THE ISSUE: Gov. Jerry Brown is moving ahead with plans to build a water diversion canal or tunnel through the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta, saying the project is essential for reducing conflicts over fish and ensuring reliable water deliveries. Worried about environmental impacts and water rights, many residents in the Delta and Northern California oppose the project.
Should California build a Delta water canal it rejected in the 1980s?
Ben Boychuk: Yes
At the risk of badly mixing metaphors, a peripheral canal is a rat's nest of politics and special interests. Gay marriage and immigration reform are easy by comparison.
Personally, I'd rather discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict. The stakes are lower.
Just about every rationale offered for the peripheral canal which would be the largest water project in the state since the Aqueduct was completed four decades ago is hotly contested. Would a canal save endangered fish or finish them off? Create jobs or destroy them? Do the costs, estimated to reach $53 billion or more, outweigh the benefits or vice versa?
From what I can tell, the answer to all of those questions is "yes."
But we should build it anyway.
Although our population has grown substantially and the Delta is under much greater strain, our dilemma today is essentially what it was 50 years ago: How do we get the water where we need it most?
About 70 percent of California's water supply falls as rain or snow in the north, but about 80 percent of the demand is in the south, where rainfall is on the lighter side.
Northerners love to kvetch about Angelenos stealing "their" water, but as long as California remains one state and you people had plenty of opportunities to split! the dynamic will remain unchanged.
Fact is, agribusiness would be the biggest beneficiary of a canal. Not surprising, really, when you consider Golden State farming and ranching are an $80 billion business. We produce half of the nation's fruits, nuts and vegetables, and we're the largest dairy state in the country. Those crops and cows don't water themselves.
Absent a canal, what can the state and local governments do about California's supply and demand problem? The Legislature in 2009 mandated a 20 percent cut in consumption. We could improve reclamation and tinker with conservation. But forcing homeowners to alternate days they can shower and water their lawns won't make much of a dent when farmers use 80 percent of all water consumed statewide.
Desalination is another pricey option. The city of Carlsbad, near San Diego, late last year inked a deal with Poseidon Resources to buy water from its planned desalination plant, expected to go online in 2014. Nineteen more desalination plants are in the works.
Environmentalists tried to kill the Carlsbad project, much as some of them want to thwart the peripheral canal. Californians are willing to swallow just about anything, but we need water to live. You can't drink good intentions.
Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal, www.city-journal.org/california.
Pia Lopez: No
Let's not obscure what this is all about. California's post-World War II plumbing system takes Sacramento River and Feather River water through the Delta, where massive pumps lift it uphill to two canals the Delta-Mendota Canal and California Aqueduct.
The two water projects exist to export Northern California water to dry Southern California cities and farms.
Some of Northern California's water eventually is pumped 3,400 feet uphill including 1,926 feet up the Tehachapi Mountains in what has been called "the world's highest reverse waterfall." It then flows downhill to Los Angeles and the Southern California megalopolis. Running the pumps uses a lot of energy, making the Department of Water Resources the largest consumer of electricity in the state.
Some of Northern California's water goes to the San Joaquin Valley's arid west side so that some call it the "Westlands Water District Project." A lot of the land has increasing salinity levels. Some areas are limited to salt-tolerant crops, such as cotton or sugar beets. The future is increasingly salty.
The fundamental problem with a peripheral canal or "conveyance" is this: It would route water around (or under) the Delta into the two canals without questioning basic assumptions about water diversion and export to these distant south-of-Delta users.
You can bet on this: Southern California water users are not going to spend billions on a peripheral canal if it only gives them the amount of water they're already getting. They want to maximize water exports south of the Delta. More water, not just "reliable" water.
Before Californians settle on building yet another water project, we ought to be talking seriously about how to reduce Southern California dependence on Delta water.
My concern is that the players do not seem to be questioning assumptions about Southern California population growth. Nor do they seem to be questioning continued farming on arid, marginal lands that are increasingly saline. In the long term, some of this farmland may need to be removed from production. Let's talk about that.
And let's talk about more aggressive conservation including recycling water for use in landscaping, flushing toilets, making concrete, etc.
To me, this conveyance thing is going way too far, way too fast in a wrong direction.
We may never get to "Delta-free self-reliance" for Southern California, ending Delta diversions. Realistically, without imported water, Southern California could support a population of perhaps 3 million not 20 million or more. But we can do a lot better than building a mammoth new "conveyance" to suck ever more Northern California water to the South.
Pia Lopez is an editorial writer at The Bee.