Thursday, December 13, 2012


By Patricia McBroom

       California is due to lose a quarter of its Sierra snowpack by midcentury because of climate change. And that's the low end of the estimate. The loss could be bigger. Sierra snow is the largest reservoir in the state, accounting for about a third of the annual water supply. Its inexorable change into rain is a slow-moving train wreck.
       Water experts will quickly add that we're not losing the water, just the form and timing of its release. The lost snowpack will come to us as rain, so not to worry – too much.
       But from what this reporter has been able to glean from weeks of interviewing knowledgable sources about water storage in California, the time to start worrying was yesterday.


Increasing rainfall and floods come with rising
temperatures, as climate warms in California
Credit: Patricia McBroom
      We will not only experience a shift from snow to rain, but it will come in the winter rather than the spring when we need it for crops. Moreover it will likely come as floods that cannot now be captured and stored, and some of these floods will increase in areas like the western side of the southern Sierras. Implicit in these predictions is the need for a revolutionary reorganization of water management in the state. The past cannot guide the future.
      California is not planning to build any large new surface reservoirs to contain this rain, which may come as a shock to the uninitiated. Most of the good sites have already been taken and what remains is too costly or too inefficient. Instead, the emphasis is shifting from centralized management of water to local and regional action. If your region wants a new surface reservoir, you're free to build and pay for it.

                                                               A RETURN TO LOCAL MANAGEMENT

Berryessa Reservoir in Napa County;
regions may build their own; the state
is bowing out. Credit: P. McBroom
     “The great dreams of the past, of vast new storage systems everywhere around the state and pipes that take water currently not being used by anyone for anything hundreds of miles with no damage and at no cost – that dream is over,” said Phil Isenberg, chair of the Delta Stewardship Council, which is pushing water management at the regional level.
      New storage is “essential,” said Isenberg, “but you have to find somebody who is willing to pay for it.....History indicates that we are going into old style things which are regional or local.”
      A recent report by the California Roundtable, drawing upon a wide range of experts, agrees with this assessment.


      Underground storage, on the other hand, is a vast and largely unexplored territory. California's potential for holding water in aquifers staggers the imagination. Something on the order of 150 to 450 million acre feet (10 to 30 times the entire Sierra snowpack in an average year) can be stored in underground basins that are economically accessible, according to John Andrew, assistant deputy director of the Department of Water Resources, who is the agency's lead authority on climate change.
       The greatest basin in the state underlies the Central Valley, containing one-fifth of all groundwater pumped in the nation. Because farmers have been pumping the hell out of it for 100 years, this basin now contains enough empty space to be identified as showing “the most promise for large-scale groundwater recharge” in California, according to a report by Juliet Christian-Smith of the Pacific Institute, in a positive take on the half-empty glass story.
Snowpack will decline over the century
Credit: Patricia McBroom
      But accomplishing the recharge of this – or any other – basin in the state confronts water managers and policy makers with multiple headaches. Our system is historically set up to discourage such use of water. It isn't even considered a beneficial use, so few managers have done it. There are currently promising moves toward recharging critical basins, such as in the San Joaquin Valley around King's River and in the Pajaro Valley near Santa Cruz, but much more is needed.


      “Climate change studies indicate that more extreme weather is coming and we don't have a system in place to capture that water,” said Timothy Parker, a consulting hydrologist and chair of the legislative committee of California's Groundwater Resources Asso. “We should be filling our basins back up. We need more storage and groundwater is a good way to do that.” But once past such firm statements of need, Parker and other experts who spoke on this issue fall into a quicksand of shifting, half-formed ideas about next steps.
      Who owns the water that is put underground? Water is now tied to the land. If you can pump it, you own it.
      How do you get it into the ground? That takes percolation ponds on farms – a use of land that is not now readily accepted by farmers needing to make a profit.
      Where does the surface water come from to recharge the aquifers? New diversion plans cost money and require ingenuity on the part of regional water managers, not to mention planning and risk taking. You can't always get the water out that you put in.
      How about privatization issues? If the recharged basin water belongs to landowners, then the massive Kern County Water Bank (taken over by private interests in a secret deal by the state in the late 1990s and supplied by the State Water Project that pumps from the delta) would further enrich a small group of wealthy farmers, as they sell water for new developments in the southland.


      These and other urgent questions call for a vigorous state-wide debate on groundwater policy, leading to a new framework for managing this kind of storage, especially its sustainable use. Legal and technical confusion is everywhere; water managers are just beginning to think about underground storage. In a recent survey, most didn't know whether it would be less expensive or more costly than surface storage. The great majority needed more information.
      “it's really challenging!” said Brian Lockwood, staff hydrologist with the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency. “The laws (on groundwater) are so antiquated. Reforms are badly needed. Most people don't even have meters on their wells” to measure the amount of groundwater removed. “If we could think of the Central Valley as a whole, of the state as a whole,” we might have a chance, said Lockwood, whose small water district is off the state and Federal water grid.
       Their coastal region depends for its water almost exclusively on a groundwater basin. The state of the critically depleted basin is fueling a creative venture to get water back into the ground to achieve a sustainable supply, thus serving as a model for regional responsibility.


      Isenberg would no doubt applaud such local resourcefulness.
"Calm down:" Phil Isenberg, chair of the
Delta Stewardship Council. Credit:
Patricia McBroom
      At the end of a long interview, after two years of listening to Californians fight over water coming out of the critical Sacramento/San Joaquin watershed, he said “The most important thing for survival of California as a society is for everyone everywhere in the state to be prudent in their use of water, to calm down and act like grownups, to reduce the irrational and overblown demands for water that seem to be the stock in trade of the water debate.
      “We're not running out of water” said Isenberg, “but it's a scarce resource and we have to make some hard management decisions.”
     That would require courage and focus on the part of state planners who are unfortunately preoccupied with building huge tunnels under the delta to divert an ever-decreasing supply of Sierra snowmelt. The tunnels offer a centralized water system out of the 20th century, while nature is cooking up floods in your backyard.  

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


By Patricia McBroom

        Seated at the head of a square of tables last week, California water officials – led by Jerry Meral of the state resources agency and surrounded by consultants – tried to answer questions concerning the hugely controversial Bay Delta Conservation Plan.
Deputy Resources Secretary, Jerry Meral (L), and ICF International
consultants, Jennifer Pierre and David Zippin, at the BDCP meeting.
Photo by Dan Bacher
       Around the square were people who would be powerfully affected by the plan – a project to construct two massive tunnels beneath the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta for diverting water from north to south.  There was Ann Spaulding from Antioch, where water could turn saltier as a result of the diversion. There was Richard Pool, from sportsfishing organizations that care deeply about saving salmon runs from the threat of too-little water. There was Osha Meserve, a lawyer working to save the North Delta, where the diversions would begin, from irreparable losses. There was Jason Peltier from the Westlands Water District, an agricultural powerhouse that is legendary for its ability to turn state and Federal policy to its own benefit.
       One thing not present at the meeting was equality. Peltier's district (along with a few other big contractors) had everything to do with writing the plan; the rest of the stakeholders, little or nothing. How did it happen and what do we do about the prospect of a multibillion dollar project being built – the largest water infrastructure project in California since 1960 – without a vote of the people or the legislature? Moreover, the five Delta counties – Contra Costa, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Solano and Yolo – whose water supply and agricultural land will be affected, oppose the plan. They have not had a role in its creation.
Attorney Osha Meserve at the Sacramento River
       Some people in the water world accept this inequality as a matter of course. One top state official said flatly (in a recent interview) “Money drives policy, not the other way around.” There was no regret in his voice, just a sense that the world works this way. Others, like Meserve, continue to fight the odds, despite slim returns, while many just plan their next legal challenge, hoping to tie up the project in court.
       If that happens – and there's every reason to think it will – California's hopes for solving the Delta's problems will probably squeal to a stop again, as in the past, raising serious questions about whether there was a better way – or, indeed, any way – to make progress on such a “wicked” problem.
       As defined by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber in 1973, a wicked problem is so multifaceted it has no clear definition, no good scientific answer, no unambiguous interpretation of the public good. Its “solution” depends on how the problem is framed. Moreover, those invested in the problem (stakeholders) hold radically different world views and espouse competing frameworks. There are few ways to solve a wicked problem. One way is to resort to authority, restricting the number of people whose inputs count. Governments often do this in making policy decisions on wicked problems, and that is what has happened in the Delta with this project. The other way is to collaborate.
        Could the state have made “ those people who are being affected into participants of the planning process,” as Rittel recommended? Could it have included people who are not merely asked, but actively involved in the planning process....?
       If the struggles of indigenous peoples around the world to have a say in the development of their lands and resources are any indication, the answer is, yes.
        Five years ago, 144 countries signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, calling upon States to “consult and cooperate in good faith” with indigenous people. In particular, States should obtain “free, prior and informed consent” to any decisions regarding the lands and resources traditionally used by native peoples. Prior consent is crucial. In other words, if you want resources, you have to negotiate with the locals from the beginning.
       That is happening in many parts of the world today – in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Brazil, for example. The Declaration and its principle of free, prior, informed consent have newly empowered indigenous peoples, writes international legal scholar Siegfried Wiessner, of St Thomas University School of law in Miami.  As women did 40 years ago in their quest for equality, it's time to "think globally and act locally."
       Obama's White House adopted the UN manifesto in 2010, reversing a Bush Administration's decision in 2007 to reject it.  
       The principle has been particularly salient among peoples of the forest: “By insisting on their right to free, prior and informed consent, forest peoples have been able to block plantations and dams planned for their lands and have been able to negotiate fairer deals with palm oil developers, loggers and local government land use planners,” according to the global Forest People's Programme.
Delta's unique cultural traditions at risk in water plan.
        The idea is not to halt progress, but to channel it through negotiations with rural and established communities – as in the Delta – whose customs and survival matter. It may be that California needs a tunnel for delivering water under the Delta. The current pumps in Tracy chew up fish big time. And big releases of water from upstream reservoirs at unnatural times distort the Delta's ecology.
       But the size and location of those tunnels has never been open to discussion with the millions of us affected. And there's the rub.
        Back at the meeting, there were few answers for the urgent questions.
        How much water will be left in the Sacramento River during drought and dry times of the year? Meserve wanted to know. Delta residents are acutely aware that the tunnels could take ALL the water in the river during dry periods. So far, they have seen no base limits on diversion.
        Pool was concerned about the flow available to salmon. He said he could no find answers in the 5,000 pages of the plan's first environmental draft report. Meral promised that the next environmental report, due in October – maybe – will clear things up. And, he assured them, there would be mitigation for any damage done.
       To be fair, the state agencies and consultants were doing their best. They just don't have the answers. Fish agencies and contractors are locked in debate over the amount of water that can be safely exported – safely, as in not destroying any species, ruining Delta agriculture, or turning the water in Contra Costa County into an undrinkable salt solution.
       Water contractors want to export an average of 6 million acre feet per year from the Delta. California fish and game scientists say they won't get that much – an amount most environmentalists believe is responsible for the recent collapse of the fish populations.
       The diversion “is more likely to be what they have now,” said Carl Wilcox, a biologist at the table representing California's Department of Fish and Game. That would be 4.8 million acre feet, since contractors now must operate under court restriction to preserve fish species. “Maybe, the number will go into the low fives” (million acre feet), but not six, said Wilcox.
 Manager Ronald Jacobsma of Friant Water Authority 
       Once the level of exports is agreed upon (if that happens), the next mountain to climb is identifying the payers for this massive construction. Also at the meeting was general manager Ronald Jacobsma of the Friant Water authority, a combine of two dozen water districts in the Fresno area, none of which receive ANY water from the Delta, nor would they if the tunnels were built. Nevertheless, these water agencies have been advised they must ante up 15% of the $20 billion cost of construction.
       Who told them they would have to pay? The State Water Contractors who receive Delta water and want the tunnels built – and they have the power of government behind them. Despite Jacobsma's vigorous campaign to get Friant's name removed from the list of payers, it's still there two years later, apparently because Friant gets water through a Federal project on the San Joaquin River, upstream from the Delta.
       “We want a beneficiary analysis done,” Jacobsma said. Peltier responded with the comment that all Federal water contractors would have to pay capital costs on the Delta tunnel no matter where they were located.
         Jacobsma made a broad comic gesture, grabbing for his wallet in his back pocket and the room erupted in laughter. Jacobsma, a friendly sort, laughed too, but the crazy prospect of water users paying billions of dollars for nary a drop was ultimately no joke.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


By Patricia McBroom

         Anxiety is flooding the water world this month, as people await a Brown Administration plan for a “peripheral canal”, due in July (according to last report).
        The agitation is mixed with incredulity since the project has been so roundly criticized as a fish killer, and the tradeoffs that seem to be under consideration appear to be unworkable.
        Those who want the canal (mainly rich farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California) have been told by state and federal fish agencies that they cannot have as much water as they want, nor even as much as they have now. Yet these are the water contractors who are supposed to pay for the “canal” – actually two huge tunnels capable of diverting most of the Sacramento River, costing upwards of $14 billion, plus interest, to build. Who wants to pay for a tunnel that delivers less water than is available through the current setup?
       That question echoes through the airwaves, along with rumors that the Brown Administration plans to weaken laws protecting fish to get its version of the peripheral tunnels built.
From front page of Restore the Delta website
       On Wednesday, a powerhouse coalition of 38 environmental, fishing and San Francisco-Bay Delta organizations wrote to U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar warning him that “It would be folly for the Department of Interior to follow the State of California down this risky path” and urging him to dissuade the state from this “poorly conceived and destructive plan.”
        But which plan?
        A state panel of scientists appointed to analyze the project – the Independent Science Board (ISB) – couldn't figure out last week how to proceed in evaluating an environmental impact report. “Is this the project we will be looking at?” panel members wanted to know, pointing to a 5,000-page draft EIR released in February. The question went unanswered, but one member gave voice to the word that can't be mentioned – “collapse” – as in “assuming the project doesn't collapse.” He clearly thought it should.
Thirty years later, same canal; underground this time
        To make the anxiety especially acute, state officials have said that they won't decide at this point how much water to pump nor whose finger is on the switch. That will become clear, officials have told stakeholders, as the project is being built and the ecology improves – or not. It's hard to see how anyone on any side of this issue could be comfortable with indeterminate operating rules.
        “It won't fly,” said Sunne McPeak, president of the Delta Vision Foundation, in an interview.  She said that current plans for the conveyance suffer from the same deficiency as in 1982 when the last peripheral canal was defeated by voters. It fails to couple new storage with conveyance so that water can be taken in a huge gulp during wet years and little or not at all in dry years. Lack of storage is an open admission that “you intend to use the facility (in a way that would) starve the fish and the delta of fresh water,” she said.
        But with few details on what the Administration plans to propose, all eyes are fixed on the image of an enormous pumping operation up to five miles long in the most scenic part of the Sacramento River, sucking out most of the fresh water and sending it through tunnels right past the delta.
California needs that dog.
       One is reminded of the climactic scene in the Wizard of Oz when a fearsome image of the wizard is projected onto a wall, with booming voice and belching smoke – until Dorothy's little dog, Toto, trots over to a booth and tugs back a curtain, behind which a white-haired gent is shown pulling levers. Dorothy was being frightened by a magic show.
      Where is Toto when we need him?
       But if smoke and mirrors are clouding California's future water plans, people on the ground – including opponents from north and south – are working together better than ever. Without any state managers in charge, the people who supply water and protect resources are doing what lies in the best interests of everyone: meeting together in democratic groups, under the name “Delta Projects Coalition,” to figure out how best to repair and pay for improved levees. It's about time.
       A project that has the support of major opponents in the water wars – in both southern and northern California – would armor part of the freshwater corridor through the Delta that delivers water to some 23 million people and millions of acres of farmland. Proposed by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the project would raise and widen the tops of levees, adding berms to their slopes, in a stretch of the Middle San Joaquin River, at a cost of less than $200 million.
      The aim is to strengthen the levees enough so that a large earthquake in the Bay Area, while it might cause the levee to slump, wouldn't break it, leaving time for workers to get out there with reinforcements, said Roger Patterson, general manager of MWD in an interview.
       “If we can hold the Middle River pathway together (after a big earthquake), we might still have limitations on water diversion, but at least we wouldn't be out for an extended period of time.” Patterson said they could probably put things together and be back on line in six months, rather than the years estimated by state water officials.
        “We will be diverting water from the south Delta forever,” said Patterson, referring to the pumps near Tracy that get water via the Middle River. “So having integrity in the levee system for the long term is in our interest as well.” Almost half of Met's diversion will continue to come from the south Delta, even with a new conveyance – “if that ever happens,” he added.
Delta engineers build seismic-resistant levees along freshwater corridor
       This particular stretch of the river, however, is not the only piece that needs to be done; Patterson said his agency intends to follow up with more projects. Nor is MWD the only urban agency out there working on the levees. EBMUD has nearly completed work on the levees that protect its own aqueduct. All have the support of local reclamation districts and water agencies in the Delta.
       “We're willing to work with Met, just like we've worked with EBMUD,” said Dante Nomellini, manager of the Central Delta Water Agency and counsel for most of the local districts along the freshwater corridor. Local expertise with levees is critical to the success of any project there. Patterson said MWD plans to rely on that expertise.
       Six long years ago, California citizens passed Prop 1E, a $4 billion bond measure, to reinforce the levees. About $1 billion of it is left – money that McPeak of the Delta Vision Foundation believes should be spent totally on Delta levees, including this freshwater corridor. The Delta Coalition so far is considering 41 separate levee and habitat projects that will be voted upon later in the summer.
       It is a good example of democratic governance of a “common pool resource” as described by 2009 Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom who died June 12 at the age of 78, after becoming the first woman to win the prize in economics. Her work demonstrated that the people who used the common resource created better water systems than governments did because they bargained with each other, forming cooperative relationships, even when they were prone to fight. This advantage of “commons” governance held even when the government could build bigger water works ­– a word to the wise for California.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


By Patricia McBroom 

      It was 2005. A group of environmentalists had just seen a report that made their hair stand on end. Fish in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta had dropped off the edge of the table; their populations were crashing. Gathering up charts that showed fish populations plummeting as pumping increased during the decade, the environmentalists presented this evidence of collapse to a room full of water exporters and officials meeting at the Sheraton Hotel in Sacramento.
Loss of the tiny Delta smelt stopped some pumping
      “There were audible gasps,” recalled one member of the group. ”They were pumping water (out of the Delta) like hell. They told us not to come back with this kind of 'pseudo science'. They knew that once knowledge (of the fish collapse) became public, they would be held accountable. And by golly they have been.”   
       Since then, water contractors importing water from the Delta to the south have been forced to reduce diversions under provisions of the Federal Endangered Species Act, an event that led west San Joaquin farmers to post signs along Interstate 5, shouting: “Congress Created Dust Bowl.” Contractors also set to work on the modern version of a peripheral canal, with the purpose of taking just as much water as in 2005, but without killing the fish.
Signs along Interstate 5 blame Endangered Species Act
         It doesn't seem to be working.
        Try as they may, water contractors can't prove that moving the point of diversion –taking water upstream on the Sacramento River and funneling it under the Delta through enormous tunnels – would help the fish. On the contrary, their own analysis, released at 10,000 pages on Feb. 29, shows that the amount of water they want to take would probably doom the species they intend to save, particularly Delta smelt.
        “It's a challenge,” said Jerry Meral, California's deputy secretary of the Natural Resources Agency, in charge of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP, aka peripheral canal) “We must improve the proposal to meet the adverse effects on key species, but we don't know yet what alternative will work.”
        That's putting it mildly.
        Last week, a panel of the nation's top scientists weighed in on the causes of the ecosystem/fish collapse and the scope of California's water challenges. After two years of study, the panel from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) said they could not identify the main drivers of the collapse. In other words they could not rank the most harmful stressors in the Delta, whether pollution, dams, invasive species, food availability, habitat loss, fish entrainment in the pumps or amount of water pumped out. All were having an effect in a complicated and still mysterious ecosystem.
       But in several places in the 280-page report, the scientists identified fresh water flow as a critical variable.
      “Statistical evidence and models suggest that both flows (amount of fresh water) and flow paths (route through the Delta) are critical to population abundance of many species in the Bay-Delta.” the panel wrote on page 105. If California wants to maintain an ecosystem like the one that seemed to be functional until the drought from 1986 to '93, the report said, “then exports of all types will necessarily need to be limited in dry years.”
Vast Sierra watershed nourishes all living beings in California
      Few issues in the current water wars are more contentious than the amount of fresh water that is allowed to flow from the Delta watershed in the high Sierras to the Pacific Ocean. Those who want higher flows (environmentalists and Delta advocates) like to taunt water importers by saying they are “trying to save the fish by removing them from the water.”
       Water contractors respond that fresh water flowing into the ocean is “wasted.” Environmentalists, they say, are ignoring all the other causes of estuary degradation; flow is no more important than other stressors. The NAS scientists were unable to resolve the controversy, saying only that “it's up to the State to insure that necessary in stream flow levels are maintained” (p. 178)
      This was not the result water importers hoped for when they encouraged the U.S. Congress to enlist the help of Academy scientists in finding some alternative to water cutbacks. Throughout the years since 2005, importers south of the Delta have done everything they could to shift attention away from the water they were pumping to other kinds of stressors on the system. It's the invasive fish species. No, it's the ammonia from Sacramento sewage plants. No, really, it's the location of the State water pumps on the San Joaquin River near Tracy, where the power of the engines makes the river flow backwards and chews up all the juvenile fish which otherwise would reach maturity in the relative security of the Sacramento River.
      Unfortunately, it's all of them and more. And above all else looms the special impact of drought.
New Carquinez Bridge over a narrow strait, through
which Delta water exits to the San Francisco Bay.
Credit: Patricia McBroom

      In its natural condition, unimpeded by human water diversions to the north and south of California's Delta, this great watershed would send down some 40 million acre feet (MAF) from the Sierras to the ocean in an average year (acre foot = one acre covered to a depth of one foot). The water would oftentimes bury the Central Valley in floods and crash through a narrow channel, called the Carquinez Strait, in the Coastal Range. All but separated from the San Francisco Bay and bounded by highlands, the water does not fan out in a wide ocean-side Delta, as do other freshwater estuaries. Rather, it is one of only two “inverted” deltas in the world (the other is in Portugal), where the unique geography leads to a buildup of sediments – in this case peat soils – on the inland side and gives rise to rare opportunities for water engineering infrastructure. California's Delta is one of the most modified in the world.
      In average years, diverters north and south remove about 50 percent of the flow to serve 25 million people and millions of acres of agricultural land. (The watershed itself produces about half the fresh water in the State.) No one knows for sure if this rate of removal is too high for the ecosystem; there seems to be no evident threshold below which there are irreversible declines. But the NAS scientists were unequivocal about drought. “It is clear that very dry periods can alter species composition in more permanent ways.” they wrote.
      To build a peripheral canal, supporters of the BDCP will need guidelines on how much water they can divert from the Sacramento River. The agency burdened with providing those guidelines by balancing human and ecological needs in the Delta is the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) or simply the “water board”. Those decisions, however, are two years away, leaving all combatants in the water wars wondering how the water board will come to terms with the clashing needs of ecology and human use. How will they balance economic needs, political pressure, urban use and the public trust, especially in light of the lack of scientific certainty?
      The board has already decided, in a public trust document published in 2010, that the ecosystem and fish, if considered alone, need 75 percent of unimpeded flow from the Sacramento River (compared to the current 50%). Such numbers make water diverters everywhere blanch. “It scares us to death!” said Tib Belza of the Yuba County Water Agency at a recent north state water forum.
      But the final number reached by the board is sure to be less than 75%; how much less, nobody knows until the board completes its balancing act. There is, in short, no easy way forward, considering the single-minded focus of major water diverters – the Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles and Westlands Water District in the San Joaquin Valley – on a mammoth peripheral canal.
PLC's Jonas Minton
      Which brings us to California's moment of Zen: focus on what is squarely in front of the eyes and take the next step. That's what combatants in the water wars have decided to do in forming a new coalition to move forward on important, near-term projects for the Delta that everyone can agree upon.
        Responding to a call from Jonas Minton of the Planning and Conservation League, water warriors have signed their names to the cooperative venture which meets for the first time April 4 in Sacramento to talk about what they might do now – together – while they battle over future distributions of water.  The group includes representatives from Metropolitan and Westlands, along with environmentalists and Delta supporters, who have been at odds for years.
      “This is not a substitute for any long term, future plans,” Minton emphasized. “In no way is this to interfere with the outcome or preclude any outcomes from the BDCP or the Delta Stewardship Council or the Delta Plan or anything else.”
      Minton said the coalition might decide upon strengthening the levees, or creating more habitat in the Yolo Bypass, or getting rid of invasive weeds in the Delta channels.
      Imagine. Action rather than words. And maybe the first step toward rebuilding trust.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


By Patricia McBroom

Many people have their eyes fixed on the Delta’s natural resources:  its water, its imperiled fish and the 750 or so species that live there or use it seasonally, like sandhill cranes. But there is another species that has lived in the Delta for 10,000 years. That would be human beings, and they also are imperiled.
            Some 2,500 souls live in the Delta today, mostly farming families. Many have been there for generations, living in a time and place that seems from another era. Freeways stop at the borders of the Delta.  So do gas stations.  Main thoroughfares from the Bay Area to Stockton and Sacramento route drivers around the territory, not through it.
Yellow drawbridges, like this one on Sutter Island, charm Delta visitors
Credit: Patricia McBroom
            The area opens a window on California history, which is immediately apparent to anyone who drives over the Antioch Bridge onto highway 160 toward Sacramento. Soaring off the urban rim and onto the first island, the driver is hit first by a sweeping view of the Delta and then by a sense of being suddenly transported into the past.  Yellow drawbridges, occasional tiny towns, narrow levee roads and green acres recall the 1950s, but in fact, the history is much older. 
Along the winding waterways are the remnants of a river culture that barged food, coal and other products from Sacramento to San Francisco for more than 50 years from 1850 to the 1930s. Before them came Native Americans, a large population who thrived for thousands of years in California’s rich Central Valley, including the Delta.
It is a history, however, that is still mostly unknown, scattered in archives throughout the state.  Efforts are now being made to bring it together and none too soon. The Delta is under increasing stress, not only from near collapse of the ecosystem, but from growing demands to turn large tracts of land back into the original marsh.  If that were done – if the few thousand people who currently live on and manage delta resources were to leave – much will be lost, not just the history, but a critical human population that maintains the water infrastructure.
University of the Pacific's Robert Benedetti
“We need these folks,” said Robert Benedetti, professor of political science at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. “If you want managed water, you’ve got to have people on the ground with the motivation to manage it. Otherwise, it’s like saying, ‘Well, we won’t have any more small business in cities. Let’s make it all residential.’ We’ve tried that. What you get is a huge crime rate because there is nobody to watch the street.  In this case, if you eliminate the livelihood of the people who live in the marinas, towns and farms, no one will watch the Delta.  Somebody who flies over every six months doesn’t have much motive to catch stuff.”
 The Dai-Loy Museum in Locke is
much like it was 70 years ago.
            Benedetti is heading up a multi-institutional effort to reconstruct stories of the Delta and its successive cultures. The 19th century river culture, for instance, that tied the coast and the valley together through water transport, was a transient one where strangers bumped up against each other and took their leisure in gambling and drinking, said Benedetti.  With the people now gone, remnants of the old towns, many dilapidated and withered, can be found along 80 miles of the Sacramento River from Clarksburg to Crockett, a picturesque town under the Carquinez Bridge.  Another theme from the Delta describes the epic struggles of humans to live in the midst of an unpredictable, often rampaging natural environment, stories that include a long Native American prehistory of 10,000 years.
            Benedetti hopes his effort with a handful of other scholars, dubbed “Delta Narratives,” will be supported by a grant in April from the National Endowment for the Arts.
“I think we’ve got a shot.  The area deserves the best we can do,” said Benedetti. “This is our Jamestown.  From prehistory to industrialization, the Delta is the place that held California in its infancy.”
Proposed Delta NHA would reach from Sacramento
        to Vallejo, through the narrow Carquinez strait.
In another move to resurrect the history, local Delta leaders in January asked the National Park Service to review an application naming the place a National Heritage Area (NHA), a site designated by Congress for its cultural and historic importance to the nation. If approved, this would be the first such heritage area in California.
Delta people hope an NHA will give them much-needed leverage in the war over water. If they can “brand” the Delta, raise public awareness, attract and educate visitors, perhaps they can hold off the forces that want to turn much of their agricultural land on which their economy depends back into a marsh or – worse – a bracken back-water. 
           Meanwhile, both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives already have legislation waiting in the wings to create a similar NHA that would extend from Sacramento, down the river, and through the Carquinez Strait to Vallejo. The bills are being offered by Sen. Diane Feinstein and Rep. John Garamendi, who was born and raised in the Delta. 
An NHA could bring up to $2 million per year into the area to rehabilitate the historic and cultural artifacts; it is distinct from a national park, in that private property and the local economy are maintained.
The Chinese town of Locke is a Delta
treasure much in need of rehabilitation.
Credit: Patricia McBroom
            But, while public awareness of its history and new recreational opportunities are certainly needed in the Delta, these things alone can not counter the threats to agricultural viability there.  Agriculture is by far the most important economic engine in the Delta, and it is being challenged from several directions.  Chief among the threats are plans for an “isolated conveyance,” (aka, peripheral canal), which would take a huge gulp from the Sacramento River upstream of the Delta and channel it underground to the south, possibly causing salt water to flood inland, ruining the rich, productive land (among the most productive in the State).  Concurrent with such a tunnel are plans to turn large parts of the Delta back into a marshland. 
            Governor Jerry Brown referred to these ideas in his recent State of the State address, mentioning 100,000 acres of new fish habitat.  That equals a sixth of the Delta’s total farmed acres.  Other dark clouds on the horizon for the Delta are evolving regulations contained in the current draft of the Delta Plan, which, when finalized, will go into effect this summer. 
            According to state water law enacted in 2009, the plan is obligated to achieve two co-equal goals: (1) making water deliveries more reliable and (2)  restoring the Delta ecosystem.  The law goes on to say that these goals shall be achieved in a manner that protects and enhances the unique cultural, recreational, natural resource and agricultural values of the Delta as an evolving place.”
            Trouble is that no policies have been written yet that protect or enhance agricultural activities in the Delta, though many support the coequal goals and habitat protection. That worries the Delta people whose livelihoods are all but completely dependent on their fields. If anything is done to hobble agriculture, they will be forced to leave.
            “The plan is very heavy on the coequal goals and non-existent in regard to the second statutory requirement: protecting the Delta as a place.  It has words to that effect, but nothing solid,” said Russell van Loben Sels, head of a five-county farm bureau called the Delta Caucus.  The Caucus is one of several Delta groups calling for changes in the Delta Plan that would protect $1.5 billion in agricultural production there.
            Other complaints are coming from the reclamation districts that maintain the levees in the Delta. 
            Policies in the Delta Plan seem “clearly directed toward changing the nature of the Delta into a recreational area, with some limited agriculture in the context of large habitat,” said Erik Ringelberg of BSK Associates, who provides ecological services for about a dozen reclamation districts.
            “It’s not that Delta people want any specific new development out there, but they do want to continue the livelihood they’ve spent the last 200 years on,” said Ringelberg, adding that “none of the requirements and very few of the goals (in the Delta Plan) are associated with even maintaining agriculture in the Delta.”
            The plan is not finished yet, however, and changes are sure to come with integration of the new analysis, “Economic Sustainability Plan for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta," in February.  Whether those changes will be big enough to save AG in the face of the multiple forces pushing for water and habitat remains to be seen.
            If not, California will be very much the worse for losing a small, hardy band of people who’ve kept watch on Delta waterways all these years.