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.