California Water: Hearts and Minds

I saw an interesting story last night from the Sacramento Bee’s Matt Weiser: “Underground Tunnel Gets Closer Look for Shipping Water Through Delta.” The piece deals with the latest twist on a long-talked-about fix for the plumbing in the state and federal systems that move water from Northern to Southern California. Back in 1982, Governor Jerry Brown promoted a ballot initiative for a massive new waterway–dubbed the Peripheral Canal–that would iron out some kinks in the current system of pumps and canals. Seen in the north as a Southern California water grab and almost everywhere as an overpriced boondoggle, the initiative went down with a 62.7 percent “no” vote.

But because the need and competition for water has only increased since then, the idea has never gone away. It’s back this year as part of the debate over the $11.1 billion bond measure on this November’s ballot. The initiative doesn’t specifically set aside money for a Peripheral Canal, but everyone assumes that at least some of billions in the initiatives uncommitted funds will go to what’s now called a “conveyance” project.

The canal is still the object of fear and loathing in the Delta and elsewhere in Northern California–just another act in the endless plot to take the region’s most precious resource. But one thing different from past years, though: Some major environmental groups have signed on to both the bond and plans for some sort of Peripheral Canal. Why the change of heart? I think it comes down to the widespread recognition that the tortuous method of channeling water from the Sacramento River into the Delta and then into the aqueducts is broken and is a prime suspect in the collapse of the Central Valley’s once-magnificent chinook salmon runs and other environmental problems. The thinking is that if you straighten out the plumbing, you take care of the major hazards to the fish and to the Delta ecosystem.

Once you have the new canal or tunnel, all you have to do is manage the water flowing through it to the benefit of everyone involved.

And that’s the problem. To believe a canal will fix an environmental disaster, one must believe that the demand for new water and the machinations to get it by any means possible will suddenly just evaporate. Letting high river flows sweep through the Delta and out to sea–part of what’s necessary to aid salmon migrate to the Pacific–is condemned as a waste by those who want to put that water to work in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. That belief just won’t disappear overnight.

Today’s outstanding exhibit of that mindset is a move from Senator Dianne Feinstein to essentially suspend the Endangered Species Act to guarantee increased federal water deliveries to the valley (apparently no one has told her that the main reason less water has been going down there is California’s three-year drought; maybe she could write a bill to outlaw below-average rainfall, too). Feinstein says she’s concerned about farm jobs–the areas worst-hit by the drought have been prone to cycles of high unemployment for decades. But the first thing that comes to mind when you hear about her plan is her eager readiness to go to bat for big campaign donors in the valley who are unhappy with federal plans to protect salmon and other endangered species (see “Corporate Farmer Calls Upon Feinstein to Influence Environmental Dispute” by Lance Williams of the Center for Investigative Reporting).

That’s the way the game is played. New ground rules about how water is handled might change that. A new tunnel or canal won’t

4 Comments

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4 Responses to California Water: Hearts and Minds

  1. Kathryn Gray

    Excellent and Perceptive Post! Add to this that it seems that every time Westlands doesn’t get the water they want, they’re in the courtroom again seeking yet another TRO, and you can see why it’s hard to trust assurances that a new conveyance won’t be used to take increasing amounts of water away from the Delta.
    And DiFi’s latest shenanigan shows that there are those who are not willing to play by the rules-they just pull strings to get them changed.

  2. I agree with Kathryn Gray. I think that Feinstein’s gambit here may prove to be a textbook example of political overreaching, as it most definitely is a demonstration of changing the rules mid-game if you don’t like what is shaping up to be the final score. She certainly woke up the so-called “unprincipled” environmentalists…
    Now the EDF is threatening to pull out of the whole “co-equal” goals-framed strategy of building a political majority for next fall’s proposition vote. And why wouldn’t they, given the disingenuous acts of their uneasy bedfellows? It won’t be long before the NRDC follows suit.

  3. Dave Simmons

    You can claim drought last year but, what are you going to claim this year!!! We are still at ZERO % and this is looking to be average or better. No farmer in America today can survive on 0-10% water allocations. If we could get at least 65-75% or better allocations on average years I think we would be happy. That is where some type of alternate conveyance comes in. It would also keep the delta flowing more naturally.
    At this point we have had two years of pumping restrictions and all threatened species are worse off. There are these so called environmentalists who absolutely refuse to look at any of the other problems in the delta. If your are not willing to find ways to fix the MANY problems I think these fish will eventually be gone.
    Either a Peripheral Canal is good for the environment or it is not. The EDF and NRDC should stand behind what is good for the environment instead of political posturing. Ultimately the fish benefit.

  4. Dan

    It’s tough to make the effects of the drought go away in a month — which is how long we’ve been having normal rains this season. There is some good news for allocations, though: Since the feds and the state have been running their Delta pumps pretty steadily the last couple of months, San Luis is back up to around 80 percent of normal, and gaining. That won’t make everyone whole, but it’s not what we were looking at last year by a long shot. So we’ll see about your “ZERO %.”
    “Either a Peripheral Canal is good for the environment or it is not.” Is that right? Having a Peripheral Canal may stop the Old and Middle Rivers from flowing backwards. But by itself it’s just another facility. If the same demands are put on the water, it will still interfere with natural flows through the Delta, fish will still have to make it past the pumps.

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