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Part II: The Delta in Our Time

By Jerry Meral, Deputy Secretary, California Natural Resources Agency

This is the second of a three-part blog summarizing the evolution of public policy for Delta water supplies. Part I examined the original planning for the State Water Project. Part Two discusses the development of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

On a quiet summer day in June 1972, the failure of the Andrus-Brannan Islands caused sea water to rush into the Delta, jeopardizing the quality of supplies for the Contra Costa Water District and for the exports that serve millions of consumers in the Bay Area, Southern California and the Central Valley. This event forced decision makers to focus on the need for an alternative way to export water that currently flows into the Delta, given the mounting concerns about the reliability of its levees. In 1973, the Legislature established a program to provide funds for maintenance of the Delta levee system to reduce the risk of levee failure and island flooding.

These concerns for finding more reliable means of meeting the state's water needs gained additional urgency from some fundamental changes in water policy that were occurring far away from the Delta itself. From a Northern California perspective, the two big threats in the 1970’s involved ever-increasing exports by the state and federal water projects, and the danger that dams would be built on North Coast rivers to add to the Delta supply. The Reagan Administration responded to environmentalists' concerns on this score, first by vetoing the proposed Dos Rios Dam, and then by approving the creation of a California Wild and Scenic Rivers system to protect the most vulnerable of the North Coast rivers. Governor Jerry Brown inserted the rivers in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System in 1980. Today, although the fear of increased exports continues to animate debate in some parts of Northern California, the notion of new dams on the North Coast is no longer entertained by the federal or state governments. But at the same time, the closing of these opportunities for future water development put additional emphasis on the need to find an alternative to Delta conveyance that would protect water quality and safeguard the supplies that two-thirds of the state depend on.

Planning for the development of the Peripheral Canal consequently intensified. In 1980 Governor Brown and the Legislature agreed on a plan that would link construction of the new facility with a new regime of protections for the environmental resources of the Delta, as well as additional Central Valley water storage. Although the proposal would have benefited farmers in the Central Valley as well as homeowners and businesses throughout the Bay Area and Southern California, a small group of agricultural interests were concerned that the protections for the Delta were too restrictive. They bankrolled a ballot issue which environmentalists used to generate intense opposition to the project principally in the Bay Area. The subsequent defeat of the Peripheral Canal by voters in 1982 brought a halt to efforts to develop alternative Delta conveyance. When Governor Deukmejian abandoned planning for a through-Delta conveyance system in 1984, Delta planning went dormant.

The issues that had led to these efforts, however, did not go away. Instead the debate over Delta water policy intensified in the light of a profound shift in attitude about various Delta fish species. In the 1970s, a DWR employee concerned about native fish species such as delta and longfin smelt, splittail, and other native non-game species made up a lapel button called “Friends of Trash Fish." This was what non-game native species were called prior to passage of the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Most attention was paid to game fish such as native salmon and sturgeon and introduced striped bass, largemouth bass, and American shad.

With the federal listing of the delta smelt in 1993 and the winter-run Chinook salmon in 1994 and, pumping from the south Delta by the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project was restricted to protect these species. At the same time, Congress was demanding changes in the operation of the federal water system, transferring large volumes of water that used to go to farms and cities and instead dedicating their use for a wide range of new environmental demands. Restrictions due to these and other species continue to increase today. Some non-native species of great importance to sport fishing -- such as striped bass -- prey on listed native species, creating species management conflicts.

Improved knowledge of Delta geology raised other issues. Government and university scientists have emphasized the potential for an earthquake to collapse levees, which could flood Delta islands and interrupt the delivery of water from the south Delta for years. Sensitivity about this problem was heightened due to the failure of Jones Tract in 2004 and the high cost of restoring the island to agriculture. Despite increasing awareness of the problems facing the Delta, the political impact of the voters' rejection of the Peripheral Canal in 1982 still limited the consideration of possible solutions. In the 1990s, the state-federal CalFed program in the Delta poured money into fish restoration programs and projects (especially for salmon upstream from the Delta) in the hope that the fish would recover sufficiently to avoid the need for a new conveyance facility in the Delta. Few restoration projects were actually funded in the Delta itself. Although many biologists warned these efforts would not succeed, the political leadership continued to avoid discussing the need for a Delta conveyance facility.

The crash of open water (“pelagic”) fish populations just after the turn of the new century greatly increased concern that some species (delta and longfin smelt in particular) were about to go extinct. Once again, attention was focused on the Delta. Ignoring the shortcomings of the Delta water system, and the worsening condition of the estuary, were no longer options. Out of this recognition that a new approach was needed, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan got underway, including a strong emphasis on a new Delta facility.

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