fed authorities should have been able to predict the decline, or, at the very least, been able to outline what was going wrong.
Maybe most importantly, Cal-Fed never enjoyed a stable, long-term funding plan. A related argument insists that Cal-Fed's leadership never set realistic budget priorities that recognized state and federal fiscal limitations. The Bush administration viewed Cal-Fed skeptically and provided little money for implementation. Although it signed the Cal-Fed agreement, the Clinton administration was equally stingy with funding. The federal government ultimately provided less than $700 million for Cal-Fed. By 2005, most of the $1.5 billion provided by the state of California had been expended, as had more than $1 billion of water district and local agency funds.
During various 2005 hearings on the state budget, Cal-Fed and the conditions in the Delta, legislators and stakeholders were deeply critical of Cal-Fed for failing to fulfill its promise. Former Gov. Pete Wilson, whose administration had championed Cal-Fed, said during one of those hearings: "If I had to sum up why I believe Cal-Fed has strayed from its course, it would be this: Process has replaced leadership."
Said former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, another early Cal-Fed believer, "At the outset, we clearly anticipated this process would yield major progress in two areas: finding and developing the sites and infrastructure for increasing surface storage, and making large investments in modernizing and updating the Delta infrastructure. The program has not met those expectations."
Cal-Fed petered out rather quickly, and in 2006 it evolved into the California Bay Delta Authority, which operated within the state's Natural Resources Agency while maintaining its budget.
Some people argue that Cal-Fed failed because neither the water agencies nor the sportfish groups took Cal-Fed seriously. Instead, those interests feigned support while waiting for Cal-Fed to collapse. Environmentalists entered the Cal-Fed process with a great deal of optimism because state and federal agencies that had been in disagreement for decades were showing a new willingness to cooperate. Yet there remained almost a conspiracy within Cal-Fed not to address some of the real issues within the Delta, because to do so would have meant re-opening the peripheral canal debate, which few people were willing to do.
A 2005 state Department of Finance review found that poor communication and a lack of interagency coordination hindered Cal-Fed's progress. The report also said that Cal-Fed's guiding documents conflicted, and that they did not necessarily reflect changes in the program's direction.
While Cal-Fed has received a great deal of criticism for trying and failing to be all things, Cal-Fed did facilitate needed collaboration, and some relationships from the Cal-Fed era continue to produce results. Those working under the Cal-Fed banner also produced data and scientific analysis, virtually none of which could be considered "good news." In fact, researchers repeatedly found that conditions in the Delta were more fragile, more environmentally and economically unsustainable, than previously known.
The Department of Finance agreed that Cal-Fed made progress on scientific research. Still, the review identified "scientific uncertainty" as a problem for Cal-Fed. The report stated, "Scientific uncertainties that have hindered implementation include insufficient information about drinking water contaminants, uncertainty regarding how to ensure levee stability, and not knowing the cause of the recent pelagic fish decline in the Delta." In other words, more than a decade after the Cal-Fed compact was signed, the participants still had not identified all of the region's problems, let alone potential solutions. That lack of certainty does not necessarily demonstrate a shortcoming on the part of experienced researchers and other well-meaning participants. More likely, it reflects the complexity of the situation.
Of course, a decision may be defined as an action taken in the face of uncertainty. There is no doubt that hard decisions about the Delta were needed when the San Francisco Bay Delta Agreement was signed in 1994, and they are still needed today. Not every stakeholder group is going to get what it wants, because demand for freshwater in California by the ecosystem and human society outstrips the finite supply. A can't-we-all-just-get-along approach is doomed to fail as public policy.
The void left by Cal-Fed has been filled in part by litigation filed by agricultural interests on one side and environmentalists on the other. Farmers and water districts sue public agencies over water management practices and environmental regulation, claiming they improperly favor fish. Environmentalists sue the agencies over many of the same practices and regulations, arguing they unnecessarily favor farmers and water districts. The truce is broken.
Every major problem in the Delta — from crumbling levees to urban encroachment, from poor water quality to dwindling native species — will be exacerbated by climate change.
Scientists predict that the regional effects of climate change will include greater hydrologic variability (drier dry years and wetter wet years), increased frequency and intensity of extreme rain events, and a shift of peak runoff in the snow-covered high country from spring to winter, which is when the greatest lower elevation rainfall occurs. Models adopted by the state indicate that all of these trends will increase in decades to come, with the Sierra Nevada snow pack, the state's great natural reservoir, declining by 30 to 70 percent by the end of the century. Between 1979 and 2008, average temperatures in the Sierra Nevada warmed by about two degrees Fahrenheit, with the greatest warming at the highest elevations.
And then there is the rising level of the sea. A one-meter (39-inch) rise in sea level, which a few years ago was predicted for 2100, would inundate 209,000 acres in the Delta. A one-meter rise now seems like a very optimistic prediction. In 2009, the Schwarzenegger administration released a climate adaptation policy that assumes sea level will rise by 16 inches by 2050 — a bit more than an inch every three years on average — and by 55 inches (nearly a meter and a half) by 2100. More recently, a scientific advisory panel studying national marine sanctuaries off the California coast said sea level could rise as much as 29 inches by 2050 and 75 inches — nearly two meters — by 2100.
All of these climate-related trends mean that the flood risk in and around the Delta will rise dramatically. "There is no place in the U.S. that is going to be more influenced by climate change than the Delta," says Gerald Meral, a respected environmental activist since the 1960s who was appointed deputy secretary in charge of Delta planning for the California Natural Resources Agency in 2011. He notes that the U.S. Geological Survey for years has maintained maps that show a large inland sea in a region now containing farms and small communities. "'Sacramento Bay' is not a long-term construct, but a coming-soon-to-your-neighborhood reality," Meral insists.
Whether or not the city of Sacramento soon has beachfront property, the city is undoubtedly at great flood risk. Although it is not located within the Delta's legal boundary, California's capital cities does lie on the physical edge of the Bay Delta and at the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers. Much of the city is protected by dikes and levees, into which local taxpayers and federal and state agencies have poured hundreds of millions of dollars during recent decades simply to bring flood protection up to a 100-year standard. Much of this spending has been focused on an area known as North Natomas, which is Sacramento's largest growth area even though it is essentially a bathtub surrounded by levees. If the wrong levee were to fail, portions of North Natomas would be under 20 feet of water.
The dire consequences of climate change began to come into focus during the term of Gov. Schwarzenegger. Unlike some other leaders, Schwarzenegger did not attempt to downplay or avoid the issue of climate change. Rather, the governor sought to cast himself as a Teddy Roosevelt Republican — a leader who encourages exploitation, in the best possible fashion, of natural resources. Schwarzenegger became a climate change world leader by signing legislation and executive orders that require huge reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in California during coming decades.
When University of California, Davis, geology professor Jeffery Mount published a devastating forecast for the Delta in 2005, Schwarzenegger was among the people who listened. Mount's analysis drew some criticism, but almost no one could argue with his bottom line: The Delta as we have known it for the past century will cease to exist, and there is nothing we can do about it.
One might argue that Mount simply connected the dots: Global climate change would cause sea level to rise and alter California's precipitation patterns, resulting in more rain and less snow. The combination of higher sea level and more rapid runoff from the mountains would devastate Delta levees that were already very unstable. With a speaking style that combines academic sobriety with a quick wit, Mount has become something of a Delta policy celebrity. (That was not enough to prevent Schwarzenegger from firing Mount from the Board of Reclamation in 2005 when the board said it wanted to review urban development proposals in flood-prone areas.) Through countless PowerPoint presentations and several heavily cited studies, Mount may be more important than any other individual in bringing climate change reality to the Delta debate.
More recently, Mount has said that public policy toward the Delta is starting to head in the right direction. With native fish populations plummeting and sea level rising as much as half an inch a year, however, time is more and more of the essence.
The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta "problem" is too complicated for easy solutions. If you tinker with almost any part of California's incredibly complex water system — whether at the base of the southern Cascade Mountains or 800 miles away along the Colorado River — it affects the Delta, because the Delta serves as the system's largest valve. Conversely, if you tinker with the Delta either directly or indirectly, you affect the country's largest agriculture industry, because irrigation water for seven million acres of farmland flows through the Delta. You also affect how people live and how business functions, because drinking water for nearly 25 million California residents also flows through the Delta.
What individuals, businesses, and government agencies do elsewhere in California affects the Delta. If growers change their crops or irrigation districts alter their practices, there are implications for the Delta. Water rates in Southern California cities affect how much water must be pumped from the Delta, as do potential desalination projects on the California coast, the pattern of urban development in the Mojave Desert, the preservation of endangered species habitat, and the recreation demands of California's nearly 40 million residents and untold numbers of visitors. Squeeze the balloon that is California almost anywhere, and pressure increases on the Bay Delta.
Because the Bay Delta is connected to seemingly everything, policymakers — especially at the state government level — have tried to tackle everything at once. In a 2007 letter to Gov. Schwarzenegger, his Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force noted, "The Delta cannot be 'fixed' by any single action." After an additional year of research and study, the task force expanded this notion, concluding it would not be possible to protect the Delta without addressing every issue related to the Delta and California water. But in a state where political and legal fights over one single water source routinely drag on for decades, it is no surprise that these all-encompassing Delta policy initiatives have failed to progress very far and have almost always ended up in the courtroom.
As analysts at the Public Policy Institute of California and the University of California, Davis, have noted, it is unrealistic to attempt to solve all Delta problems simultaneously. The state's long-standing pursuit of a "grand consensus solution" has merely continued the "deteriorating status quo," according to the institute. And yet trying to solve one problem at a time is seen as unacceptable by interest groups that protest the implications of a particular "solution." Restoration of the San Joaquin River is a case in point.
In 2006, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reached a settlement of a 20-year-old lawsuit with the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental organizations over the San Joaquin River. Since the late 1940s, most of the river's flow had been diverted to agricultural operations, and about 64 miles of the river upstream from the confluence with the Merced River went dry. When the river did reach the Delta, it was via a floodwater bypass. This change in the plumbing affected natural flows into the Delta and ruined what had been a vital Central Valley fishery.
The lawsuit agreement calls for the Bureau of Reclamation to operate dams on the river in a way that by 2010 provided a year-round flow in the San Joaquin. The settlement also requires the reintroduction of chinook salmon by 2013. This effort is the largest river restoration in the West, one that could cost close to $1 billion. Much of the cost stems from the need to either rebuild miles of river channel or transform the flood bypass into a riparian area suitable for a year-round river.
Although the project could be viewed as a remarkable turnaround in natural resources policy and a small step toward a healthier Delta, regional agricultural interests and elected officials at every level of government remain vigorously opposed. They argue that the project is a waste of money that will hinder the economy in the poorest region of the country.
If this one step toward improving the Delta's ecology requires 20 years of litigation plus years of debate in Congress and it still engenders extreme hostility locally, how can California or the federal government expect to "solve" the Delta?
Still, the calls to action on the Delta persist. The underlying, although largely unspoken, assumption behind most of them is that the Delta's ecosystem will collapse. More native species will go extinct, exotic species will take over entirely, management practices will be unable to prevent dire water quality problems. Either as a direct consequence of — or simultaneously with — the ecosystem failure, agriculture in the Delta will become infeasible and will die out. Ultimately, urban uses of Delta land and the water will win out, no matter what. The issue is to prevent a situation in which nature dies so that cities may live.
As evidenced by the intensive Cal-Fed experiment, there has been no lack of effort. Again and again, lawmakers, state and federal officials, advisory panels, scientists, and stakeholders have insisted the time to act on the Delta is now. Yet policy progress has been painfully slow. Thanks to its extremely cyclical economy, unique demographics, vast geographic spread, confusing tax and governance structures, term-limited state leaders, and an abused direct democracy system, California has come to be viewed as nearly ungovernable. A state that for decades was at the cutting edge of public policy, economic growth, and social welfare now finds itself looking to other places for answers. No issue has proven to be more intractable than the Bay Delta.
Because it has been unable to address the Delta in a systematic or comprehensive way, the state's policy is largely determined by emergencies: A levee failure forces emergency repairs. The crash of pelagic fish species populations causes reduced freshwater exports. An explosion of undesirable exotic species alters immediate ecosystem management priorities. It does not help the situation that, even though many of the potential disasters in the Delta are manmade and either avoidable or preventable, the biggest threat is entirely beyond our grasp and virtually impossible to forecast: Earthquakes.
Geologists generally agree that there is a two-in-three chance during the next 40 years that a catastrophic earthquake will strike the region, resulting in multiple, simultaneous levee failures. The risk is high because the region has not experienced a major earthquake since the 1906 temblor that devastated San Francisco. In addition, many miles of levees are unstable. A strong earthquake could disable for years the water system that serves the majority of California's population and irrigated farmland, costing the state's economy as much as $40 billion, to say nothing of the potential loss of life in urbanized areas that flood.
The response to a disaster of this magnitude would almost certainly be construction of a canal or pipeline from the Sacramento River to Central Valley Project and State Water Project pumps located and the southern end of the Delta. Fixing the levees that enable the existing system, which conveys freshwater through the Delta to water system pumps, would likely be too expensive and time-consuming. Even if expense and time were not issues, saltwater intrusion as well as the release of huge quantities of sediment and chemicals from flooded farmland could also render rebuilding the existing system pointless.
Digging a "temporary" ditch, even one 40 miles long, would be cheaper and easier to expedite. Thus, a peripheral canal — which has been considered off and on since the 1920s — could become the default policy choice simply because the state had to do something to prevent cities and farms from drying up.
Backs to the wall
The foremost physical problem that must be solved is the delivery of freshwater either through or around the Delta to federal, state, and local water systems. But fixing the physical problem will cost a lot of money, and the state of California is so painfully broke that it has resorted to eliminating healthcare for poor children and releasing prison inmates before they complete their sentences. With the state barely able to pay its light bill, it would seem that direct beneficiaries of Delta remedies — namely, water agencies and their customers — must provide the money to remedy the Delta's physical problems.
One potential solution to the freshwater delivery problem is both very expensive — at least $5 billion, possibly more than $10 billion — and politically fraught. That solution is the peripheral canal.
The peripheral canal
For more than two decades, the peripheral canal was the third rail of water politics in California. If anyone dared utter the words, everyone dug into their trenches for a fight. No subject could polarize elected officials, environmental advocates, water agency leaders, farmers, and even average voters like the peripheral canal could.
The idea is fairly straightforward. Rather than pump freshwater out of the Delta, direct a portion of the Sacramento River into a canal that bypasses the Delta and feeds directly into the plumbing system for San Joaquin Valley farmers, Bay Area cities, and metropolitan Southern California. The idea has percolated since the 1920s, and for many years there was little opposition to the general concept. An Interagency Delta Committee in 1964 recommended construction of a peripheral canal, in part because of its environmental benefits. At the time, only fast-growing Contra Costa County, whose water district gets much of its supply from the Delta, objected to the canal.
The state Department of Water Resources followed up by adopting the canal as part of the State Water Project in 1966. Three years later, the Bureau of Reclamation recommended Congress provide funding for the canal. Although the federal funding never came through, state lawmakers approved the project over minimal objections in 1980.
But the peripheral canal was about to become a hot-button political issue and casualty of the state's burgeoning environmental movement. During the 1970s, the protection of habitat for plant and animal species became a priority for public managers of the Delta. At the same time, worried San Joaquin Valley irrigation districts retreated to the courtroom to protect their interests. Thirty years later, views of the proposed canal have evolved, but the peripheral canal is nearly as controversial as ever. It may also be more needed than ever.
The federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, which were approved in 1933 and 1960, respectively, were designed to use the Bay Delta as the hub of the delivery system. Because most precipitation that falls in Northern California and the Sierra Nevada mountains drains into the Delta, it was the cheapest place from which to pump freshwater for delivery to San Joaquin Valley farms and Southern California cities. When those water projects were designed, no one worried about fish counts, and good quality water was taken for granted.
During Ronald Reagan's gubernatorial administration, the state established the Delta Environmental Advisory Council. Although Reagan was hardly an environmentalist, he was in office during the movement's ascendancy and he signed many of the state's pivotal environmental laws (much as Richard Nixon signed many key federal environmental laws). Reagan's Delta council was supposed to provide guidance on Delta management from an environmental perspective. During the mid-1970s, the council became the primary proponent for a peripheral canal that would remove the Delta as the hub of the water delivery systems. Instead, a canal would tap the Sacramento River upstream from the Delta and carry a portion of the river's flow to the Central Valley Project and State Water Project.
The council worked for several years to convince skeptical environmentalists of the ecological advantages of a peripheral canal. The argument was that the Delta itself could be managed exclusively for environmental and recreation purposes. When Jerry Brown, son of State Water Project champion and former Gov. Pat Brown, became governor in 1975, some of those skeptical environmentalists took positions in the new administration. They examined alternatives to the peripheral canal for two years. "We just couldn't find an alternative that made sense," concedes Gerald Meral, who served as deputy director of the Department of Water Resources under Brown in the 1970s and 1980s, and rejoined a new Brown administration in 2011.
State lawmakers approved the peripheral canal in 1980. Within days, farmers in the Delta organized a referendum campaign, as new state laws in California are subject to voter review if opponents gather enough signatures. The Delta farmers found allies in Contra Costa County Supervisor Sunne McPeak (who later served in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's cabinet and was a member of the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force) and large-scale growers in the Southern San Joaquin Valley with wealth and political connections. The new coalition collected enough signatures to place the peripheral canal referendum on the ballot in 1982 as Proposition 9.
During the campaign over Proposition 9, agricultural interests and environmental organizations that had feuded for years found they had a common enemy: fast-growing Southern California cities. The farmers feared the proposed canal would divert "their" water to metropolitan Southern California, while the environmentalists feared that the canal would devastate the Delta ecosystem by sending the water to — yes — metropolitan Southern California.
After more than a decade on opposite sides in California water wars, farmers and environmentalists became the strangest of bedfellows. They organized an amazingly effective us-versus-them campaign that pitted water-rich Northern California against thirsty Southern California. On election day, the peripheral canal failed spectacularly in Northern California, where some precincts voted more than 10-to-1 against the canal. Although Southern California supported the canal, the overall vote was lopsided and the peripheral canal became unmentionable for the two decades that followed.
George Deukmejian, who succeeded the younger Brown in the governor's office in 1983, invested a great deal of time and political effort in a thru-Delta water delivery system. Although this alternative to the peripheral canal was supposed to ease environmental concerns, "Duke's Ditch" was no more politically palatable than the proposed peripheral canal. In 1985, Deukmejian dropped the Delta entirely and shifted his focus to a massive expansion of the state prison system. In 1990, Californians elected U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson to the governor's corner.
A former San Diego mayor known for promoting a progressive urban growth management system, Wilson entered the Capitol with ambitions to update the state's land-use planning and natural resources management. However, Wilson spent nearly his entire eight years in Sacramento dealing with state budget deficits, civil unrest, and a series of natural disasters. Water policy stagnated during the Wilson era, as it did during Gray Davis's term in office after Wilson. The former chief of staff for Jerry Brown, Davis had no interest in rekindling the peripheral canal controversy. Frustrated with a growing state budget and polarized Sacramento politics, voters recalled Davis from office in 2003 and replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Unlike his three predecessors, Schwarzenegger would not shy away from the Delta.
Back on the table
After two decades of being untouchable, even unspeakable, the peripheral canal began to re-emerge during the mid-aughts. The influential Public Policy Institute of California reports — which insisted that the state needed an entirely new approach to the Bay Delta — combined with the analysis and recommendations of the governor's Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force to put the peripheral canal back on the agenda.
Although Delta Vision was willing to discuss the peripheral canal, the committee soft-peddled the idea. The committee recommended a "dual conveyance" system in which some freshwater would continue to be pumped from the Delta while some water would be diverted from the Sacramento River into a canal that bypassed the Delta. However, the committee devoted very little of its report to explaining or defending the dual conveyance system, instead devoting many more pages to issues such as improved water storage and broad implementation of water use efficiency measures. A detailed description of the peripheral canal was too much for even the thick-skinned politicians and policy experts on the Delta Vision panel.
A dual-conveyance system — a peripheral canal as well as a canal that runs through the eastern section of the Delta — is often seen as a compromise that would improve water quality for exporters and lessen diversions from the Delta. But Gerald Meral, one of the few environmental advocates who has long supported a peripheral canal, calls a dual-conveyance facility "ridiculous," and one that would be needed only for maximum export of water. If the Delta fails ecologically, so will the through-Delta conveyance, he says. A real compromise, he insists, would be construction of a fairly small peripheral canal along with the imposition of strong management protections for the San Joaquin River to ensure the river actually flows downhill and into the Delta. Under the current system of extracting water from the Delta, that river sometimes flows uphill.
Although the peripheral canal is often portrayed as a concrete channel as wide as a 12- or even 16-lane interstate freeway, Meral insists the canal would need to carry only about 16,000 cubic feet water per second. A fairly modest channel or even a large pipeline could handle that amount.
To environmentalists like Meral, a peripheral canal is the obvious solution to many of the Delta's ecological ills: Redirect a fraction of the Sacramento River's flow and manage the Delta as an estuary, not as a cog in a linear water delivery system. To other environmentalists, though, a peripheral canal is an obvious disaster, a first step toward diverting virtually the entire flow of the Sacramento River to farms and Southern California cities. The fact that Meral essentially agrees with Tim Quinn (of the Association of California Water Agencies) on the need for a canal probably does not help his cause among other environmentalists. Quinn calls a "Delta conveyance facility" critical for the Delta's environmental recovery, but environmentalists are skeptical of ACWA's motives because the association, although it may be evolving, has been solely focused on delivering water to farms and cities for so many years.
Could a peripheral canal actually dry up the rivers that feed the Delta? Although this apocalyptic vision may seem ridiculous, peripheral canal opponents point out that the mighty Rio Grande and Colorado rivers frequently do not reach the sea these days because of urban and agricultural water extractions. If mankind can dry up the Colorado River, the argument goes, mankind could do the same to the much smaller Sacramento River. And even if the peripheral canal does not dry up the Sacramento River, the idea of separating water from the fish in the Delta makes no sense, say environmentalists.
The notion that a peripheral canal would be an "easy way out" for irresponsible water agencies also persists. If water agencies would place greater emphasis on conservation, recycling, and environmentally responsible management, a peripheral canal would not be needed, according to this argument. The contention is bolstered by the fact that some cities, including Sacramento and Fresno, for decades refused even to meter residential water use until forced to by the state legislature to start installing meters.
Clearly, the peripheral canal discussion is much more nuanced these days. The topic is no longer simply the environment versus water hogs. Still, Northern Californians feel threatened by a peripheral canal, and state lawmakers from the northern half of the state battled with the Schwarzenegger administration over who may authorize such a project, with lawmakers insisting that their approval is needed.
Although it might have danced around the peripheral canal issue, the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force started moving state policy in a new direction after decades of near stalemate. Appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006 and chaired by Philip Isenberg, who now heads the new Delta Stewardship Council, the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force approached the problem with the co-equal goals of increasing water supply reliability and "sustainable management of the Delta." These goals may be achieved only with new policies and water use habits, the committee determined.
There is a conundrum. The Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force observed, "The Delta is a regional, state, and national treasure. Its unique combination of estuary, water supply, recreation and tourism, aesthetics, lifestyle and rural character make it a special place that we must recognize and protect." At the same time, the Delta that generates such strong political and emotional support is not viable in the long run, not economically, not physically, and not biologically.
In fewer than 150 years, humans obliterated 6,000 years of evolution in the Delta, creating a center of agriculture, a water source, and a recreation attraction. Past generations engineered the Delta with little thought to the environmental consequences or much of anything beyond their immediate needs. Still persisting today is the notion that humans can engineer and maintain a static Delta that serves immediate humans needs — an idea to which interest groups cling, but one that many scientists and academics dismiss. By every possible measure, the status quo is failing. Why pour so much capital into maintaining it?
The Delta Vision report marked a turning point. Produced by a well-regarded, bipartisan panel appointed by the governor, the report was one of the first state-produced documents to recognize that the Delta must change, and that policies aimed at preserving a static Delta are doomed to failure. The Delta cannot be returned to a pristine, pre-1850 state, nor can it be armored to preserve the status quo.
Much of the Delta Vision task force's work complemented or coincided with the efforts of the Public Policy Institute of California, which has worked with UC Davis researchers to expand policy options regarding the Delta. The Delta policy discussion has long considered three potential solutions: a fortress Delta in which levees would be heavily armored to control natural events, a peripheral canal that would divert some of the flow of the Sacramento River around the Delta, or a static Delta from which less water would be exported.
Urban "hardening" of the Delta is one aspect of all three of these "solutions" to the Delta's ills. Yet hardening of the Delta both increases the flood risk and reduces management flexibility. Once homes and business are built in low-lying areas, preventing floods in that area becomes the number one resource management and infrastructure priority.
According to researchers with the PPIC and UC Davis, four significant issues in the Delta need immediate attention: water salinity levels, in-Delta land use and water supply, water exports, and the Delta ecosystem. The researchers concluded that the situation is not hopeless, but "significant political decisions" are needed because there was no evidence that very slow incremental change that had marked the Delta policy for many years would prevent the catastrophe that everyone could see on the horizon. What's needed, said PPIC, is a more technical and less political approach.
The PPIC's pivotal 2007 report, "Envisioning Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta," contained five primary conclusions: The current Delta is unsustainable; our understanding of the Delta ecosystem has greatly improved; society has the ability to adapt to a changing Delta; promising alternatives for Delta management exist; and, maybe most importantly, significant and very difficult political decisions are needed to prevent a complete crisis. "Incremental, consensus-based solutions are unlikely to prevent a major ecological and economic disaster in the Delta," the PPIC concluded.
The key to alternative management, the PPIC determined, was to use different parts of the Delta for different purposes, and not treat the entire Delta region uniformly. At the same time, environmentalists need to reconsider their assumptions, the researchers concluded.
The PPIC report also contained recommendations: Undertake more technical study of long-term solutions; add regional and statewide perspectives to local land-use decisions in the Delta; implement a "beneficiary pays" principle for Delta projects; prepare for an emergency that could shut down water export pumps for an extended period. The PPIC further recommended that government give up on a "levee-centric approach," new dams, and a proposed sea water barrier because they are not viable economically or environmentally.
The Delta Vision task force embraced, or at least acknowledged, many of these concepts, which departed sharply from decades of resource management practices that favored water purveyors. Still, the industry's Association of California Water Agencies endorsed the Delta Vision's recommendations because of the emphasis on sustainability and co-equal goals. Not every ACWA member is ready to place the needs of the environment on equal footing with the needs of cotton farmers and subdivision developers, but the official ACWA stance was another important milestone in the evolution of policy and recognition that the Delta of tomorrow will not look or function like the Delta of the past.
Who's in charge here?
During recent years, what is termed "governance" of the Delta has emerged as a critical issue. In recent years, most people have recognized that the status quo is dysfunctional and an overarching entity needs to have a great deal of authority over every aspect of the Delta. However, exactly what that entity should be and the extent of its authority has been the subject of endless debate.
No single entity is in charge of the Delta. Instead, a hodge-podge of about 200 state and federal agencies, cities, counties, and special districts has jurisdiction over some aspect or geographic area of the Delta. The agencies do not work from one master plan or even with a set of shared goals. The state and federal agencies commonly work within their own silos, and the local governments are guided primarily by the short-term needs of local constituents. "Everybody is involved, but nobody is in charge," summed up Richard Frank, a member of the Delta Vision task force and a UC Berkeley law school instructor.
A number of committees and academics have recommended creation of a powerful entity with a statewide perspective and adequate ongoing funding. The Delta Vision Task Force, having found Delta governance totally ineffective, recommended establishment of a new government entity that would have both a great deal of authority and good relationships with other government entities and stakeholders.
On the surface, the recommendation makes sense. At the same time, it appears to ask for the impossible, because maintaining good relations with everybody only assures that hard decisions do not get made. That, more or less, was the Cal-Fed model. Others, primarily environmental groups, have called for a governance structure that incorporates land-use planning. California already has a Coastal Commission and a Bay Conservation and Development Commission that exercise final say over development in specific zones of California. The idea of creating a similar commission in the Bay Delta, however, has proven to be extraordinarily controversial.
In 2009, the state inched toward a unified Delta governance when state lawmakers and the Schwarzenegger administration agreed on a package of water bills that, among other things, created the Delta Stewardship Council. The seven-member council appointed by the governor and lawmakers was charged with preparing an overarching plan for the Delta by 2012 based, at least somewhat, on the Delta Vision reports. Under the legislation, local general plans and many infrastructure projects would have to be consistent with the stewardship council's plan.
Yet lawmakers and Schwarzenegger declined to give this new entity actual land-use authority. The Stewardship Council may not override local planning decisions, nor does it serve as an appeals board to review local development projects. Richard Frank and others said it was a major failing of the 2009 legislation not to give the new Stewardship Council authority to decide what gets built and where.
Local government representatives and Delta landowners, meanwhile, complained bitterly that they had been left out of the Delta Stewardship Council. The legislation guaranteed only one local representative on the seven-member council — the chair of the newly reconstituted Delta Protection Commission. State senator Mark DeSaulnier, who represents Contra Costa County, where huge subdivisions encroach on the Delta, sounded this theme when he voted against the legislation.
"The plan doesn't give the Delta and its four million residents a fair say in the process. It doesn't adequately protect Northern California water users. Nor does the plan state how the Delta and its farms, economy, communities, and environment would be protected," DeSaulnier argued.
Nevertheless, the first seven-member panel contained former state lawmakers from Sacramento and Stockton, a Sacramento County supervisor, and a Bay Area environmental attorney. Phil Isenberg, a former Sacramento mayor and state lawmaker, was named the full-time chairman for four years. For better or worse, representatives from the region still managed to dominate the Stewardship Council.
The lack of a broader perspective is a major factor in the Delta's troubles. Certainly, notes Frank, there is no evidence that local governments have done a good job of managing the Delta, especially for the long-term. This does not mean there is no room to accommodate local economic needs and local traditions. But they have to balance with the state's needs, because a healthy Delta is essential to all of California.
Other than greater state and regional control of development, virtually every concept advanced by the Delta Vision task force was encompassed in the 2009 legislative package. It was widely considered to be the most important water legislation California had approved in 50 years.
The big water picture
The Delta's future relies heavily on California water policy in general, and the 2009 state legislation demonstrated the complexity of that policy area. The legislation attempted to address numerous related subjects, but others went unresolved, including the politically weighty subject of increased surface water storage.
One potential large-scale water policy centers on reduced reliance on flows from the Delta, whether to aid species or because rising sea level degrades freshwater quality. Curtailing Delta exports would mean that cities and irrigation districts must become more self-sufficient. Because the rights to most surface waters are fully allocated, but groundwater extraction is regulated in only a few regions of California, "self-sufficiency" often translates into increased pumping of groundwater.
However, land in portions of the San Joaquin Valley has subsided by dozens of feet because the groundwater aquifer has been so thoroughly tapped. Meanwhile, pollution in many urban areas makes groundwater costly to treat for drinking, if treatment is even possible. Thus, it's very difficult to envision a California water scenario that does without substantial amounts of freshwater from the Delta.
The future of the Delta also depends on upstream diversions, especially from the Sacramento, American, and Feather rivers. The State Water Resources Control Board has applications to appropriate nearly five million additional acre-feet of water from rivers that now flow into the Delta. A substantial portion of this water would still make its way to the Delta as agricultural runoff or treated wastewater, but, obviously, water quality could be compromised. Water agencies, especially the giant Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, could be expected to fight these diversions because of the cost of treating poor quality water that is pumped from the Delta.
The Association of California Water Agencies in a 2005 report concluded that there is no such thing as "water security." The best the state can do would be to prioritize water conservation and to ease transfers of water from entities with excess to areas with short supplies, according to ACWA.
"We're managing a resource under crisis conditions, a crisis like none of us has ever seen," ACWA Executive Director Tim Quinn said in 2009. In the future, "new water" will come from local resource development and increased efficiency, according to Quinn, and not from additional large-scale water projects. This is a remarkable concession from an entity that represents those who deliver wholesale and retail water to farms and cities. Whether Quinn simply reaches obvious conclusions or practices pragmatic politics, it is telling that one of his organization's largest members, Westlands Water District, the largest irrigation agency in the nation, quit ACWA in early 2010. Negotiation, compromise, and concession on new, taxpayer subsidized water projects are not concepts that some of the major Delta exporters are willing to embrace.
The irrigation districts remained locked in litigation over Delta management practices that San Joaquin Valley farmers allege are economically destructive and contractually prohibited. "The future of California's water lies in the combination of conservation, recycling, and conjunctive use. You've got to take the water when it's available and put it in the ground," says Jeff Loux, of UC Davis. Diverting high freshwater flows into groundwater storage basins would not harm species, he continues, because the species do not need massive storm flows for survival. Of course, this approach would require government regulation of groundwater pumping, a concept that California farmers and landowners have fought vigorously for 100 years. (California and Texas are the only Western states that do not regulate groundwater statewide.)
Climate change requires California to implement adaptive management policies in the Delta, something that former Gov. Schwarzenegger recognizes. "I think we have a responsibility to have a Plan B in case we can't stop the global warming," Schwarzenegger said upon finalizing a 200-page Climate Adaptation Strategy in 2009.
The adaptive management plan covered the entire state, not only the Delta, and, at the time, was one of the most aggressive in the country. It called for the state to consider climate change hazards when locating infrastructure projects, evaluating the impacts of potential development in locations susceptible to climate change hazards, and adding climate change hazard considerations to local general plans. The governor demonstrated his commitment to the cause by appointing a 23-member Climate Advisory Panel populated by political heavyweights, including former Gov. Pete Wilson and former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William Reilly.
Among the issues that an adaptive management plan will almost certainly face: saltwater intruding closer and closer to the massive water project pumps, and urbanization pressure on the low-lying edge of the Delta. For the latter, the state has already struck one important blow. Legislation approved in 2007 requires the state Board of Reclamation to adopt a new Central Valley flood protection plan by 2012. Cities and counties in the region must prove by 2025 that they can provide 200-year flood protection, or are on their way to providing 200-year flood protection, to continue approving development in the 500-year floodplain.
These mandates are intended to better connect agencies that approve development — cities and counties — with the reclamation districts that provide much of the flood protection. Although climate change concerns such as rising sea level and bigger floods were not major considerations during debate over the bill, the new mandates should affect virtually all future development in and around the Bay Delta, and could halt urbanization in some locations. This would explain the homebuilding industry's persistent opposition to the flood legislation.
One issue the 2009 legislation did attempt to address is additional upstream water storage, an issue that has complicated the Delta debate for many years. As in most of the rest of the country, California's era of large-scale, on-stream dam construction ended about three decades ago. Since then, the environmental changes wrought by such dams have become clear. What's more, modern-era dam construction is fantastically expensive. Before federal officials finally gave up on the proposed Auburn Dam on the American River about 40 miles northeast of Sacramento, construction estimates had reached nearly $5 billion. Thus, dams are one of the things that California's environmentalists and fiscal conservatives agree upon.
Still, the drive to build more surface reservoirs persists, largely because California's frequent multi-year droughts strain the water system. Droughts, which are likely to increase in severity and duration because of climate change, force water rationing in urban areas, field fallowing in agricultural regions, and groundwater overdraft in many locations. The 2009 legislation placed on the ballot for state voters consideration an $11.1 billion water bond, the largest piece of which ($3 billion) would fund new water storage. Schwarzenegger, who has championed a proposed off-stream reservoir in the northern Sacramento Valley and an additional reservoir on the San Joaquin River, called additional surface impoundment essential to California's future. Fearful that voters would not approve the bonds in the midst of a deep recession, state leaders postponed the bond election until November 2012.
Recent studies have made the additional argument that more surface storage would be good for the Delta's natural systems because the dams could be managed to ensure a more consistent flow of freshwater into the Delta. Moreover, the Delta Blue Ribbon Task Force concluded that a peripheral canal without new storage upstream "would seriously compromise the ability to protect the estuary and provide sufficient environmental flows." That's a conclusion supported by ACWA, whose executive director, Tim Quinn, said in 2009, "We are desperately going to need additional storage facilities to manage the system for co-equal goals."
The discussion of new dams smacks of political compromise. Truly "fixing" the Delta would be a victory for environmentalists, and a loss for agriculture and urban development. But the construction of new surface water storage would be a loss for environmentalists, and a victory for agriculture and urban development. Political pragmatism requires that everybody win something and everybody lose something.
A more scientific approach may be seen in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP). Numerous federal, state, and local agencies as well as other stakeholders have spent years working on the plan. It is intended to serve as a 50-year habitat conservation plan under the federal Endangered Species Act and as a Natural Communities Conservation Plan under California law. The idea behind the BDCP is to address issues that have become highly politically in a non-threatening, scientific fashion. It remains to be seen whether the Bay Delta Conservation Plan proves to have a broad enough scope — one that extends beyond habitat and species management — to serve as a comprehensive guide for Delta governance. Moreover, the BDCP process has fallen years behind schedule, which has shaken the faith of some participants and advocates.
While the conservation plan process drags on and the new Stewardship Council begins its work, options for managing the Delta have narrowed. Cities in or adjacent to the estuary continue to grow outward into low-lying areas, increasing the reliance on flood control dikes and removing land from the floodplain. At the same time, the continuation of agricultural practices on about 440,000 acres of reclaimed land in the Delta, much of it 10 to 25 feet below sea level and still sinking, also restricts management options. What the Delta may need more than anything is dry land that could serve as floodplain, seasonal wetlands, marshes, and even open water.
Historically, the Bay Delta was wetter, fresher, and more varied than it is today. The future Delta, predicts Jeff Loux, of UC Davis, will look much like the past, but saltier, largely because of the rising sea level. "The Delta really is the story of adaptation," he says. As stated by numerous researchers, the Delta of tomorrow will not appear and function like the Delta of the recent past, no matter how much we want it to.
No one truly knows what the Delta will look like in 100 years. Maintaining the status quo is not feasible economically or physically, even if funding were available. Alternatively, letting nature "take its course" and creating a new open water bay that could be as large the existing San Francisco Bay seems equally unlikely because of the imperatives of protecting existing natural and economic resources.
What is clear is that climate change, urbanization, and decades of public policy stalemate are only making a troubled situation more dire by the year. Adaptive management must become the priority, as the days of an artificial Delta managed almost exclusively as a water system valve, agricultural region, and low-cost housing development opportunity are numbered.
Paul Shigley is a freelance writer based in Shasta County, California. He is a frequent contributor to Planning.