Dear Sierra Club California Members and Friends,
The San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta probably doesn’t ring a lot of bells for most Californians. Most who live far from it, probably know about it mostly from travel stories about houseboat rentals and bass fishing. Most who live closer, probably know it for the interesting tiny towns, odd little eateries, and windy roads and levees that make it a fun day trip.
Not enough understand its substantial and often conflicting importance to California and the nation. For many years, the major decisions addressing the Delta have happened in Sacramento without much understanding by many beyond the boundaries of the Delta itself and the several blocks around the Capitol Building where most of the Delta debate occurs.
To put it simply, the Delta is so important that California wouldn’t be California without it.
Created where the Sacramento and the San Joaquin rivers flow into the San Francisco Bay, the Delta contains the largest brackish estuarine marsh on the West Coast. The entire Delta ecosystem—the largest wetland habitat in the western United States—supports more than 750 wildlife species and more than 120 species of fish. It is one of the state’s largest commercial and recreational fisheries (hence the bass fishing stories).
The Delta estuary also provides migration corridors for two-thirds of the state’s salmon and nearly half of the waterfowl and shorebirds that travel the Pacific Flyway. In winter, especially, it’s a birder’s paradise. It’s one of the half-dozen reasons California has so much wildlife.
The Delta is also the hub of California’s water supply and delivery system. Most of the state’s rain and snow falls north of and upstream from the Delta, while much of the state’s city and farm water uses occur south of the Delta. The state’s two major water projects store water in major reservoirs upstream from the Delta, convey water through the Delta, and export the Delta’s water south from project pumps in the south Delta. Southern California relies on the Delta for 30% of its water supply, while the San Francisco Bay Area relies on the Delta for 33% of its supply.
All this demand has created big problems for the Delta.
One big problem is that the Delta has about 1,100 miles of levees, much of them deteriorating. If an earthquake or big winter storm causes multiple levee ruptures, drinking water delivery through the Delta from Northern California to Southern California would affect about 23 million people south of the system. The Southland’s intense dependence on levee stability hundreds of miles north is a risk manager’s nightmare.
Another big problem is that many of the native fish populations in the Delta are suffering. Scientists have considered one species in particular, the delta smelt, when they’ve evaluated the health of the Delta. This tiny fish, native only to the Delta, was the most abundant fish in the system as recently as 30 years ago. Now it’s on the brink of extinction.
Here’s a simple truth that is often hard for some people to admit: Right now, the amount of water exported to Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley from the San Francisco Bay Delta Estuary is unsustainable. It’s simply not possible to keep an ecosystem healthy if, as urban population grows and farm water demand grows, you keep pulling out the pins that hold the joints together.
But hope seems to spring eternal when it comes to water and politics in California. So even after spending millions of dollars on a years-long negotiation that was supposed to protect the Delta environment, and that includes governments, water agencies, farmers and some environmental groups, it appears that the Delta is doomed to have more water withdrawn.
In mid-July, Governor Jerry Brown and U.S. Interior Secretary Salazar are expected to unveil a proposed water diversion project. All signs suggest Brown will embrace construction of world-record size tunnels or pipes capable of diverting 15,000 cubic feet per second of water from the Sacramento River. That’s nearly all of that river’s average freshwater flow.
The project will cost anywhere from $20 billion to $50 billion.
Sound amazing? It is. Do you find yourself filled with shock and awe and questions? So do we. We’ve pulled together a list of seven we’d like the answers to. You can probably think of others.
In the old days, the idea was to build a peripheral canal. Voters voted that down. Now the idea is a tunnel or pipe. Same governor, different century. The effect of the old idea and the new could very well be the same: A lot more water flowing out of the Delta than that system can tolerate, killing a big piece of what supports California’s environment.
Kathryn Phillips, Director Jim Metropulos, Senior Advocate
Sierra Club California is the Sacramento-based legislative and regulatory advocacy arm of the 13 California chapters of the Sierra Club.
LETTER FROM SACRAMENTO: Deja Vu All Over Again: Dangers for the Delta and California