Water & Drought

In California’s drought, canal now flowing backward

Flows have been reversed in the water-starved Delta-Mendota Canal, seen in the background behind the Gov. Edmund G. Brown California Aqueduct.
Flows have been reversed in the water-starved Delta-Mendota Canal, seen in the background behind the Gov. Edmund G. Brown California Aqueduct. Sacramento Bee file

The drought has become so severe that water is beginning to flow backward along a major artery in California’s increasingly distressed water delivery system.

This week, water managers switched on the first of three temporary pumps being installed along a 62-mile stretch of the Delta-Mendota Canal. The pumps will push water drained from San Luis Reservoir to upstream water districts facing water shortages.

“This is unusual and very difficult to fathom,” said Rick Gilmore, the general manager of the Byron Bethany Irrigation District. “This is the first time in history we’re doing it.”

His is one of five western San Joaquin Valley water districts that, along with the city of Tracy, will receive water from the backward-flowing canal.

The canal normally runs north to south for 117 miles from a federal pumping station in Tracy at the base of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the Mendota Pool north of Fresno.

Because of the drought, federal water managers had so reduced flows coming out of the Delta to the pumps feeding the canal that they have only been running for a few hours a night. The new pumps will be switched on when the flows can’t meet demand, Gilmore said Friday.

“We had water in storage in San Luis Reservoir from last year,” he said, “So in other words, to take advantage of that water that’s stored, we’re basically pumping it back uphill for use.”

Gilmore said the pumping project has so far cost the districts a combined $500,000. That doesn’t include operations and maintenance costs.

The canal is part of the federally managed Central Valley Project. A Bureau of Reclamation spokesman didn’t return a phone message left Friday.

Gilmore said the districts receiving the water irrigate an estimated 100,000 acres of farmland. Tracy has a population of more than 80,000.

The canal was completed in 1951.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow.

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