Wednesday, November 24, 2010


By Patricia McBroom

In California’s water wars, as in the ancient proverb, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

The work of state water officials and contractors was thrown into a blender Monday when the powerful Westlands Water District withdrew from their joint plans to build a giant tunnel/pipeline for diverting water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Loss of Westlands money and participation may mean a slower, more thoughtful process for building a new water diversion system – which is a good thing.  Good for the fish, good for the ecosystem, good for Delta agriculture and good for the 23 million of us who drink from this heart of water.

In truth, this plan was always outrageous in scope and process, driven in no small part by the belligerent demands of Westlands. The west San Joaquin district wanted more water than biologists thought the Delta ecosystem could tolerate and were told that in meetings with the U.S. Department of Interior earlier this month.  They walked out then and have done so now in a particularly hostile way.

Yet, something is needed to back up California’s vulnerable water delivery system in case of a catastrophic failure of Delta levees.  It may be that California will now have a chance to create that alternative. The second time around, the process needs to include the people whose lives are directly impacted by a peripheral canal, the farmers of the Delta, and the county officials whose agricultural revenues would be dramatically reduced. 

Much has been written about the effects of this project on fish; little attention has so far been given to its effects on agriculture in California’s aboriginal Garden of Eden – in this case the northern Delta region where the new facility would be built, some 15 miles west of Sacramento.

The north Delta: growing grapes, making wines
The area targeted as home for fish habitat and massive pumping operation is arguably California’s richest and oldest agricultural land.  High in organic content, with easy access to water, the north Delta has been farmed for 150 years, producing grapes, rice, fruits, vegetables and other crops. It is now home to a growing wine industry.  Six new wineries have been established there in the past five years. Unlike other parts of the Delta to the south and west, these parts of the north Delta have not subsided below sea level and its agricultural production is sustainable into the indefinite future. 

Mark Wilson, Clarksburg wine maker
Mark Wilson, a third generation farmer in the north Delta, lives and breathes water issues, while he and his large family, including father, siblings and children, cultivate grapes and produce award-winning wines in the Clarksburg area, where the diversions would occur.  An ebullient, outspoken advocate for the Delta, Wilson has served on a long list of state commissions, including the current Delta Conservancy, to make sure the Delta’s position is heard.

“We don’t want  our farming brothers in the San Joaquin Valley to starve to death and dry up and blow away,” said Wilson, “but you have to take us into consideration too. We’re not your doormat.  We’re not going away.  We’re not going to be quiet.”  

Wilson’s home could double for a map room in the public library.  He’s collected every kind of map he can lay his hands on, from a map of fault lines in the Delta to a map of the massive facilities planned for the new water delivery system in his area.  Rattling through a number of them, he put his hands on a map of the proposed water intake facilities on the Sacramento River and spread it out on his dining room table.

East Bay's Freeport plant pumps
1/10th as much water as each of
5 proposed new intakes
“These are giant facilities,” said Wilson, pointing out five intakes in an eight mile stretch of the river from Freeport to Courtland.  Each intake would be ten times the size of the one already located at Freeport which pumps 300 cfs.  The existing Freeport plant covers 600 feet of waterfront; the new pump buildings would be more than a quarter of a mile long, at 1,500 waterfront feet. Each would pump 3,000 cfs. (The size and location of the intake facilities are still being analyzed according to the BDCP draft plan posted on Tuesday; they may be located on shore rather than in the river, for example, and a range of sizes is under consideration.)

The intakes would change forever the meandering quaintness of Highway 160 and surrounding farmland.  They could also threaten fresh water supplies in the Delta because at peak operating capacity, the combined pumps could take the entire river flow – which BDCP proponents say would not happen.

BDCP draft of intakes (squares) on website. Blue,
green and orange lines represent western, middle
and eastern tunnel options.

Delta residents and county officials are not so sure: better to limit the pump size than to rely on changeable rules in these water wars. Wilson said he can understand California’s need for an alternate water delivery system, given the vulnerability of the current system to catastrophic failure, but it should be “restricted in size so they can’t just take everything.  A small conveyance would give (California water users) redundancy and flexibility. I’m open to discussing that.  But it has to be on terms where we are treated as equals in the process and that hasn’t happened yet.”

In addition to the intakes, the north Delta will also be ground zero for the creation of new habitat for fish, required by law to compensate for taking the water.  State water planners originally targeted the entire Clarksburg area for a fish farm, but have since drawn back to the Yolo Bypass, a flood control area visible from Hwy 80 near Sacramento.  Most people, including Wilson, agree that parts of the Yolo Bypass are suitable for habitat, but such conversions would still strongly impact agricultural production in Yolo County. Farmers use the bypass to grow rice and alfalfa when it isn’t covered with flood waters, and water fowl feed on the rice seed, a cycle that would be broken by fish habitat.

Fall sunset on the River Road (Hwy 160)
near Clarksburg
To assure that their interests are taken into account, Yolo County supervisors placed a two-year moratorium recently on any projects to create new habitat – not to stop it altogether but to give the county time to develop its own rules for converting the land.  Westlands purchased land in Yolo County to chalk up as habitat against the water they wanted to take.  This would stop the conversion temporarily.

“We’re not saying ‘no habitat ever,’” said Yolo County supervisor Mike McGowan. “But we want to have our differences worked out.  How much land?  How long flooded?  We just weren’t getting their (BCDP planners) attention.”

McGowan also agrees that some parts of the Yolo Bypass are suitable for habitat, but how much is the question.   “These folks are looking very grand. They can’t do all their mitigation in the bypass because it is essential for flood control and needs to be kept clean. So plans are flowing outside to other parts of the county.”

McGowan explained that Yolo county has historically pursued what he calls a “vow of poverty,” a decision to forego revenues by barring the development of housing developments and strip malls in the unincorporated areas.  Along with many desirable consequences – such as preserving farmland and creating a sharp break between town and country – there are important negative effects:

 “They see us as easy pickins’” said McGowan.  “A big unintended consequence of not paving over paradise has been that folks who want to do all this mitigation see us as a prime unpainted canvas.  They say, ‘What do you mean we shouldn’t cover Clarksburg with a swamp for fish farms?  There’s nothing there!’ But their ‘nothing’ is our everything.”

So what is in store now that Westlands has withdrawn from the project? That depends on how politicians and federal and state water officials respond to their challenge.  In withdrawing, Westlands president, Jean P. Sagouspe, wrote an astoundingly nasty letter to U.S. Under Secretary of the Interior, David Hayes, saying in part, “it is our view that your myopic and unscientific obstructionism will bring this entire effort at water reform and ecosystem restoration to a halt.”

At the same time, Westlands spokesperson, Sarah Wolff, held out the promise that if their district could be assured of getting the amount of water they want (70 percent of full contract) they would be back on board.  That’s the kind of allocation that helped crash the Delta ecosystem in the first place.  Biologists and environmentalists are united in their opinion that there isn’t enough water to feed these high demands of water contractors and also save the fish.

Let’s hope they continue to prevail.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010


By Patricia McBroom
         In the gathering dusk of a hot evening in August, 2009, a 570-foot New Zealand freighter carrying rice and lumber from Stockton’s Port tried to make a close turn to starboard past Bradford Island in the Delta.  It didn’t work.  The San Joaquin River channel is only 600 feet wide at that point; there’s no room for mistakes. The ship temporarily “lost steering” and plowed bow first into the levee.
            Not to worry.  With the assistance of a nearby tugboat, the freighter backed out and proceeded on to the Bay and ocean – once it had been inspected by the Coast Guard and found to be undamaged.
            No one looked back at the levee or even reported the impact.  Coast Guard entries from that day say that the ship “ran aground.”
The morning after.  (Photo by Mike Warren)
            The next morning, residents on Bradford woke up to find their island in immediate danger of flooding.  The levee was literally falling into the river with cracks opening up before their eyes. A section 150 feet long had been washed out.
            I was on Bradford Island last week to talk to the people who rose to the emergency and saved the island that day.  They are the unsung heroes of the local reclamation district who maintain levees critical to California’s water supply, not to mention those lining an international shipping channel.  It may come as a surprise – certainly it did to me – that levees on a deep water shipping channel are maintained by residents.  And it’s a shock to realize concern is so limited that the Coast Guard didn’t even bother to check out or report the damage.
Bradford is a private island reached by ferry at the end of a levee road only five miles from the urban rim in Contra Costa County.  About 2200 acres in size, it stands close to the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. Fresh water bubbles up through the ground producing lush pasture land that once grew corn.  Now, Karen and Smith Cunningham maintain a cattle ranch there, sharing the island with about 50 other, mostly seasonal, residents.
Karen met me at the ferry and took me on a tour across the ranch, through Johnson grass so high and dense it slapped the pickup like rubber flippers in a car wash.  Our windows were down and in a flash, the cabin of the truck was filled with hundreds of lady bugs. Noticing a cattle fence standing open, Karen went in search of animals that might have wandered off and fallen into one of the many bogs on the island.  We didn’t find any, but we did find her husband Smith Cunningham and fellow resident, Mike Warren.
As Smith Cunningham talked..
Cunningham led the fight last year to save the levee.
“There’s no doubt about it.  This man saved us,” said Warren, gesturing to Smith. “He called people and they came out here immediately.  If we had sat around waiting for the engineers, the water resource people, whatever…..the levee was just going further and further into the water, with new cracks coming fast and furious.  It had gone on all night this way and we didn’t even know it was happening because nobody had the courtesy to tell us.”
....Another freighter passed on its way to Stockton Port
Project director for local Reclamation District 2059, Cunningham reported the damage to the Coast Guard (which still called the incident a “soft landing”).  Then he got to work on emergency repairs.
            “I didn’t wait to go through all the procedures,” said Cunningham.  “I was doing the mumbo-jumbo with politics (procedures) at the same time, but my purpose was to save the levee and you have to have some common sense about that.”
Within hours, contractors with dozens of trucks and bull dozers were working around the clock to stabilize the levee.  It took them three days at a total cost of $800,000, which the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) paid.
“The DWR told me, ‘Well, you did the right thing.  Thank you. You saved us $50 million.’”
Actually, the loss of the island could have cost the public a great deal more.  A flood on Bradford could lead to a shutdown of the State water supply because of the island’s strategic position vis-a-vis water pumps in Tracy. (Bradford is one of eight western Delta islands that, if flooded, could draw salt water toward the pumps.)
Mt. Diablo behind Bradford Island
 This story about Bradford is sadly illustrative of a larger phenomena that affects everyone in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.  California relies on local people to maintain levees that are critical to our water supply, yet those same people are all but invisible to State officials planning a huge – and expensive – project to divert water from upriver near Sacramento.  We will get our first view of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) next month in a preliminary draft release, but several things have been clear about this plan for at least a year.
One, it has little or no input from Delta people or their elected representatives in the five county region – Sacramento, Stockton, Contra Costa County, Yolo and Sonoma.  Thirteen members of Congress and the State Legislature from those counties sent a protest letter last month which said in part “The Delta community has long been told….they will be involved in decision–making about the future of their own communities, even though they have been mostly excluded to date.”
“This most recent exclusion (referring to reports of closed-door meetings of BDCP principals) only serves to frustrate and anger those in the Delta community who are genuinely interested in working constructively with the state and federal agencies…” the letter said.
Another thing that’s clear about this plan is that it aims to divert as much water as possible from upriver of the Delta, through tunnels so big they could suck out 80 percent of the Sacramento River at peak operation, which BDCP defenders say would ONLY be used during periods of high water.
“Trust us,” is a commonly heard refrain.
“Not on your life,” reply 186 Delta owners, including the Cunninghams, who have joined legal action to keep State officials off their property, officials who want to conduct tests for environmental reports.
Meanwhile, a casualty of the focus on a future peripheral canal is levee maintenance.
Local engineers who have maintained the levees for decades say they can bring them up to snuff for a yearly State investment of about $100 million for eight years.
Outside authorities estimate a 2 to 4 billion dollar price tag, with some recommending that a large swath of the south and central Delta be abandoned to the floods without levee upgrades. (These people, of course, want the peripheral canal).
As for the people of California, if they knew what was going on in the water wars, they would be saying loud and clear, “Give the locals a voice. Right or wrong, they should at least be heard. Their input might save the State some money, not to mention a shipping channel or two.”

Thursday, September 16, 2010


By Patricia McBroom

When California water officials predicted four years ago that many delta levees would breach in a bad earthquake, flooding the region and threatening the State’s main water supply, they didn’t have any specific site information to prove their point (see Delta Seismic Risk Report, 2005).  Now they do.  And the situation looks worse than ever.
            Soft delta soils amplify seismic waves by up to a factor of 15, compared to recordings in rock at Black Diamond Mines in Pittsburgh, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in Menlo Park has found.  They monitored the action of ten small earthquakes (up to 4.2 magnitude) that have occurred in the East Bay since 2007 and were picked up by monitors at eight places in the delta, including four sites on levees.
Levees on Sherman Island, across the bridge from
Antioch, are among the most vulnerable.
            There had been some hope that the peat soils characteristic of the  Sacramento-San Joaquin delta would dampen seismic waves.  But the USGS recordings found no evidence of such an effect. On the contrary, the wave configuration had an unusual shape with a strong, consistent peak at a single frequency, as well as a strong amplitude.  As a result, vibrations were stronger at the top of the levee than at the bottom.
            “This means these levees are going to shake a lot harder than we thought and will probably lead to multiple failures, said Jon Fletcher, chief of the Earthquake Effects Project at USGS Menlo Park. Prior reports from the Department of Water Resources had projected that as many as 50 levee breaks could occur at once from Bay Area earthquakes, such as one on the Hayward Fault that runs from Oakland to Berkeley.
            Fletcher said soil conditions in the delta resemble those in the San Francisco Marina District where buildings collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake; in both cases, the soils are very soft and seismic waves move through with large amplitudes.
            The USGS findings, due for release later this year, were not included in California’s controversial “Delta Risk Management Study” (DRMS) which predicted that as many as 20 islands in the delta could flood simultaneously in a major earthquake, potentially causing salt water from the bay to contaminate the source of California’s largest water supply for urban and agricultural users.
            “I think the risk is worse than what DRMS has reported,” said Fletcher.
            But, fortunately for California water users, the consequences of such a catastrophe might not be as bad as the scenario offered up to the public for the past three years, according to new studies of an earthquake aftermath prepared for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.
            “It’s not true that a major earthquake would mean the end of the delta and we’d never be able to use it again,” said Greg Gartrell, a hydrologist with the Contra Costa County Water District, who is familiar with the new modeling.
            “Yes, you get a lot of salt water coming in, but as soon as it rains, that water can get washed out.”  Pumps that supply California’s urban and agricultural water would have to stop for about three to four months, under the conditions studied, said Gartrell, and then could become operational again.  Most urban water districts have local water supplies to cover such a period.
            Agricultural communities would suffer the most (depending on the season) because they don’t all have backup, but for urban users, the challenge would be “difficult but not severe.” The Contra Costa district, which is normally supplied by delta pumps, has up to a year’s supply in accessible reservoirs.
            Loss of fresh water to the delta’s pumps in an earthquake has been a major justification water contractors have used for planning to build an “isolated conveyance” (aka, peripheral canal/tunnel) from further north on the Sacramento River. If urban water users can withstand such a catastrophe, there is less reason to build a huge tunnel that delta residents strongly oppose.
            The new modeling shows that after the salt water is pushed out by winter rains, the delta actually freshens, rather than staying salty – contrary to many scary scenarios. Flooded islands then act as a buffer to reduce salt water flowing in, said Gartrell, adding that there is time then to go in and fix some of the levees. 
            The new study is based on a major 7.0 earthquake on the Hayward Fault, using severe conditions for salt water intrusion, including a multi-year drought and simultaneous levee failures.  It found that salts can flush out fairly quickly, depending on how soon rains or releases from the reservoirs can get water flows going again – a period of 3 to 4 months, in this case.
            “A lot of hysteria is leading people to believe it (massive levee failure due to earthquake) will shut down the delta for a long period of time and maybe forever.  That’s not correct, so long as we plan properly,” said Gartrell.
“The world doesn’t come to an end,” even with massive levee failures in the delta, but the State “needs to do emergency planning now. We need a sense of urgency about this.”
State agencies have lagged behind on creating an emergency response plan and are now stockpiling rock on some delta islands – a bare beginning.  Local districts, however, have been working on emergency plans for years, as many engineers and local officials told the Delta Stewardship Council this summer.
But they have no money to implement their plans or bring them together into a regional emergency response.
“The agencies that have the money (Department of Water Resources, for one) don’t respond.  And the locals, who want to respond, don’t have the money,” said Ronald E. Baldwin, director of emergency operations for San Joaquin County.
“Empower people at the local level,” Baldwin urged council staff at the meeting last July. “If we can do that, and let the lowest (governance) level deal with the problem, we can take the burden off the State and Federal agencies,” he said.
This problem of depriving local authorities of power and money is not new for California or the delta.  It has consistently tied the hands of local engineers and experts who know what to do from close observation and are ready to move ahead with levee repair and flood control plans.  Two weeks ago, the State finally released the money for $120 million in levee repairs we wrote about in the August 10 post.
MBK engineer Gilbert Cosio welcomed the move but was cautious about the money flow.  “We’ll see how it goes,” he said.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


By Patricia McBroom    

        Vitally needed strengthening of levees in the California delta has been stalled for over a year – in spite of the fact that bonds have been sold and projects approved.  The California Department of Finance has yet to release $120 million for upgrades on about 20 islands of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
These projects were approved in 2008 and 2009, and money should have been available by now, according to water officials as well as local engineers working on the levees.
“The bonds were sold by October of 09.  This is a long time for them to hold back the funding,” said Mike Miramazaheri, manager of the delta levees program at the State Department of Water Resources (DWR). He said cash flow on delta levee projects has fallen behind by about two years since 2007.
As a consequence, many levees in the delta that have been widely described as “vulnerable” remain that way despite the clear intention of California voters to shore them up.
Meanwhile, delta farmers and local reclamation districts that maintain the levees are standing by with their portion of matching funds.
MBK engineer, Gilbert Cosio:  "We're ready to go!"
“We’re ready to go.  Just give us the money!” said Gilbert Cosio Jr., of MBK Engineers, which maintains roughly 35 percent of the levees in the delta. Cosio said reclamation districts used to do the work on a promise, trusting that the State's portion would come through, but they’ve been burned by delays in recent years and now “nothing is going on.”
Les Harder, senior advisor with the architecture-engineering company, HDR, said the money "is vitally needed. The people of California voted for this and the delta needs it.  It’s very unfortunate the funds have not been made available,” said Harder, a former deputy director for public safety at DWR. 
            As a 27-year veteran of MBK,  Cosio is intimately familiar with the levees and knows their potential for breaching in critical areas.  One such area is Bouldin Island, right smack in the middle of the delta (see map; island with "head" crossed by 12). A constant stream of traffic crosses Bouldin on Highway 12 which connects Interstate 80 with 5, and the Bay Area with the San Joaquin Valley.
One of the largest islands in the delta – 6,000 acres – and one of the lowest – 20 feet below sea level – Bouldin is a flood waiting to happen. Each year, it has a one to five percent chance of flooding. If its levees broke, Highway 12 would disappear under 20 feet of water.  The huge bowl of land would fill up like a bathtub and salty water would be pulled inland from the bay, creating a substantial risk that salt could contaminate the Contra Costa County water system, as well as the State Water Project in Tracy.
About $8 million of the $120 million that has been delayed would go toward reinforcing Bouldin’s levees.
On a recent day in August, Cosio drove around the island, pointing out how the levees need to be reinforced.  To begin, they are too low;  high winds and high tides can send water crashing on the top, as it did in 2006.
Bouldin's levees are too low
Cosio wants to raise the top by one to two feet, and structurally reinforce the base by adding a wide shoulder called a toe berm on the landward side.  This wide shelf means that instead of a steep slope rising from the fields, the levee slope would descend more gradually to a berm wide enough for a roadway, with fields 150 feet away.
Such improvements greatly reduce the risk that high water on the other side of the levee can push it over, said Cosio. He added that the materials they are using, plus the greater width and strength, improve chances that in an earthquake, the levee would deform but not break.
These improvements are not aimed at making a levee earthquake resistant and there is no guarantee they will, said Cosio. But he said their aim has been to “figure out what it will take to allow the levee to deform but not breach, and still have enough structural integrity so that engineers can come back and fix it.”
         How much would it take to bring all the islands up to adequate flood protection standards? 
         Cosio estimated $800 million – roughly $100 million per year, close to the amount voters have already approved in two propositions, 1E and 84. That total is about half of what State engineers would estimate; MBK work costs an average of $1 million per mile, compared to the State’s $2 to 4 million per mile, he said.
        “Local engineers can do it cheaper and more efficiently. We know where the problem areas are. We just go do work. Outside agencies (like the U.S. Corps of Engineers) have to study the problem, do an economic analysis, then put out the contract to people who usually pad the bid,” he said.
Ostensibly due to California's disastrous financial condition, the delay is souring a public dialogue already rife with rumors and whispers about ultimate intentions:  beliefs that state agencies are neglecting the delta to increase pressure for a peripheral canal, as water users toward the south would like.
Whatever the truth of such rumors, one thing is clear: If the money isn’t released soon, it may disappear, either because the life of the bonds has run out or because State officials develop new plans for the future of the delta. This year, with new laws in effect, California has moved substantially away from local governance toward centralized control over water decisions. How much of the delta levee system will be maintained and to what degree depends on decisions that will be made in the next 18 months.
Such centralized control has obvious benefits in making quick decisions, in a field with multiple players.  But it also has serious drawbacks – drawbacks that were identified last year by the winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics, Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University.
Ostrom won the prize for her research on how humans evolve governance of the commons, including water and other common pool resources.
 She discovered that user-managed systems worked better in most cases than state-managed, centralized systems because the users bargained with each other and formed cooperative relationships, even when they were prone to fight over water.
 In Nepal, for instance, irrigation systems managed by farmers produced more crops and irrigated more land than systems maintained by the state. When farmers at the head of the river needed users at the end to maintain the system, they engaged in some hard bargaining over payments and allocations that resulted in solid relationships. By contrast, the state-run systems removed any need for the upstream and downstream users to recognize their mutual dependencies and they reverted to “a state of nature,” with increased conflict and lower productivity, Ostrom found.
This advantage of the commons or “users” governance remained even when the state was able to build bigger, better waterworks.
“Interventions designed by outsiders that ignore….reciprocal relationships among farmers may cause more harm than good,” she wrote about her work in Nepal, which has 1.6 million irrigated acres, compared to California’s 9 million.
California’s water problems are surely more complicated than Nepal’s, but it’s not too hard to see the relevance of Ostrom’s work:  Cooperative governance by users takes time, but so do the interminable lawsuits being filed on all sides by stakeholders in California’s water wars.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


By Patricia McBroom          

          The farmers whose ancestors settled the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta came to plead for their future last week before a council appointed by the State to make historic decisions about water.
            They brought stories of farming the delta for up to eight generations.  Some talked of hand-written land grant contracts from the 1850s, given by the Federal Government to reclaim the swampland. They asked the Delta Stewardship Council (DSC), appointed earlier this year, to “get it right” and “put your boots on the ground.”            .
            “We made this land the most beautiful and productive in the world.  Our ancestors didn’t find any gold in the mountains, but they found it here,” said Robert Kirtlan, Jr., a resident of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. “Please do not destroy our heritage.”
              The delta community is one of the oldest established communities in California. In the mid-nineteeth century, residents would alternate between seeking gold and planting crops, depending on the season.  They transported their produce up and down the Sacramento River on barges, linking the growing urban areas, eventually constructing a landscape of dozens of islands protected by levees.  Those who stayed to farm built long-lasting delta families that intermarried over the generations.
              Today, the region of 1,000 square miles has the spirit and pace of life reminiscent of the 1930s or 40s.  Yellow drawbridges crisscross the meandering river.  Towns boast 700 residents, more or less.  People, even younger ones, like the slower pace of life.  They all know each other.  They went to school together.  They are just beginning to wake up to the fact that their way of life is endangered.
               Last week's DSC meeting was held in the Old Sugar Mill in Clarksburg, a former sugar beet factory, now an upscale wine tasting venue for area vineyards. (Clarksburg, a town of 110 households, is across the river from Freeport; see map.)
               It was the council's first meeting in the delta and members listened quietly to the residents who lined up to tell their stories.
            “We have taken care of this land the way God would want it,” said Gary Merwin, whose great, great grandfather bought the property which is today the town of Freeport.
           “Stewardship” means to be responsible, said Merwin. “We take pride in being responsible for this district and our little part of heaven on earth.” Merwin and his fellow farmers maintain the levees in the delta through reclamation districts established on the different islands. They provide the first line of defense against levee failure on most of the privately-owned islands.
Brett Baker
            Brett Baker, a seventh generation pear farmer on Sutter Island (named after John Sutter who first discovered gold in California), asked for assurances that riparian water rights in the delta would be respected.  “It’s absurd to say that folks here can’t divert water” that flows past their property, said Baker, adding that knowing they can continue to use the water would be “one less thing to worry about.”
            The list of things to worry about is long.
            Kirtlan worries about his property being wiped out by a proposed peripheral canal. Merwin is concerned about the huge costs local landowners must pony up to bring levees to acceptable standards in a cost-sharing program with the State.  Others were anxious that plans for new habitat would turn their property back into the ancient swamp that was reclaimed as farmland 150 years ago.
            In spite of the stakes involved, the meeting was amicable.  Delta people welcomed  the council warmly and they had plenty of time to talk.
Delta residents Nicky Suard (L)
and Robert Kirtlan 
            Council chair Phil Isenberg urged delta officials to bring forth their economic plans for the region, to be included in deliberations over the forth-coming “Delta Plan.”
            Henry Nordhoff from San Diego said he was struck by the beauty of the place, adding “The people are fantastic.” He acknowledged that delta farmers were nervous and understandably so. “We’re a little bit like the absentee landlords,” said Nordhoff, one of the seven council members appointed by the Governor and State legislators.
Council members Randy Fiorini (L);
Phil Isenberg (chair)
            Enormous powers rest on the shoulders of these seven people.  In new State laws passed last winter, they were given the power to make basic decisions about the delta’s ecosystem and water distribution, thus consolidating authority, previously widely dispersed, into one body.  In 18 months – a mere second in the long history of California’s water conflicts – the council must produce a delta plan that will be enforceable by law.  No doubt it will be hotly contested by the multiple stakeholders vying for water in California.  Council decisions will influence, if not control, determined efforts by water exporters to take water from the northern delta near Clarksburg, efforts that put delta residents at risk in multiple ways.
            Residents are hoping that the council will reconcile these competing demands in a way that will not ruin their agricultural economy or put a monstrous water intake (half a mile long and eight stories high) on their property.
           To some extent, decisions rest on the integrity of the levees which dramatically need repair.  Local engineers and members of reclamation districts know what needs to be done, as they testified last week, but do not yet agree on costs and priorities.  
           Council members made it plain that they need to get their stuff together and soon.  Otherwise, the State will do it for them.
Coming:  Urgent repair of delta levees wrapped in red tape


Wednesday, July 21, 2010


By Patricia McBroom

It’s July and 100 degrees under the sun on a boat without a canopy and no breeze.  This boat, the Endeavor, is carrying some 20 scientists from the National Academy of Sciences into the delta.  

The scientists do not complain about the heat as they focus in on a difficult task – figuring out how fish are affected by the complicated hydrodynamics of the delta and why their populations have plummeted in recent years to near zero.  They also get a primer on the sparse habitat that remains for nurturing fish in a water landscape aimed primarily at moving water around.

“We can’t just look at a water conveyance alone, said Jon Burau, hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “We need new micro habitats” where the fish can hang out. “Most of the delta levees don’t make good habitat,” he said, waving at the rock-lined, sparsely vegetated levees that have created ditches of swiftly moving water. A hapless fish can be carried up the waterway as fast as the Endeavor is motoring and he can’t cling to the rocks.

Although understanding the causes of fish decline was their first order of business, the national committee of scientists, tasked with reviewing the impact of water exports from the delta, gained another, broader task on this, their second visit to Northern California.

The U.S. Department of Interior is poised to ask the NAS committee to do an overall critique of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), which is due for presentation to the public next spring. The critique will have to be quick.

“February – if we get the material,” said Stephen Parker, director of the water science board of the National Research Council. Parker added that the NAS is often asked for critiques on projects but does not receive the necessary documents, so he wasn’t making any promises.

In this case, however, a draft is likely to be ready by late September for such outside review, according to Karla Nemeth, spokesperson for the California National Resources Agency that manages the BDCP. She said the agency has not yet received a request for review by the NAS committee, but is expecting one.

This blueprint for new infrastructure and habitat restoration in the delta has been on a very fast track since last winter. Money for the speedy planning and review process is coming from water exporters who would like to break ground, at the earliest, on a tunnel in 2012, assuming they get through the environmental review and permitting process between now and then.

That, of course, is a big assumption. Opposition to “The Plan” is fierce in the delta.

Every landowner between Courtland and Freeport in the northern delta has seen themselves as dots on a map (potential locations for BDCP operations), said Cathy Hemly, who owns a pear farm with her husband, Doug, on Randall Island. They are the fifth generation in the family to farm this property along the Sacramento River.

In one BDCP scenario, Hemly saw the dots for huge water intakes situated on either side of her property like bookends. A big “X” was scrawled over her 1850s stately, white house along the river. The ”X” was marked “Headquarters.”

“I feel like a Yosemite Indian, said Hemly, her eyes scrunched up in pain. “They say, ‘We’ve got such a good deal for you!’ It’s so galling, so presumptuous!”

Delta residents are not the only people who think they should have a voice in the deliberations. Nearly everyone agrees, at least on paper, that habitat recovery should involve local participation – even if you could build a tunnel without them.

And habitat recovery takes time, said Jonas Minton, water policy advisor to the Planning and Conservation League. No one knows how many acres of delta land or where will go under water for habitat, an extremely sensitive issue.

“We hesitate to put out a number,” said Minton. “That is as much Soviet style as what the State Government is doing. We think it makes more sense to talk with the people in the delta, with the scientists, to add the dimension of time.

“This isn’t going to happen tomorrow and it isn’t going to happen all at once. We need some experimentation, the kinds of things that come with the dimension of time.”

Next week: The Delta Stewardship Council meets the delta

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


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.