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.