The big suck

The Sacramento Delta is dying. My dad says we need a peripheral canal. What if he’s right?

Illustration By Don Button

For more information on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the State Water Project, the Department of Water Resources has an excellent Web site at

If you’re opposed to the peripheral canal and want to know what you can do, Restore the Delta has an informative Web site at

We were skimming along at a brisk clip through Fisherman’s Cut, in the heart of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, when we saw it: a fishing trawler scuttled on the levee bank, bleached white by the wind and the sun, like a skeleton beached on the boulders that shape this narrow, man-made channel connecting the False and San Joaquin rivers.

The tugboat that had been pushing the trawler hadn’t fared well, either. Too small for the job, it kept chugging till the end, right into the levee bank, where it now rests behind the larger vessel like a sunken dingy, the little engine that couldn’t.

“They should’ve got a bigger boat,” quipped Chris, my brother, imitating Roy Scheider’s character in Jaws.

My brother, I should point out, is a salvage nut. We were riding in his bass boat, and he already had his eyes on the rusty, cast-iron windlass still bolted to the trawler’s deck. He cut the engine and pulled up next to the derelict.

We crawled over the starboard gunwale and up the canted deck one at a time, the fragile bones of the wreck creaking beneath our weight. The windlass was too heavy to bring back on the boat, and Chris headed aft in search of other potential booty. I crawled up to the bow and peered over the port gunwale, where the wayward vessel’s name was still visible on the hull.

The Dream.

The name couldn’t be more fitting, because it is here, in the heart of the Delta, that the dreams for California’s future economic growth threaten to pile up on the rocks.

Two-thirds of the state’s population, 25 million people, depends on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for at least some of their water supply. Water from the Delta irrigates 3 million agricultural acres. California’s economic growth depends upon its ability to provide water for future population growth. But the Delta’s levees and ecosystem are rapidly deteriorating, threatening to completely cut off the Bay Area and Southern California’s water supply, crashing the economy and potentially endangering millions of people.

Right this minute, legislators are working feverishly to address the crisis before the end of the session. One proposed solution: a peripheral canal bypassing the Delta.

Yes, one of California’s longest-simmering water feuds has once again attained full boil. For more than a half century, skirmishes over the peripheral canal have pitted Northern Californians against Southern Californians, farmers against developers, environmentalists against politicians.

The divisions go further than that; internecine politics and unlikely bedfellows have always played a role in California’s water wars. The debate can get ugly, and has even been known to divide father and son.

Trust me on that one. I know from personal experience.

According to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force, approximately one-third of the Delta’s inflows are siphoned off by upstream, downstream and in-Delta water users. From Redding to Los Angeles, everyone’s got a straw in this thing.


It’s one big suck.

But the task force says we need even more water from the Delta if California’s economy is to continue to grow. That’s problematic because we’ve turned the largest estuary on the West Coast into our own personal toilet.

“The Delta is in an ecological tailspin,” the task force reports. “Invasive species, water pumping facilities, urban growth and urban and agricultural pollution are degrading water quality and threatening multiple fish species with extinction.”

Throw in global warming, sea-level rise, increasingly brackish water, crumbling levees, frequent droughts and the occasional earthquake, and it’s not so hard to understand the panel’s sense of urgency.

The proposed canal would draw water directly from the Sacramento River near Freeport and “convey” it 50 miles south, around the eastern edge of the battered ecosystem to the massive state and federal pumping stations near Tracy.

Think of it as open heart surgery, only on a grander scale.

That’s kind of the way engineers look at it. But opponents of the long-sought-after peripheral canal see things differently. To them, it’s a knife that stabs deep into the heart of the Delta.

I grew up on dams and water projects. My father is a retired power-plant operator. Dad got out of the Navy when I was 9, and we moved to Idaho, my mom’s home state. He quickly gained a job with Idaho Power in American Falls, where for the next several years we lived right next to the power plant downstream from the dam that backs the Snake River into the 30-mile-long American Falls Reservoir.

For my two younger brothers and me, growing up in small rural town had its advantages. Idaho was relatively unspoiled in the late 1960s; fishing and hunting were popular pastimes that began at an early age. As a young teenager, I spent summers moving heavy irrigation pipe by hand, mucking about alfalfa, wheat and potato fields in rubber boots for 6 cents a section. By the time school started in the fall, my wrists were thick with calluses, I’d earned enough money to pitch in with Dad on a dirt bike and the reservoir had been pumped near dry.

There’s a certain cache in having a father who makes electricity for a living. My brothers and I were always welcome visitors down at the power plant, where we learned firsthand how water spins the turbine that spins the shaft that spins the generator that makes the juice. The vertical shafts were 3 feet in diameter but spun at low rpm, so we could reach out and touch them. We weren’t the wealthiest family in town, but if Dad had ever gone on strike and the electricity had stopped flowing, everybody else would have been screwed, even the rich people.

This paternal prestige grew further after Dad was hired by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and we moved to Grand Coulee Dam, which spans the Columbia River in eastern Washington.

Once the largest dam in the world, Grand Coulee is one of the crowning achievements in the massive federal makeover of the American West that began in the Great Depression. Hoover Dam came first and may surpass it aesthetically, but Grand Coulee Dam makes up for it in sheer bulk.

“Water? We got water!” So says the Grand Coulee Dam Area Chamber of Commerce in its latest advertising campaign. This photo of the dam was taken from Crown Point, where many a native teenager have lost their virginity.

Photo courtesy of <a href=""></a>

The dam’s construction created thousands of much-needed jobs. As it neared completion in 1941, folk singer Woody Guthrie, then under contract with the federal Works Progress Administration, paid homage to the achievement in “Grand Coulee Dam”:

Well, the world has seven wonders that the trav’lers always tell,
Some gardens and some towers, I guess you know them well,
But now the greatest wonder is in Uncle Sam’s fair land,
It’s the big Columbia River and the big Grand Coulee Dam.

Believe me, you learn all of this stuff immediately upon your arrival at “The Dam.” The 10,000 or so people remaining in the three small towns in Grand Coulee’s vicinity since Woody and the workmen pulled up stakes have no other history to cling to. So they brag about the dam.

Not that there isn’t plenty to brag about. The dam is more than a mile across. Electricity generated by the project was used by Seattle-based Boeing Company to build the aircraft that helped the United States prevail in World War II. Its 33 generators produced more energy than any power plant in the nation. Plus, my dad worked there.

Reinforced by a daily high-school bus ride that every morning provided me with a panoramic view of the concrete monolith’s 550-foot-tall edifice, I started thinking about the dam in mythical proportions. It had always been there, immutable, inscrutable, immovable, and it would remain long after I was gone. Above all, I was thoroughly convinced that the Bureau’s efforts to tame the rivers of the arid American West were a righteous endeavor.

That all changed after I moved to California.

Like Hoover and Grand Coulee dams, construction on the Bureau’s Central Valley Project began during the Great Depression. The CVP consists of a series of rivers, dams, canals and pipelines stretching 500 miles north to south, from Redding to the San Joaquin Valley. Shasta Dam, near Redding, is the cornerstone of the project. In 1978, Dad transferred from Grand Coulee to Shasta, and the family moved to Redding.

Although a massive structure in its own right, Shasta is match for neither Grand Coulee’s majesty nor its electrical output. In fact, generating electricity was never Shasta Dam’s primary purpose, used only to justify the structure’s cost. All those summers slogging through muddy spud fields, watching the reservoir run dry, and it had never really dawned on me.

It’s not about the electricity. It’s about the water.

The state was near the end of a long drought, people were putting bricks in their toilet tanks and Dad’s role took on a new prominence. In arid California, water is even more important than electricity, and he now had his hands on the levers controlling half of the state’s water supply.

The audacious complexity and scope of the CVP’s 20 reservoirs, 11 power plants and 500 miles of canals blows my mind to this day. It seems incredible to me that anyone could even think it up, let alone build it.


The project begins as a trickle in the mountains northwest of Redding. The rivulets become a rushing torrent gathering velocity and volume as it plunges down the slope toward Mt. Shasta City, where it runs into Box Canyon Dam, creating Lake Siskiyou. Releases from that reservoir follow the original riverbed, and what’s now known as the Upper Sacramento River roars downhill toward Redding.

The upper reach remains fairly wild and scenic for 40 miles or so, until the current slows to a stop and the river is lost in the still, opalescent blue-green waters of Lake Shasta. The reservoir’s other primary source, the McCloud River, east of the Sacramento River, has been similarly tamed.

“All is well, my feet are up!” Meet R.V. Scheide Sr., also known as my father, circa 1986, behind the control board at Keswick Dam near Redding. Note crusty analog gauges.


Releases from Shasta Dam continue following the river’s original track and are soon joined by water from the Trinity River, which is located in the rugged coastal range 50 miles northwest of Redding. The water is collected and conveyed under and over the mountains through a series of dams, reservoirs, tunnels and pipes until if flows into the Sacramento River via Spring Creek, 10 miles south of Redding and not far from where we first lived when we moved to California.

During its journey, the river collects acid mine drainage containing heavy metals from the Iron Mountain Superfund site. The river courses south through the northern Central Valley, paralleling Interstate 5, and the rice farmers stick their straws in it immediately, spilling vast sheets of water over their fields during the growing season, transforming the Valley floor into a mirror when the sunlight’s just right.

Fertilizer and pesticide runoff enter the stream as the Sacramento River meanders southward to its confluence with the Feather River. Here, the federally operated CVP merges with the separate State Water Project as Feather River water released from state-operated Oroville Dam joins the Sacramento River on its journey southward toward the Delta and the sea beyond.

Designed and operated by the state Department of Water Resources, the SWP is the second half of what was originally intended to be a single project. Budget constraints, World War II and water disputes put off construction until the late 1950s, but today, when most people think of the state’s water conveyance system, it’s the SWP’s California Aqueduct that comes to mind first.

The 443-mile-long concrete canal begins at the discharge of the SWP’s pumping plant in the south Delta. Taking advantage of an almost imperceptible downward slope in the Valley floor, it delivers water to the foot of the Tehachapi range, where it is then pumped 2,000 feet over the hill to Los Angeles in pipes you could drive a Mini Cooper through.

Before that can happen, the Sacramento River must complete its journey to the Delta. Just north of Sacramento, it absorbs the American River, which is controlled by releases from Bureau-operated Folsom Dam. Thirty miles downstream, what has by now become one big lazy river meets the historic Chinese fishing village of Locke, where the Delta proper begins.

I once lived in Locke, in a clapboard shotgun shack two doors down from Al the Wop’s, the famous Delta dive bar. The old-timers there are as weathered as the buildings lining the only paved street; just about everyone—the locals, the marina trash, the migrant farmworkers camped behind town—seems to have a terrible urge to drink. It’s a haven for artists, outlaws and outcasts.

I spent much of the time riding my motorcycle along the hundreds of miles of winding levee roads that outline the Delta’s contours. Rivers, streams and narrow, man-made channels fan out across the Delta like capillaries, dividing its 1,300 square miles into approximately 20 separate islands, many of which are below sea level.

A patchwork quilt of fields and orchards blanket many of the islands. Every 200 yards or so, wherever the soil is tilled, there’s a centrifugal pump sitting on top of the levee that sucks water from the river and delivers it to the field on the other side. It’s like teenagers pulled up to a soda fountain.

I was sailing along the levee top one day and encountered an enormous pipeline running east to west: the North Bay Aqueduct. There’s also a South Bay Aqueduct, and there’s an East Bay Aqueduct currently being constructed near Freeport.

The tolling of the Delta Cross Channel alarm bell is not an uncommon occurrence in Locke, particularly during the rainy season, when the San Joaquin River becomes so toxic due to agricultural runoff it must be diluted with clean water from the Sacramento River lest it contaminate the state’s entire water supply.

When the diversion gates on the 220-foot-wide channel open, Sacramento River water pours east into Snodgrass Slough behind Locke, where it merges with the nearby North Mokelumne River. It is then sucked across the Delta through 50 miles of natural and man-made channels by the federal pumping plant near Tracy.

If that sounds too easy, imagine sucking water through an ant farm with a straw.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s C.W. “Bill” Jones Pumping Plant near Tracy sucks water from 50 miles away across the Delta. Pumping has been reduced to protect the endangered Delta smelt.


The suction of the both the state and federal pumps has dramatically altered natural flow patterns in the Delta. Levee erosion and saltwater intrusion have increased; delicate wildlife habitat has been destroyed. The salmon that were once so plentiful you could allegedly walk across the Sacramento River on their backs have mostly stopped running.

Ask any knowledgeable environmentalist why, and they’ll immediately point toward Tracy, where Delta smelt, if they’re unfortunate enough to slip past the fish screens, are churned to death by the enormous impellers of the state and federal pumping plants.

The anchovy-sized fish are considered a key indicator species in the pelagic ecosystem, the layers of brackish water that form where rivers meet the sea. Because its population has crashed, the smelt has been placed on the endangered species list. Last year, a federal judge upheld the decision to reduce Delta pumping to protect the species.

In the past, when I still believed in the righteousness of water projects, I might have disagreed with that decision. Progress always has its price, and California as we know it today would not exist without the water projects. However, my faith in water projects was shaken in 1986, when Dad loaned me his copy of Cadillac Desert. I’ve never been the same since.

More than any other book, the late Marc Reisner’s classic work on the effort to tame the rivers of the American West revealed to me the obvious, unspoken truth: We live in a desert. As he describes one water source after the other drying up—the Owens Valley, Mono Lake, the Colorado River Basin—only to be replaced by yet another, even more distant water source, the feeling that we’ve created an entirely unsustainable civilization begins to sink in.

Of course, Dad would note that we turned a desert into a garden that feeds the world, which is a pretty good trade in his book.

Reisner saves some of his most pointed criticisms for the Bureau, which was a little strange, considering Dad was still in the Bureau when he loaned me the book. Cadillac Desert obliterated many of the beliefs I developed growing up on the water projects, and while he denies it today, I remember Dad being in complete agreement with Reisner.

Really, I should know better. Nobody negates their entire career just because they’ve read one book.


I found out Dad and I were on opposite sides of the table the hard way, after Gov. Schwarzenegger began pushing his own peripheral canal proposal in 2006.

The idea has been around since at least the 1950s; Gov. Pat Brown hoped the canal would close the loop on his legacy, the State Water Project, and lobbied hard for its completion until his death. Ronald Reagan wasn’t inclined to spend public money on giant water projects, so he passed. But Jerry Brown, Pat’s son, picked up the ball again. In his own self-proclaimed “era of limits,” he proposed a multibillion-dollar canal project that was shot down by two-thirds of the electorate in 1982.

Until Schwarzenegger, that was the last serious attempt to push the project to completion. The intervening years have been filled with countless panels, reports and commissions, including the much-maligned CALFED process, which attempted to herd all of the stakeholders into one corral, to no avail.

I was shocked when Dad and I first discussed Schwarzenegger’s proposal. It wasn’t just Dad’s support for the canal, but my knee-jerk reaction to that support. It galls me still, to be honest. We agree on virtually everything: The banks are out of control, the world’s petroleum reserves are declining, civilization as we know it is on the brink. Nevertheless, he steadfastly insists that we have no other choice but to build the peripheral canal.

In turn, I’ll generally suggest something along the opposite extreme, such as cutting off diversions from the Delta entirely. Even the task force says that’s the best way to restore the ecosystem, I’ll note. That really gets him going! Then I’ll accuse him of not being objective, because he worked for the Bureau. The next thing you know, we’re fighting like we haven’t fought in years and I’m writing long, drawn-out e-mails apologizing for being such a jerk.

The Internet is our worst enemy; both of us have spent many hours going through the pages and pages and pages of Delta data on the Web. I can tell you that California’s total dedicated water supply ranges from roughly 100 million acre-feet in wet years to 65 million acre-feet in dry years. I can tell you that curtailment of surplus flows from the Colorado River Aqueduct have put a serious dent in Southern California’s water supply. If I had the space, I could name all of the Delta’s threatened and endangered species.

This farm-raised Delta smelt is about as close as you can get to the real McCoy. Both the federal and state pumping facility have modernized fish screens as well as fisheries programs designed to restore the smelt population.


The thing is, if it’s taken as a given that California’s economic growth depends on an ever-increasing water supply, the sheer volume of evidence supporting construction of the canal begins to add up. I’d much rather have a new economic system than a peripheral canal, but the reality of that happening is slim. I’m beginning to think Dad is right, and it irks me when he’s right, because he’s always right.

But it’s difficult to take a hard-line. I’ve read the available Delta data until I’ve gone blind, but I still can’t tell you if building the canal is the right thing to do.

But we may have to build it regardless.

The low, rumbling hum of the C.W. “Bill” Jones Pumping Plant near Tracy may sound ominous to most visitors, but to me it sounds like home. Its unassuming pump house contains a half-dozen, three-story-tall pump units, each driven by a 2,500 horsepower electric motor placed at the top. The motor spins the shaft that spins the impeller that draws in Delta water from the Old and Middle rivers and pumps it 200 feet uphill, where it is ejected into the Delta-Mendota Canal, which runs deep into the San Joaquin Valley.

Several miles upstream from the pumps, a complex debris and fish screen spans the river. It has been there since the project’s inception but has been redesigned several times to accommodate new endangered species. Smelt, salmon, stripers, sturgeon, catfish, carp, bass, suckers, bluegills, flounders and any other finned creature captured in the screens are trucked to the west side of the Delta and placed back in the water near Rio Vista.

At the fish facility, my tour guide was gracious enough to introduce me to my first Delta smelt. He placed the flipping, farm-raised minnow in my hand and told me to smell the fish. I gave it a sniff. Nothing. “Smell like cucumbers?” he asked expectantly. Well, maybe kind of, but I won’t be lacing my salad with smelt any time too soon.

A few miles down the road from the federal pumping plant, the newer, larger SWP pumping station performs the same function. It draws water from Clifton Court Forebay, a large reservoir in the south Delta. Because the forebay is affected by the tide, the pumping must be timed. The SWP discharges the water into the California Aqueduct, destined for Los Angeles and all points in between.

How, exactly, the two pumping plants accomplish their goals is a matter of some conjecture, at least to my feeble mind. Inside, the Delta, the Bureau and DWR operate their various separate facilities in unison. For example, the Bureau’s Delta Cross Channel is used to dilute polluted San Joaquin River water for both projects, even though they draw upon different sources. When you read how it’s supposed to work and then look at a map, it seems like there’s no possible way for this to occur without the San Joaquin River running in reverse at least some of the time.

After spending a bit of time on Franks Tract, I wouldn’t doubt it for a second.

It’s not far from Fisherman’s Cut, where Chris and I encountered the wreckage of The Dream. The cut divides Bradford Island and Webb Tract, two of the most flood-prone areas in the Delta. As we traveled south, long-abandoned, waterlogged homes sagged on the levee tops. A mangy-looking blue heron squawked at us before taking flight.

The entrance to Franks Tract consists of two holes punched through a failed levee. If you’re searching for the blue-ribbon task force’s catastrophic vision of the future, here it is. The incoming and outgoing tide pour through the holes, creating dangerous eddies that are tricky to navigate if you don’t know what you’re doing. That’s why Chris drives the boat. We slipped through one of the holes in the dyke and found ourselves in a different universe.

The tract is a rough circle 2 miles across, fringed by tightly bunched tules, reeds and widgeon grass. Near its shores, bass and bluegill darted through underwater forests of elodea, the common aquarium plant that has become the bane of Delta boaters. Twenty-pound carp hovered just beneath the surface under thick drapes of surface algae. A beaver—a beaver!—surfaced, slapped its tail and disappeared beneath the water, bound for some hidden lodge.

It’s a place of contradictions, the Delta. We’ve pumped it, dredged it, backfilled it and polluted it, yet it persists. Here, where the rivers meet the sea, the proverbial battle between man and nature is playing out with no clear winner.

Should we build the peripheral canal? The governor and my father both say yes. The part of me that grew up on water projects agrees. From an engineering perspective, it makes sense to route the canal around the Delta, as far as possible. It’s probably what they should’ve done 50 years ago.

But that was then and this is now. As anyone who has read Marc Reisner can tell you, California is a desert. Of course, Reisner himself endorsed the peripheral canal before his death. Leaving Franks Tract and cruising back through Fisherman’s Cut, past the rotten houses and the piled-up wreckage of The Dream, I cursed Dad for ever giving me that book.