Opinion Columns & Blogs

The Delta, the plumbing and rectifying the problem

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“Denny, you and your environmentalist buddies better vote for this thing, ’cause it’s the best deal you’re ever going to get.”

Those words were spoken by my father in 1982, extolling me to vote “yes” on Proposition 9, the referendum on the peripheral canal. He was a 30-plus-year, veteran engineer with the California Department of Water Resources, and I was a 20-something idealistic college student majoring in conservation biology. As such, we couldn’t have been further apart on water issues in this state.

But this was different – I had spent a lot of time researching this issue for my own personal enlightenment, and the conclusion I arrived at was that the peripheral canal was, conceptually, a good thing for the environment. In the end, however, I joined the majority of California voters and voted it down, not because I believed the rhetoric that it would be the death of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, but because I didn’t believe that this was the best deal for the environment.

So here we are 31 years later – what has changed?

The Delta aquatic ecosystem is near collapse, at least one species is hovering on the precipice of extinction, several others are nearly there, and a federal court has placed new restrictions on water diversions for the state and federal water projects. Despite this, if the 1982 version of the peripheral canal was on the ballot again, I would still vote against it. But the proposed twin-tunnel project of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan is different – and I believe is a better deal for the environment than the 1982 version.

In the 1960s, the era of construction of the California State Water Project, the culture and mind-set of the Department of Water Resources was one of limitless engineering ambition. At the time, the State Water Project – a water storage and delivery system of reservoirs, aqueducts, power plants and pumping plants extending more than two-thirds the length of California – rivaled the Apollo program in engineering innovation, creativity and daring. It truly was the moon-shot of water project engineering.

Water Resources engineers accomplished unprecedented feats; they were the world’s experts and were extremely proud. My dad demonstrated this every time we drove over the Tehachapis to visit relatives in Southern California.

“There’s the Edmonston Pumping Plant!” he would point out from the highway. “The greatest single lift of water in the world!”

But with great pride eventually comes hubris, and that hubris became manifest when the nation’s nascent environmental protection laws began to be applied to water operations. This resulted in decades of denial that the State Water Project and its sister project, the federal Central Valley Project, were having any substantial effect on the ecology of the Delta. An unfortunate outcome of this denial was loss of trust and credibility with a public that places high value on preserving ecosystems and species.

The Department of Water Resources struggles with that legacy today.

Must be a better way

Beginning in the late 1990s, as the evidence that the water projects were affecting the aquatic environment became more substantial, a series of court decisions went against the water resources department and the projects. This new reality brought about a new culture at the department, one that attempts to reconcile the paramount economic and social need to move water south with the fact that this need has an impact on one of the largest and most ecologically diverse estuaries in North America.

Today, the department is a much different agency than the one my father worked for, with internal policies that reflect societal needs other than economic ones, such as the need for ecosystem protection and restoration, resource sustainability and environmental justice. The department still has employees who continue to deny the impacts of the water projects, but fortunately they are few.

As it was in 1982, the current debate over a new way to convey water through the Delta is overwhelmingly focused on the amount of water that should be diverted, with very little public discourse on how it should be diverted, or why we need to divert it in a different way.

The debate over how much water is diverted is a healthy one and should continue, but not to the point that all other considerations are lost. As a biologist working in and around the Delta for much of my 28-year career, I have had one firmly held belief: there must be a better way of moving water through the Delta than the way we do it now.

The current plumbing in the Delta is wholly unnatural. Water from storage reservoirs on the Sacramento River and tributaries is dumped into the north Delta and then pumped from the south Delta. So instead of the natural westward flow into San Francisco Bay, much of the water flows south toward the pumps. This results in upstream flows that carry confused fish directly to the pumps and water moving too quickly to produce the food that these fish need. This has had a significant impact on the aquatic ecology of the Delta.

The proposed project – two underground tunnels about one-third the capacity of the peripheral canal – is intended to rectify this problem by diverting water before it enters the Delta, so that it no longer interferes with natural Delta hydrology and ecology. There is danger in this: if too much water is diverted, it can cause a whole host of other ecological problems.

My father and I used to debate this issue, but our positions were so encamped in our own ideology that we never came close to agreement. I believe this is happening today in the public debate on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. We need to get beyond this, because if the last 50 years of water management has taught us anything, it is that the status quo is death to Delta ecology.

A less-resilient Delta

Most of the natural habitat of the Delta has been lost or substantially altered, starting with the reclamation of Delta marshland into agricultural land in the late 19th century. Today, only about 3 percent of the historical tidal marshes and 23 percent of seasonal wetlands remain in the Delta.

The loss of tidal wetlands has been especially significant. These wetlands produce the basic elements of the Delta aquatic food chain, and the loss of these food production areas is a major cause of the decline of fish species such as Delta smelt and striped bass. The loss of habitat diversity and the interruption of natural ecological processes have made the Delta less variable and less resilient to natural perturbations such as floods or droughts.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan, when implemented, will be one of the largest habitat restoration projects in the country. The plan calls for the restoration or protection of approximately 146,000 acres of habitat, including 65,000 acres of tidal wetlands. Habitat restoration alone won’t cure the Delta’s ills – there are still unscreened diversions for agriculture, invasive species and pollution to contend with – but it will go a long way toward restoring ecological health, and it will make the natural system more resilient in the face of these other problems. This is all the more critical as we move into a future of a warmer climate and rising sea levels.

In addition to the flow and habitat problems, the fish screening facilities in front of the south Delta pumps are woefully inefficient. The “screens” are vertical slats resembling fixed vertical blinds with 1-inch gaps between them. They function more like guidance devices, rather than physical barriers, to guide fish into bypass pipes and away from the pumps. From there, the fish are put into holding tanks, then placed into trucks and hauled to release sites away from the pumps.

In 2012, the Department of Fish and Wildlife estimated that only 18.5 percent of young chinook salmon that were drawn into the State Water Project fish facility survived the process. Most are eaten by predators, and others succumb to the jostling of holding tanks and hauling trucks. And this does not include those that are eaten by predators as they emerge disoriented from the release. For fish smaller than three-quarters of an inch, the loss through the slats is essentially 100 percent.

These facilities cannot be modernized; the location of the pumps at the end of dead-end channels means that fish collection and trucking will always be necessary. My first three years at Fish and Wildlife were spent overseeing this operation, and I was constantly amazed at the limitations of these facilities.

This archaic process is in sharp contrast to the proposed intakes for the twin tunnels. The screens at the intakes in the north Delta will be physical barriers, designed to meet modern fish-screening standards mandated by the fisheries agencies. Most importantly, there will be no holding tanks or fish-hauling trucks to contend with. The intakes will be situated on the Sacramento River, and fish that bypass the intakes will remain in the river. These new facilities will not completely replace the existing facilities, but will greatly reduce their frequency of use.

Will the Bay Delta Conservation Plan be the savior of the Delta? That remains to be seen. But I believe it is the most realistic plan yet conceived to right the tremendous injuries we’ve inflicted upon the Delta’s natural environment over the last 150 years.

I think my father would be happy to see us embark on this effort to build a new Delta water conveyance facility – even with the much smaller size. He would likely see it as a ray of hope that we can get beyond the current impasse that is benefiting no one, and no creature. And on that, I think I would agree.


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