Pipe dreams

Plan to shunt water around the Sacramento Delta returns

The California Clean Water Project would divert water around the Sacramento River Delta to the Bay Area and Southern California.

The California Clean Water Project would divert water around the Sacramento River Delta to the Bay Area and Southern California.

Imagine a large aqueduct on the east side of the Sacramento River that sucks millions of gallons of water from the Sacramento River about 20 miles south of Sacramento and disperses it outward to millions of Californians, bypassing the Bay-Delta ecosystem entirely.

Senator Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, has imagined just such a thing. He even squeezed the big idea into a Senate Bill called the “California Clean Water Project,” which he first introduced last February and currently is edging into a new year of review. The bill proposes to construct a pipeline or canal that would borrow a yet-undisclosed volume of Sacramento River water and transport it southward along the eastern edge of the Delta and ultimately into the Tracy pumping stations, which supply water to Silicon Valley, the San Joaquin Valley and the many residents of Southern California.

The primary objective of the proposal is to protect the state’s drinking-water supply from saltwater inundation while safeguarding the Delta’s ecosystem and fish populations. Yet many environmentalists, fishermen and government water managers strongly oppose the plan.

“If we give them their canal, the river will dry up and the Delta will become an inland sea,” said Dante Nomellini Sr., an attorney for the Central Delta Water Agency, a public agency that manages 120,000 acres of land in western San Joaquin County.

But Senator Simitian, who acts as chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Environmental Quality and has received praise from the Sierra Club, promises that the freshwater requirements of the Delta ecosystem will not be ignored. Moreover, he says that the bill is only in its early stages of development.

“Right now, this is just a starting point for a long discussion after being on public display for almost a year,” Simitian told SN&R. “These concerns are valid, but it’s my job to address them with clarity and fairness until they’re no longer real concerns.”

One of the main arguments in support of the California Clean Water Project holds that the state’s drinking-water distribution system faces a huge chance of being crippled this century by saltwater flooding in the Delta if preparatory measures are not taken in advance. The backbone of this assertion lies in a study conducted by Dr. Jeffrey Mount, a professor of geology at UC Davis, and Dr. Robert Twiss, a professor of environmental planning at UC Berkeley.

They give a 66 percent chance that some natural event—such a particularly large rainstorm or an earthquake—will swamp the Delta and its inhabitants within 50 years. They’re worried that several crucial levees will rupture. An eastward rush of salty water would then follow, flooding farmland, the homes of several hundred thousand people who have invested in property below sea level, and the state and federal water pumping stations in Tracy.

The state Department of Water Resources estimates that such a disaster would require five years of reconstruction work. Thirty-thousand people statewide could lose their jobs and total damages to the state’s economy could exceed $30 billion. Senator Simitian’s bill is designed to protect the state’s drinking-water supply, if such a flood should occur, by circumventing the unstable Delta.

However, Greg Gartrell, assistant general manager of the Contra Costa Water District, says that such massive economic costs are exaggerations. He also believes that better preventative options exist.

“With $200 to $300 million, we could build backup levees and produce backup stocks of supplies to help get the system back in order within three or four months.”

And Nomellini feels that the most appropriate course of action is to simply protect against flooding by the traditional means of reinforcing existing levees.

“It’s true that that wouldn’t be a fail-safe plan, because levees do break, but it wouldn’t be any riskier than that same earthquake coming along and knocking out Simitian’s new aqueduct.”

Nomellini also would like to see Southern Californians, who receive a substantial amount of the Delta’s water, take steps toward producing their own drinking water.

“It sure doesn’t make sense to take water from one area and destroy it just to develop another one. A lot of this state is a desert and we’re going to have to start going to the ocean for water. We need desalters, consumptive-use groundwater, water recycling and local self-sufficiency.”

Senator Simitian’s bill ties in closely with the objectives of another long-term endeavor called Delta Vision, a still-developing venture overseen by the governor. The Delta Vision plan seeks to pinpoint problems and hazards in the Delta and within several years begin efforts to sustainably manage the region for generations. But Delta Vision is still in its infancy and some argue that Simitian’s proposal is premature.

“His bill boils down to one fundamental problem right now,” said Barry Nelson, senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It legislates a solution to the Delta’s problems before the Delta Vision committee has even been formed. It doesn’t make any sense to propose an answer before the greater process has even begun.”

Delta water disputes are not a new phenomenon. In 1980, the idea of a “Peripheral Canal” was born. It enjoyed a flattering year of campaigning before voters blasted it out of the sky in 1982. Had it passed, the waterway would have drawn an undisclosed portion of the Sacramento River’s water down the east side of the valley, and, like Simitian’s current proposal, transport it safely to the Tracy water pumps.

Most people today look back upon Peripheral Canal as a faulty scheme aimed at stealing water and that gave no consideration to the environment. Simitian’s plan is generally considered to be a tremendous improvement over the Peripheral Canal. It includes screens to prevent fish from entering the aqueduct and the promise that water flows will be maintained at the minimum required levels for maintaining basic ecosystem health.

But Nomellini is leery of what might happen if the California Clean Water Project eventually becomes a reality. The attorney has fought in previous Central Valley water disputes and he prophesies that the government, if allotted any portion of the Sacramento River, eventually will try and take it all.

“If they build the canal, they’re going to keep adding more and more pumps until we lose the river. It’ll be like cancer. It’ll just grow and grow once it’s there. They’re going to cheat. I guarantee it. They’re going to cheat.”

Doug Wallace of the East Bay Municipal Utility District sees some wisdom in building the proposed waterway.

“Stakes have been raised with the urbanization of the Delta in the past few decades, and the state of California must now try to do something very difficult, that being make decisions in advance of a potential catastrophe.”

There will be winners and losers if the aqueduct is built, said Wallace.

“But the flip side is that if it floods and our water supply goes under, there are only losers.”

With its islands continuing to blow away with the wind and drop deeper into the alluvial mud below, there is little question that the Delta faces a constant and growing danger of a massive flood, which could cripple the state for a period of months to years. NRDC’s Nelson acknowledges the danger, but he feels that the very nature of the current water-management system actually provides some degree of flood protection: Water exporters and Delta residents currently dwell in the very same boat—namely, the Delta—and they therefore share a vested interest in cooperating to stave off floodwaters. That, he said, will change if the California Clean Water Project passes the gauntlet of Senate hearings and the final round of a public election.

“With the canal, the water exporters would no longer have an interest in protecting the Delta,” he said. “It would eliminate the incentive for the state to care about protecting against what could be California’s Katrina.”

Nomellini is a Delta resident himself, yet he looks beyond the immediate danger.

“Either way you look there’s the chance this place will flood. I just think that people ought to be able to go to a river and see water.”