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Part III: Future Delta

By Jerry Meral, Deputy Secretary, California Natural Resources Agency

This is the last 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 II discussed the impact of the controversy over the Peripheral Canal.

There should be no question that public thinking about the Delta will continue to change in the future, given the lessons of the past. The first question anyone must ask about the future of the Delta is whether the voters will continue to subsidize the maintenance and improvement of the Delta levees, based on the public benefits the levees provide.

Because the water supplies for two-thirds of California's residents are currently pumped through the Delta, the maintenance of those levees as a protection against saltwater contamination from San Francisco Bay is a matter of vital importance to the state's economy and the well being of most of the people who live here. The state's Delta levee program began providing general fund money in 1973. More recently, funding has gradually shifted from the general fund to general obligation bond acts.

Without a state subsidy, Delta landowners are unlikely to pay for levee improvements themselves while also maintaining existing Delta levees. This is because the landowners' ability to pay is determined by the economic productivity of the individual Delta islands. Fortunately, the voters have approved a variety of water bond acts through the mid-2000s. But much more of this funding will be needed.

Changes in the world's climate are causing sea levels to rise. An increase in levee height of six inches throughout the Delta is estimated to cost $500 million. Sea levels may rise as much as three feet by the end of this century. Estimates prepared several years ago of the cost to keep pace with that much sea level rise -- and to deal with the continued subsidence of the Delta islands -- ranged from $4 billion to $12 billion.

An additional challenge related to climate change involves the predicted rise in water temperature throughout the estuary. Many native fish are sensitive to water temperature. There may be areas in the Delta which stay cooler, where some fish could take refuge, especially closer to San Francisco Bay. It is not clear how much increase in temperature these fish can stand, or how much water temperature is likely to rise.

New invasive species in the Delta pose a more immediate and expanding threat. Considering their rapid spread into the western states, only a highly optimistic person can imagine that zebra and quagga mussels will never invade the Delta. When they do invade, they could make operation of the pumps in the south Delta much more expensive. They would similarly affect most other water diversions in the Delta. There is some evidence that the chemical composition of the water in the Sacramento River may not be conducive to the growth of these mussels, which could give increased importance to adding a diversion point on the river for the state and federal water projects.

The Delta is already invaded by hundreds of non-native species, and more arrive every year. It is impossible to know what other species might invade the Delta in the future, but a safe general rule is that each new species is likely to complicate the preservation of native species. Although new controls are being placed on ballast water and other sources of invasive species, it seems likely that new species will continue to be added to the Delta for the foreseeable future.

The U. S. Geological Survey predicts that a major earthquake affecting Delta levees is likely in the next 40 years. If such an event occurs, and it is not possible to repair the affected levees and resume water export within a few years, there will be enormous political pressure to authorize a new, safer conveyance facility that can be built quickly, without many of the environmental protections proposed by the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

If the Bay Delta Conservation Plan is not implemented, it is likely that continuing implementation of the state and federal endangered species acts will further restrict water supplies for the state and federal water projects. Fish and water agencies estimate that diversions one-third or more below recent historic levels of diversion are possible. There is no alternative supply for San Joaquin Valley agriculture. Alternative supplies for coastal urban areas such as desalination would come at two to three times the cost and energy consumption. The negative economic and employment impacts of losing more of this public water supply would likely increase support for weakening environmental laws in order to prevent widespread and unnecessary damage to the state economy.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan offers the most promising path to overcome these problems. Funding to deal with the invasive species problem is included in the Plan. The Plan will help preserve the types of crops which are most wildlife friendly. A plan that works for the Delta environment and the state economy, while respecting Delta communities, would reduce the political friction created by one stakeholder seeking to trump another. The Plan is also the best way to demonstrate that the state and federal endangered species acts are compatible with economic progress.

In its 9,000 year history, the Delta has seen many changes, and human thinking about the Delta is sure to evolve in the years ahead. Climate change, new invasive species, and other changing conditions require that the Bay Delta Conservation Plan include a strong adaptive management element. The Plan must be robust and flexible enough to accommodate those changes, and still achieve the goals of ecosystem restoration, more reliable water supplies, and respect for the Delta as a place people live, work, and recreate. As a plan for the next 50 years, it can do no less. 

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