The Peripheral Canal

Delta Winds cover 2011Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College


The Peripheral Canal: What It Means for the Delta

Tamara Piazza

The controversy surrounding a peripheral canal and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is not new to the people of California. In 1982, California voters resoundingly rejected a ballot initiative that proposed construction of a canal that would convey water from Northern California to Central and Southern California by bypassing the Delta. What has changed in the last 29 years that has caused this idea to be resurrected? Is it the best solution for California's water issues? Most important, will a peripheral canal ultimately help or harm the Delta? It appears that once again Californians will be asked to answer these questions with a vote on a ballot measure scheduled for the November 2012 Statewide General Election. While this ballot measure will not specifically fund a peripheral canal, it will lay the foundation for it by providing the needed infrastructure. My goal in researching this topic is to determine how to vote on this measure.

The Delta is one of the largest remaining wetland areas on the Pacific Coast, and its functions are vital and diverse. The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) reports that the Delta provides a migration path for salmon; a home to over 500 species of wildlife, 20 of which are endangered; and water to approximately two-thirds of California's population. The Delta also supplies a recreational area for fishing and water sports. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reports that Delta water exports to the south began in 1951 via the Delta-Mendota Canal, as part of the Central Valley Project. By 1972, the State Water Project also began water exports to the south through the California Aqueduct. The original intent behind both projects was to transport only water that was surplus to the needs of the Delta; however, over the last fifty years exports have increased at the Delta's expense. "California as we know it today was built largely on this fantasy: That arid cities in the south could indefinitely satisfy the thirst of a growing population by importing water from the north" (Weiser). The reality is that the demand for water provided by the Delta is unrealistic and has led to its decline; therefore, long-term solutions are needed to restore the ecosystem while ensuring a sustainable water supply for California.

In 2006, due to the crisis in the Delta and, subsequently, court-ordered reductions of exports, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger established the State of California Governor's Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force. The Task Force was assigned the responsibilities of developing recommendations to repair the Delta's ecology and preparing a strategic plan that would recommend measures to sustain the Delta while ensuring a reliable water supply. In 2008, the Task Force presented the Delta Vision Strategic Plan, which identified seven goals with specific strategies and actions. These goals were based on the following core issues and concerns surrounding the Delta and its water supply: drought; increased urban development; the establishment of a new governance structure; urban and agricultural pollution, resulting in degraded water quality; sea level rise, resulting in tidal salinity intrusion; catastrophic levee failure caused by earthquakes, floods, and land subsistence; and extinction of endangered fish species, such as salmon, Delta smelt (a native fish), and steelhead. Although the goals appear to make sense, two of the recommendations have caused significant controversy. The Task Force promotes a dual conveyance facility or peripheral canal to carry water directly from the Sacramento River to the export pumps, effectively diverting water before it enters the Delta system. The Task Force also advocates the establishment of a California Delta Ecosystem and Water Council to replace the Bay-Delta Authority.

While San Joaquin County and other Northern California cities, counties, and stakeholders agree that the Delta is in trouble and needs urgent attention, they disagree with the Task Force's recommendations. San Joaquin County's position is that a peripheral canal would irrevocably harm the Delta, and that other more viable alternatives could be completed quicker and at less expense. In order to gain a better understanding of the County's opposition, I interviewed Dr. Mel Lytle, San Joaquin County's Water Resource Coordinator. Dr. Lytle's knowledge of the past, present, and future of California's water problems, specifically the Delta's role in the equation, was invaluable. According to Dr. Lytle, "Water in California is no longer just a necessity; it has become a commodity." This statement appears to be substantiated by a recent lawsuit filed against billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick, owners of the nation's largest corporate farm and underground water storage facility located in the Central Valley, for allegedly selling water at a profit to nonmembers of their water agency. The Resnicks operate the Westside Mutual Water Company, in addition to controlling 48 percent of the Kern Water Bank. Between 2000 and 2007, the State of California paid the Resnicks $30.6 million for water that was originally stored in their water bank as part of a program to protect fish native to the Delta (Burke). Dr. Lytle stated that the Resnicks' farming operations were the last to be developed in the Central Valley, and although they are "last in time, last in right," the State has promised them water that isn't available. Knowing that they are at risk of not receiving their allotted water due to decreased exports from the Delta, the Resnicks are one of the major proponents for a peripheral canal. At Dr. Lytle's urging, I looked to see which agencies and representatives comprised the membership lists of the various task forces and committees advocating a peripheral canal. As he suggested, I found that the majority of the members listed were not representatives of stakeholders in the Delta region; therefore, do they really have the Delta's interests at heart? Representatives of the County disagree with the Task Force's report because they believe it ignores the system of water appropriation and water rights in California, and it doesn't acknowledge local governance or other regionally focused water resource solutions. Finally, the County fears that if a peripheral canal were built, the removal of fresh water inflow would degrade the Delta's water quality and there would no longer be a common interest to protect water quality or to maintain levees.

Water rights in California are complicated and a major source of contention. Between senior and junior water rights holders, there appears to be a "water war" that has been waged in both the Legislature and the court systems. Senior water rights holders are those that were "first in line, first in right" and are given priority over junior holders; therefore, the junior holders are legally last in line for water during drought. Many of the large agribusinesses in the Central Valley have had their water allotments decreased in drought years, causing them a loss in profits. As a result, the agribusinesses must use their money and power to influence legislators, judicial officers, and voters to change current law so that their water allotments can be increased. Unfortunately, their goal does not seem to take into consideration the needs of senior rights holders or the environment where the water originates.

In addition to Dr. Lytle, I spoke to Mr. Brandon Nakagawa, Senior Civil Engineer for San Joaquin County's Water Resource Division. Brandon, whom I consider a friend, scoffed at the arguments the Task Force used to justify its recommendations. He wanted me to recognize the recommendations as "scare tactics." Brandon's arguments against a peripheral canal made sense on a basic level, especially when he pointed out that some of the Delta levees have existed for over 100 years and have never failed due to an earthquake. While levee failure due to an earthquake is a possibility, wouldn't a seismic event of that magnitude also affect a cement canal running through our state? The most troubling aspect to me was that in the event of a levee failure and subsequent saltwater intrusion of the Delta water supply, those of us who rely on Delta water would suffer as there is no provision for us to be able to access and divert clean water from a peripheral canal. In addition, the State as a whole would no longer be invested and committed to ensuring the levees are adequately maintained or repaired.

Both Dr. Lytle and Brandon explained to me that the water in the Delta is supposed to drain out toward the San Francisco Bay; however, the pumps used for exporting actually cause the water in the Delta to flow backwards. Due to this anomaly, salt loads and urban wastewater from the Central Valley are being re-circulated through the Delta system instead of being discharged out to the Pacific Ocean. Peripheral canal supporters insist that bypassing the Delta would eliminate use of the pumps, thereby restoring the natural water flow in the Delta channels. Opponents counter that diverting a large volume of the highest quality water before it enters the Delta would deprive it of the ability to dilute storm water discharges and repel saltwater intrusion from the Bay.

In November 2009, Governor Schwarzenegger called for a special session of the legislature in order to pass the 2009 Comprehensive Water Package. The package consisted of four policy bills that included creation of a Delta Stewardship Council. The Delta Stewardship Council is tasked with creating a Delta Plan that will guide state and local actions in the Delta, making determinations on whether a state or local agency's project is consistent with the Delta Plan, and acting as the appellate body if a claim is made that a project is inconsistent. Critics believe that the creation of a Council without representation of Delta communities-along with authority to be judge, jury, and executioner-clears a path for building a peripheral canal without requiring that the people of California approve the project. If this is true, the only say we will have in the construction is whether or not we will approve funding for it. The first opportunity to make our wishes known will occur with our vote in the 2012 General Election.

As a result of my research, I find that I am adamantly against the construction of a peripheral canal. After reading numerous claims and opinions, and taking into consideration the enormous construction expense proposed during a time of unprecedented fiscal deficiencies, I have concluded that a peripheral canal is not in the best interests of the Delta and those dependent upon it. I have learned that there is just not enough water in dry years to support the current export levels and supply the Delta. In addition, the original concept of the State Water Project included additional water storage projects that were never completed, and this failure has directly contributed to the current water shortage. Several suggestions being made by San Joaquin County officials and others should be evaluated and implemented before we resort to allowing our Delta to collapse. I just don't see how building a large concrete structure, estimated to be as wide as a 100-lane freeway, would be environmentally friendly. I just don't see how building a peripheral canal-large enough for an oil tanker to travel down the center of our state-would be necessary. I hope that the voters of California really look at the consequences and join me in voting "NO" on any and all bond measures or ballot initiatives that support building the Peripheral Canal.

Works Cited

Burke, Garance. "Lawsuit targets use of reservoir." The Sacramento Bee on the Web. 11 Apr. 2010. Web. 12 Apr. 2010.

Lytle, Mel. Personal interview. 9 Apr. 2010.

Nakagawa, Brandon. Personal interview. 9 Apr. 2010.

State of California. Department of Water Resources. "California State Water Project-Sacramento San Joaquin Delta." DWR, 18 Jul. 2008. Web. 03 Mar. 2010.

---. ---. "2009 Comprehensive Water Package" DWR, 04 Nov 2009. Web. 22 Mar. 2011

---. Governor's Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force. "Delta Vision Strategic Plan." State of California, 17 Oct. 2008. Web. 03 Mar. 2010.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. "Delta Division Project." USBR, 28 Jul. 2009. Web. 10 May. 2010.

Weiser, Matt. "The Delta debate: Resurrecting the canal." The Sacramento Bee on the Web. 10 Mar. 2010. Web. 23 Apr. 2010