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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

DELTA BECOMES GROUND ZERO FOR GROWING CONFLICT

By Patricia McBroom


The Tule Queen II, released from dock, headed out into 700 miles of sloughs and rivers that make up California’s Delta. It was a breezy spring day in May and the tule wilderness was all but abandoned. A water skier struggled unsuccessfully to stand upright; a fisherman angled for one of the few specimens left in the Delta. But otherwise, the water shimmered under the sun, undisturbed, curving lazily between green banks of oaks and cottonwoods.

Off in the distance towered the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains whose granite peaks send millions of acre feet cascading into this heart of water each spring, into a triangular piece of land between Sacramento, Stockton and the Bay area, little more than 1,000 square miles in size.

“The Delta is the last lost place in California!” shouted one of the guests on the 30-person catamaran. “Yeh, but Southern California wants the water,” replied another, raising the issue of the day ­– or one of them.

For the moment, Captain “Tule”, otherwise known as Harvard-trained botanist Dr. Jeff Hart, was preoccupied with another threat facing the Delta. “If you came in and cut all these trees, what do you think would happen?” Hart answered his own question: “Erosion!” He barked. (The U.S. Corps of Engineers – despite a temporary concession in Sacramento – is maintaining a strict policy to cut down trees on levees, on the theory this would save the critical levees from erosion.)

Hart turned the boat into a new slough just as the brown fur of a creature flashed through the vegetation. “Mink,” he cried. He slowed the boat as he pointed to another important item: “brush boxes” containing tule grass planted by Hart, under state and federal contract, to strengthen the levees. “The green solution for the delta is to armor it with vegetation,” he said.

Settled during the Gold Rush, with names like Sutter and Steamboat Slough, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is truly a lost place in California, out of sight and out of mind by most of the millions of urbanites who live on its edges in Sacramento and greater San Francisco.

No more. In the past year, the delta has become ground zero in a state-wide struggle to make new water policy for the twenty-first century. Driven in part by a story that the delta faces catastrophic flood risk and that levees are likely to fail in an earthquake (which may or may not rock the delta in the next 100 years), water contractors in California have set out to build a peripheral canal and also – as directed by State law – return the delta ecosystem to health. No one in California will be left unaffected by this policy, not least the people who live on the islands that make up the modern delta.

They have, for the most part, been shut out of deliberations over the new water plans, which prominently feature an enormous tunnel that would divert Sacramento water around the delta to the California Aqueduct and points south. (The size of the tunnel(s) varies from month to month; more on that later.)

Delta residents and farmers oppose such a tunnel. Thus, their loss of voice in a process that will fundamentally change their lives.

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