Delta Vision

North State will ‘take a hit’ to save the estuary

More of Northern California’s water is going south.

Before you get angry about lawns in Torrance and swimming pools in Beverly Hills, you should know that the increase is meant to help save the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which is in danger of dying.

That was the principal message of a water forum held last Friday (May 30) at the Chico Masonic Family Center. Its purpose was to examine a proposed “Delta Vision” developed by a blue-ribbon task force convened by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006.

California has the most elaborate and complex water-transfer system in human history, one that conveys hundreds of millions of gallons of water from the rivers and streams of Northern California more than 500 miles—and up and over a mountain range—to the population centers of Southern California. It’s a marvel of technology and construction—with one glaring weakness.

It passes through the Delta.

The Delta, where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers meet and flow into San Francisco Bay, is one of North America’s greatest and most important estuaries. It is home to more than 500 species, and its ecological health is critical to an incalculable number of fish, animals and birds.

Unfortunately, it is also the hub of the state’s two principal water distribution systems, the federal Central Valley Project, which includes Shasta Dam, and the State Water Project, which includes Oroville Dam. Water enters the northern part of the Delta via the Sacramento River and is pulled out of it by huge pumps at the southern part, near Tracy.

The process wreaks all kinds of damage on the Delta’s ecology, especially when water inflows are low, as they have been in recent years. The pumps not only suck in saline water from San Francisco Bay, upsetting the freshwater ecology of the Delta, but they also kill fish by the millions, especially the endangered Delta smelt.

On the other hand, there are at least 7,000 permitted diverters who use the water that is transferred south, including the water agencies that provide household water to some 23 million people and farmers who irrigate 7 million acres of productive agricultural lands.

Complicating the whole issue is the possible impact of global warming, and indeed that was part of the reason Schwarzenegger convened the panel. Sea levels are predicted to rise over time, increasing salinity, and the Sierra Nevada snowpack is expected to decline significantly, as it has done this year (by one-third). Lake Oroville, for instance, contains only 58 percent of the water it had at this time last year.

In addition, scientists are predicting a two-in-three chance of a major earthquake in or near the Delta within the next 50 years.

On Wednesday, Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought after two years of below-average rainfall and restrictions on the Delta, according to a Sacramento Bee report. As of press time, he was expected to sign an executive order to send water to those hardest hit by the drought.

The purpose of Delta Vision is to identify a strategy for managing the Delta sustainably, so that it can continue to support both its environmental and economic functions, according to its Web site, The two goals are given equal value under the vision’s policies.

The process is ongoing, and Schwarzenegger is required to submit a final report to the Legislature by Dec. 31.

With water supplies declining, the task force has placed its emphasis on conservation. Indeed, Delta Vision could catalyze a new era of water conservation in California.

Fundamental to the vision is the idea that the Delta be a healthy estuary, and that can be accomplished only by efficiently managing California’s water supply through conservation and sustainable use.

A number of remedies have been proposed, but all include the notion that more inflow will be needed if the Delta is to remain healthy. And that water can come from only one place: Northern California.

Naturally, that was much on the minds of the 70 people who attended the Northern Sacramento Valley Water Forum Friday. But North Staters aren’t the only ones who will have to sacrifice, speakers said.

Every Californian will “take a hit,” as Thad Bettner, general manager of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, put it. Delta Vision could be applied throughout the state, so it would spell conservation and possibly even higher water prices for all Californians—even those in the north who have the water.

“This is not just a Southern California problem,” Bettner said. Part of GCID’s vision is to provide additional water to the Delta. “There is no way to say no,” so Northern Californians, farmers (who tap more than 80 percent of California’s water supply) in particular, will have to “change the way we do business and better manage our water.”

There is a need for new facilities for conveyance and storage and better linkage between the two to increase efficiency, Bettner said. For example, surface-water storage facilities could recharge the groundwater system during wet years, instead of letting that fresh water drain into the ocean. Also, agribusiness needs to develop or switch to more efficient water delivery systems.

Nearly 75 percent of the available water originates north of Sacramento and 80 percent of the demand occurs in the southern two-thirds of the state. Regardless, “there needs to be a tradeoff,” Bettner said in a subsequent telephone interview. “There needs to be some recognition that we gave up water to the system.”