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California has an extraordinary opportunity to make its water supplies safer and more secure. We can avoid the devastating economic impacts of a natural disaster. We can restore the ecological health of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and enhance Delta communities. We are, at last, positioned to achieve these significant benefits through the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.
In the past decade, the United States has suffered two devastating natural disasters: Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. An economically ruinous, highly predictable similar disaster would result in great damage to California.
A so-called "atmospheric river" storm and flood event, which occurs about every 150 years, would result in the long-term or permanent loss of the Delta as a water supply for much of the state. The last such event was 151 years ago.
The Delta is formed at sea level near Stockton by the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. After some water is used upstream by farms and cities, additional water is used to farm the Delta islands. More water is pumped to the Bay Area, the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. The rest flows into San Francisco Bay.
Once mostly tule-rich wetlands providing habitat for millions of waterfowl, fish and other wildlife, the Delta has been converted almost entirely to farmed islands. Farming the peat soil has caused many of these islands to subside up to 30 feet below sea level. The subsidence continues.
By the end of this century, climate change could cause the sea level in the Delta to rise by almost 5 feet. It will become virtually impossible to maintain the levees that protect the deeply subsided Delta islands from inundation from the sea.
But even before sea level rise overwhelms the islands' defenses, a major earthquake or flood can be expected to breach many of the levees. If the island levees break during high winds and high tides, waves forming inside the flooded islands could melt away many of the remaining levees, making island restoration extremely expensive or impracticable.
The effects would spread far beyond the Delta. Three million acres of irrigated farmland in the San Joaquin Valley depend in whole or in part on the Delta water supply, and more than 25 million people also rely on the Delta for all or part of their water supply.
Some parts of urban California are very dependent on the Delta. Santa Clara County and Silicon Valley get more than 40 percent of their water supply from the Delta; southern Alameda County gets 80 percent; northern Contra Costa County almost 100 percent, and Southern California more than 25 percent.
If the Delta levees could not be repaired, economic damages would exceed $10 billion per year until a water transfer facility could be completed.
No one knows precisely when a catastrophic event might occur, but it can be expected to occur before the end of the century. This is not an argument to curtail the state assistance California has provided to private landowners in the Delta to help them maintain their levees. In the past 10 years, the state has spent more than $300 million in levee maintenance subsidies. This expenditure is justified because the levees protect the islands, the $800 million Delta farm economy, Delta communities and state highways, utility corridors, and water and gas pipelines that are important across the region and state.
Delta farmers fear that if the state builds a tunnel to connect the Sacramento River to the state and federal pumps in the south Delta, bypassing the Delta channels, there will be no incentive for the state to maintain local levees. That wouldn't happen.
First, protection of public safety demands that these investments continue. Keeping the Delta's economy and infrastructure viable is without question in the state's interest. Second, as long as Delta channels and islands are intact, it will be possible to export water from the San Joaquin River when safe for fish populations and water quality.
Having new water intakes 35 miles from the existing pumps would improve the ability of California's major water projects to divert water when and where it does the least ecological harm. This is the Bay Delta Conservation Plan proposed project.
Delta farmers also fear the loss of fresh water in Delta channels if water is diverted upstream at the Sacramento River. The extremely strong water rights of Delta landowners make this fear unjustified. Water belonging to Delta farmers cannot be diverted by other users, and the state and federal water projects must meet water quality standards in the Delta regardless of where they pump.
Some Delta residents argue that massive investments in the Delta levees could prevent the eventual collapse of multiple Delta islands. Geologists and engineers disagree. They say such an investment may only defer an inundation that cannot be permanently prevented. The state must invest scarce resources strategically, and plan for the most likely scenario, given the statewide economic impact of a disaster.
The Delta environment must also be improved. At least 29 species of Delta wildlife are threatened or endangered. Salmon, sandhill cranes, Swainson's hawks, river otters, and myriad other plant and animal species would benefit from the Bay Delta Conservation Plan's improvement of tens of thousands of acres of habitat in the Delta and Suisun Marsh. Much restoration would occur on existing publicly owned land. Agricultural land also would be preserved for those wildlife species that depend on it. Some less productive farmland would be converted to tidal marsh and other types of habitat.
Local construction impacts must be mitigated, including paying counties property taxes and fees on land used for habitat. This program must benefit the Delta counties, not cause local economic harm.
Furthermore, in addressing the Delta's problems, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan will not impair the water rights of those using water upstream. When water is released from state and federal dams to protect sensitive fish species, these releases may not negatively impact other water users, and the obligation to release this water must not be transferred to other water users.
In 1933, and again in 1960, the voters of California approved construction of what became the federal and state water projects, an investment equivalent to tens of billions of dollars today. They are a vital part of the California economy. An investment of only $15 billion the estimated cost of a new Delta conveyance system would secure these supplies from disaster and prevent an economic calamity, as well as secure the health of the Delta ecosystem.
The state and federal governments are dedicated to preventing this disaster from occurring, and are working together to protect California's economy and its environment for decades to come.
Our water supply must become safer and more secure. With an improved Delta, millions of working families will be able to turn on a tap and have water, farmers will irrigate the fields that produce our food, our high-tech economy will continue to grow jobs, and native salmon and smelt will thrive. The Delta is our future. We all have a share in it.
Jerry Meral is deputy secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency.