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Issue: March/April 2008

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Finding a Vision for the Delta

by Gary Pitzer


Consider the array of problems facing the Sacramento- San Joaquin Delta for too long and the effect can be nearly overwhelming. Permanently altered more than a century ago, the estuary – arguably the only one of its kind – is an enigma to those outside its realm, a region embroiled in difficulties that resist simple, ready-made solutions.

Situated as the drainage end point for a large part of Northern California, the Delta is alternately influenced by waters at both ends. The Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers can carry staggering amounts of water during wet years that thwarts the inward push of saltwater from San Francisco Bay. As the runoff recedes, the salinity returns – part of the cycle some have likened to a washing machine with tidal volumes dwarfing freshwater flows.

Complex enough without the many influences of human activity, the Delta’s variability factor increased considerably as it was first converted from a tidal marsh for agriculture and later with upstream flood control dams and water exports, the arrival of invasive species and decreased water quality. Jeff Mount, scientific advisor to the CALFED Bay-Delta Program, notes that historically the influence of freshwater and tidal influences on the Delta was in constant motion, depending upon factors such as flows, sediment accumulation and erosion.

“Today, with levees and flow regulation upstream, the dynamic landscape has been, in effect, frozen in place, and with that freezing, a cascade of environmental and water management problems,” Mount said.

Those who call the Delta home are keenly aware of its unique nature and are its most loyal and fiercest defenders. They bristle at the notion that it hangs precipitously on the edge of doom and are committed to a course that ensures an enduring legacy for an area that was literally built by hand as the Gold Rush era wound down.

Ever since the first shovel was sunk into its peat soil to begin its transformation, the Delta has been on the slow, steady course that has brought it to where it now stands on the cusp of possibly another major change. The last few years have brought increasing focus on the Delta – compelled by forces inside and outside its boundaries. The Delta’s fragility, known for decades, thrust to the forefront as scientific analysis revealed the sobering risk of destruction from earthquake or flooding.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of controversies piled up as the weight of a declining ecosystem, litigation and reduced water exports from the Delta became clear. Trouble literally fell from above as dry weather conditions and the prospect of permanent changes wrought by climate change became part of the Delta lexicon. Clamor arose over the need to enable the state’s water apparatus to keep up with the growing demand.

Critics point to the crises as proof of the chronic mismanagement of the Delta and say the amount of water exported from the Delta is directly linked to its ecological problems. Amid all the debate, the state of California decided it was once again time to comprehensively evaluate the Delta to craft a long-term sustainable “vision” of exactly what the area should look like and the purposes it should serve. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in keeping with his “action” mantra, issued an executive order in 2006 that launched the process, which has stimulated discussion among a variety of public policy experts, scientists and stakeholder interest groups about how to re-think the many demands placed on the Delta.

Schwarzenegger’s efforts have not been free of controversy, however. Stakeholders and some Democratic lawmakers in February accused him of forging ahead on building a canal around the Delta in advance of the final recommendations for the Delta vision. Schwarzenegger sought to temper the situation in a Feb. 28 letter that outlined half-dozen Delta improvement actions, including “a more aggressive plan” to achieve a 20 percent reduction in per capita water use statewide by 2020.

“Far from acting unilaterally, my administration has been transparent in working with stakeholders and legislators on identifying both administrative and legislative actions that will be necessary to address the recommendations of the [Delta Vision] Task Force,” the governor wrote. “As part of that effort, I will continue to negotiate in good faith with legislators on a comprehensive water infrastructure package.”

Leading the way has been the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force, a seven-member panel chaired by legislative and public policy veteran Phil Isenberg charged with moving beyond the discussion and developing a workplan that actively shapes the Delta’s future. Late last year, the Task Force released Our Vision for the California Delta, a document that recognized the need for immediate and long-term actions as well as the importance of linking all the actions so that actions don’t take place irrespective of each other.

“The Delta cannot be ‘fixed’ by any single action,” the report says. “Nor can water needs be met by any single action. No matter what policy choices are made, we Californians are compelled to change the ways we behave toward the environment and water.”

Part of the change involves perception of the Delta itself. “Though little recognized by many Californians, the Delta is a region of unique and irreplaceable cultural value,” the report says. Consequently, the Task Force recommends the Delta receive state recognition and legal status as a “special area.” Such a designation “should help, inspire and guide” all the associated actions to promote and protect the region.

“There has to be recognition of that sense of place because there are a lot of people who live, work and play in the Delta,” said Linda Fiack, executive director of the Delta Protection Commission, at a March 7 Delta Vision workshop sponsored by the Water Education Foundation.

The Delta Vision document includes seven near-term actions that must be taken soon “because threats to the Delta … are so serious.” Not surprisingly, actions to beef up the flood protection apparatus top the list. There is also a call to “discourage residential building in flood-prone areas,” a statement predicated on the fact that “land that could provide flood protection is being threatened by urban development [even] as this report is being written.”

Given the drastic circumstances surrounding the Delta – “crashing” of fish populations, threat of levee failure and uncertainty of water supply and conveyance among them – the Task Force’s set of 12 “common sense but … bold” recommendations are proposed because to do otherwise “would be of little consequence.” The findings are predicated on the principle that the Delta ecosystem and a reliable water supply are “primary, co-equal goals” for long-term management.

Equality does not currently exist, according to most stakeholders. Environmentalists and in-Delta interests say too much water is exported from the Delta while water contractors bemoan what they view as sometime questionable restrictions on pumping that may not benefit fish species. “There is nothing near a coequal status,” said Jason Peltier, chief deputy general manager with Westlands Water District, at the workshop. “Scientific uncertainty is our biggest enemy and the biggest threat to making progress.”

That said, the report maintains that a revitalized ecosystem will require reduced water diversions, or changes in the patterns and timing of those diversions upstream and within the Delta. That prospect “creates alarm bells” for water users north of the Delta, said Ryan Broddrick, executive director of the Northern California Water Association, a conglomerate of 60 agricultural water districts, at the Delta Vision workshop. He said a “firm basis” must be established for the continued health of the agricultural economy that depends on water as well as the values that maintain fish and wildlife populations.

A Delta Vision Context Memoranda Summary Report prepared for the Task Force notes that water supply and ecosystem needs “have been the root of open conflict that extends back many decades” and that an “unanswered question that fuels the conflict” is the amount of diversions that can take place while maintaining a healthy ecosystem.

The report recognizes the finite amount of water that must be shared among homes, farms, businesses and the environment and notes that the existing supply “must be managed with significantly more efficiency” and that “the goals of conservation, efficiency and sustainable use must drive California water policies.” Concurrently, there is the notation that “the foundation for policy making about California water resources must be the longstanding constitutional principles of ‘reasonable use’ and ‘public trust,’” which are “particularly important and applicable to the Delta.”

Environmental advocates have long said the state can meet its water needs by making better use of the resources it currently has. “Water use efficiency is the most cost-effective and least environmentally damaging tool the state has to meet our water needs,” said Kristina Ortez, policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), at the workshop.

Cognizant of the amount of energy focused on the need to strengthen the Delta’s role as the hub of the state water supply, the draft vision emphasizes that solutions must be pursued concurrently. “For those who rush to discuss Delta water conveyance as if no other issue is of importance, the Task Force cautions that decisions about storage and conveyance flow from all 12 recommendations in their vision, and cannot be decided by themselves.”

Conveyance is the lightning rod because of the recognized need to improve the existing system but the challenge in finding the most feasible remedy. Task Force members identified a dual conveyance system as the initial platform from which to proceed, but not a foregone conclusion. “Dual conveyance is a preferred starting point, not a preferred ending point,” Isenberg said at the Task Force’s Jan. 31 meeting.

Conveyance options spark discussion no matter who is consulted. An isolated facility to transport water around the Delta, once a taboo subject, is part of the mix as officials seek solutions to the conveyance question.

Regardless of how it is reconfigured, there is no argument for maintaining the status quo as a viable option. “The fish [protection] agencies are clear – they say we need to change the way we divert water to protect the fish,” Jerry Johns, deputy director of the Department of Water Resources (DWR), told the Task Force in January.

Urban water providers say the system desperately needs repair to ensure the continued flow of water from the State Water Project to the Bay Area, Central Coast and Southern California. “We can’t last another 10 years without new conveyance and we have the most reliable supply among water districts in California,” said Randall Neudeck, who manages the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California’s Bay-Delta Imported Water Supply Program, at the March workshop. MWD is “just trying to maintain our base in the Delta” and is not seeking more water, he said.

Step one in the process is figuring out exactly what is meant by dual conveyance. “Dual conveyance sounds like a slogan but what does it mean? It’s not nailed down right now,” said John Kirlin, executive director of the Task Force.

This issue of Western Water examines the Delta through the many ongoing activities focusing on it, most notably the Delta Vision process. Many hours of testimony, research, legal proceedings, public hearings and discussion have occurred and will continue as the state seeks the ultimate solution to the problems tied to the Delta

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Editor's Desk

As long as the Foundation has existed – 30 years – our writers have analyzed the problems associated with the California Delta. You might notice that I called the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by its newest name, the “California Delta.” I like using this term as it connects millions of Californians with the place their drinking and irrigation water converges. It is also a place of unique cultural value and beauty.

As often described in the pages of this magazine, it is an estuary of many uses; an estuary that has been degraded, affecting the system and its reliability. In recent years, the Delta’s declining ecosystem, litigation, reduced water exports and risk of levee failure have caused many Delta observers to call for drastic change to sustain the Delta and its many uses.

The Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force has recognized the need for a series of linked immediate and long-term “bold” actions. The Task Force underlines that these are actions that should reflect California’s public trust and beneficial use doctrines. Of course, at the heart of the debate is the issue of how to move water through and across the Delta. This new debate about conveyance is different from the old Peripheral Canal debate of the early 1980s. It’s now as much about how to protect the environment as it is about how to move water.

If you are confused by the many issues surrounding the Delta, I think you will find this issue of Western Water helpful and insightful. Gary Pitzer does an admirable job of summarizing the problems and potential solutions surrounding the California Delta. Another resource for you are the summaries of our Delta Vision workshops; we’ve held five of these free workshops since November 2006; most recently on March 8 in Suisun City. You’ll find notes from all but the most-recent here  http://www.water-ed.org/deltavisionworkshops.asp Also, you can see this intriguing, complex place firsthand by attending our June 4-6 Bay-Delta Tour, http://www.water-ed.org/tours.asp#delta . One thing is sure, all sides will have to give some – more than they want – to find a workable solution to more forward in search of a real Delta Vision.

- Rita Schmidt Sudman

In the News

Scientists Eye Link Between Adverse Ocean Conditions and Low Salmon Numbers

Amid some of the gloomiest numbers ever for Chinook and coho salmon, scientists say unusual environmental conditions in the Pacific Ocean are one reason for the low returns of fish to rivers and streams along the West Coast. As this issue went to press, officials were mulling whether to completely shutdown sport and commercial fishing off California and Oregon.

“This is very bad news for West Coast salmon fisheries,” said Don Hansen, chair of the Pacific Fishery Management Council. “The word ‘disaster’ comes immediately to mind, and I mean a disaster much worse than the Klamath fishery disaster of 2006.” The council is one of eight regional fishery management bodies responsible for fisheries as far as 200 miles off the shores of California, Oregon and Washington.

The council’s Feb. 28 report says the 2007 returns of fall-run Chinook salmon to the Sacramento River were approximately 33 percent of what biologists expected. Projections for 2008 are substantially lower than last year’s estimate. “The biological situation for Sacramento River fall Chinook salmon is unprecedented in our experience,” said Donald McIsaac, executive director for the council. “We are looking at back-to-back record low brood year production, even though the parent spawning levels exceeded the spawning goal.”

The fall-run Chinook are classified as a “species of concern,” by the federal government, meaning the National Marine Fisheries Service “has some concerns regarding status and threats, but for which insufficient information is available to indicate a need to list the species under the Endangered Species Act,” according to the agency.

Returning coho salmon also are considerably lower than predicted, with an average 27 percent of the parental stock returning in 12 streams monitored in California. Experts suspect several dozens factors are at play in the species decline, including ocean conditions. Scientists say a southward shift in the jet stream in 2005 delayed favorable winds and ocean upwelling, which brings nutrients to the surface. The winds instead arrived in mid-July, causing high surface water temperatures and very low nutrient production within the nearshore marine ecosystem. Adult salmon, which stay in the ocean from six months to five years, feed mostly on shrimp, squid and small fish. When they are fully mature they return to their home stream to spawn.

“We are not dismissing other potential causes for this year’s low salmon returns,” said Usha Varanasi, Northwest Science Center director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service. “But the widespread pattern of low returns along the West Coast for two species of salmon indicates an environmental anomaly occurred in the California current in 2005.”

The salmon’s plight has sparked controversy that not enough has been done to protect the fish. Environmental groups have taken their case to court, alleging that state and federal pumping operations are excessively contributing to the population decline. Water users say the findings regarding ocean conditions are proof that many unpredictable factors affect salmon.

- Gary Pitzer

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