Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta a challenge for all who depend on it
By Tim Hearden
STOCKTON, Calif. — Michael George often finds himself in the middle of political firestorms.
It’s part of his job.
As the state-appointed watermaster for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, George serves as a water rights referee for between 1,500 and 2,000 water diversions each year. Operating in an area about the size of Rhode Island, many of the landowners have the state’s oldest water rights, and they can move their diversion points, further complicating George’s job.
With the many demands on its water blamed for the Delta’s crippling environmental degradation, the area is rife with political infighting and disputes, the most notable of which is a pitched debate over the project called the California WaterFix, Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed tunnel bypass for the Delta that is estimated to cost as much as $18 billion.
“The Delta is always changing,” said George, a 20-year water rights attorney who was named to the position in late 2014 by the State Water Resources Control Board and Delta Stewardship Council.
George makes it a point to understand all sides, but sometimes he must make unpopular decisions, as when he recommended last summer that the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District near Tracy be sanctioned for taking too much water and drew criticism from some that the powerful water board was picking on smaller districts. The proposed $1.5 million fine is still pending before the water board.
“I love my job,” George insists. “It’s a wonderful, fascinating, ever-changing place. Every season you come and it’s different.”
George’s experience is indicative of a Delta region that’s often a point of contention and a study in contrasts. It’s one of the most important waterways in the country, providing water for millions of people in urban areas and millions of agricultural acres, and yet even those who support its use acknowledge that parts of it are an environmental shambles.
The Delta is where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers meet, sending water through a 1,150-square-mile labyrinth of islands and shallow waterways on its way to the San Francisco Bay.
Through pumps near Tracy, Calif., the State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project together provide irrigation water for nearly 4 million acres of farmland south of the Delta and water for urban residents in Southern California and parts of the Bay Area.
When many people outside the region think of the Delta, they think of two types of fish — the Delta smelt, a slender minnow-like creature that lives in the freshwater-saltwater interface, and chinook salmon. Surveys for the smelt this year have found fewer than a dozen fish.
Biological opinions — the plans managers follow to help the species recover — have led to drastic water cutbacks to farms and cities in dry years.
But the Delta and its environmental problems are legion. Among them:
• Channelization over decades took what was once a cold-water interface and made it “much closer to an Arkansas lake,” George said. At the south end of the Delta, reverse flows caused by the pumps have caused silting and other problems in the Old and Middle rivers, so much so that a manmade canal was dug next to the Old River to carry water to the pumps.
• Native ecosystems and species are declining as water quality is threatened by a “complex spectrum” of pollutants, four university scientists wrote in an analysis of the Delta last fall.
• Invasive plant species also contribute to fish kills in the Delta. Many waterways are inundated with water hyacinth, a weed that sequesters water and takes out nutrients and oxygen. Another is Egeria densa, a South American warm-water weed that clogs waterways and causes boats to get stuck.
• There are also more demands on Delta water than there used to be, as new housing developments such as River Island near Stockton and Mountain Homes near Tracy abut farmland. The Westside Irrigation District near Tracy used to provide water to about 12,000 agricultural acres, but now it irrigates 6,000 acres and sells the rest of the water to the city for urban use.
“A lot of people are now living in areas that are natural floodplains, and there’s lots of issues associated with that,” George said. “They are basically taking ag land out of production and putting houses into production.”
Even with its problems, water in the Delta is relied upon to serve the region’s more than 570,000 residents, most of whom live in the urban corridor from Sacramento to south of Stockton.
Many, including farmers, derive their livelihoods directly from the Delta’s waters.
Farming has long been the area’s dominant industry, with the rich peat soil providing an abundance of crops ranging from alfalfa and tomatoes in the south to peaches and pears in the north. The Delta produces crops valued at more than $500 million annually, according to the state Department of Water Resources.
“This is the only region in California where there’s special legislation precluding urban use” on vast swaths of prime farmland west of Interstate 5, said Bruce Blodgett, executive director of the San Joaquin County Farm Bureau.
Blodgett believes part of the solution is “managing the Delta as it was intended to be managed,” including by taking better care of the streams that feed it.
“What you have is a Delta that’s at the bottom of the system and there’s a lot of sedimentation,” Blodgett said. “That needs to get cleared out, which would increase capacity and depth of the water and temperature. ... Getting in and doing active management within the Delta again or returning to that would improve the capacity to get water through the Delta.”
The state and federal projects use the Delta to shuttle water from Northern California reservoirs to areas south. The impact of doing that was envisioned to be softened by a peripheral canal bypass, but voters scuttled that project in 1982.
The projects have helped the San Joaquin Valley become the nation’s most productive agricultural region, producing slightly more than $22 billion in crops in 2012. But in the Delta, some believe the changes in hydrology brought on by the pumps have contributed to saltwater intrusion that threatens the viability of local farms.
Saltwater intrusion has become a problem throughout the Delta — so much so that a temporary rock barrier was put up to stop it during the height of the drought last summer.
Third-generation farmer Jerry Robinson, who grows alfalfa, tomatoes, wheat and safflowers and has a small feed plant in Stockton, says a lack of winter runoff in the last few years has caused the salinity to go up in the Delta, though he’s still able to use the water.
He was one of more than 200 water diverters who voluntarily cut their water use by 25 percent last year to avoid regulation by the state water board. He cut back on water for his alfalfa to use it on his tomatoes and other crops.
“We went through a big process here about a decade ago where they set water quality standards for a dry year and a wet year … and they’ve relaxed them twice in the last four years,” Robinson said. “We’re just very afraid. ... We don’t believe in the politicians at all.”
Dealing with such problems can be difficult because Delta management is unusually complex. More than 230 agencies and institutions play a role in managing the Delta.
Enter California Gov. Brown, who has made a solution to many of the Delta’s water quality woes a central focus of his administration.
State contractors have readied plans to acquire 192 parcels in the region to make room for a pair of 40-foot-diameter, 30 mile-long water tunnels proposed by Brown, whose push for the peripheral canal during his first stint as governor was unsuccessful.
The tunnels would send water from the Sacramento River directly to the pumps, bypassing the Delta, during wet months of the year. The project will go before the State Water Resources Control Board for approval later this year.
Carl Wilcox, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s policy adviser for the Delta, said the project wouldn’t harm the Delta’s ability to meet existing water quality and endangered species requirements.
“From our perspective, we’re interested in ... shifting operations out of the South Delta where we can’t screen efficiently, where we have ongoing issues with the operations of the projects as it relates to listed species, and the fact that under the current permitting terms, it’s very restrictive on what they can divert even if there’s a lot of water in the Delta,” Wilcox said.
“The (California) WaterFix would provide flexibility and allow some additional water to be diverted that’s of less concern than it would be if it were happening in the South Delta,” he said.
But while farmers to the south who would receive the water favor the tunnels, many Delta growers aren’t. The San Joaquin Farm Bureau’s Blodgett said it would allow saltwater all the way up the Delta to Sacramento, causing “absolute devastation” to the area’s wine grapes and other crops.
Russell van Loben Sels, co-owner of Amistad Ranches near Walnut Grove, Calif., said the North Delta would “become industrialized” for at least a decade as the tunnels are dug, requiring thousands of truck trips to move dirt back and forth.
“For the communities in the North Delta, I don’t know if they would withstand 10 years of the kind of interference the project would bring,” said van Loben Sels, who grows wine grapes, tomatoes and other crops on about 2,500 acres. His family has farmed there since 1876.
“But from the standpoint of how the Delta fits into the water system for the state, the project makes no sense at all,” he said. “I say that because right now, the way the state is operating the Delta, less than half the natural flow reaches the bay.”
But wherever they stand on the tunnels, most agree the project would be only scratching the surface in terms of measures needed to solve the Delta’s many woes.
Scientists suggest many ways to take pressure off the Delta’s waters, including groundwater recharge projects, recycling and desalination, setting priorities for upgrading levees, better land-use planning in the Delta and water conservation.
Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, a coalition whose goal is restoring the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the Bay-Delta estuary, said reduced exports of water must be part of the solution.
“You can’t divert half the water out of an estuary and expect water quality to support the ecosystem,” she said.
George, the watermaster, believes finding solutions for the Delta will require better working relationships among all the different interests — and a better understanding by everyone of just what the problems are.
“The fact is it’s not fish versus farmers, it’s salt versus fresh,” he said. “We’re all in this together. It’s an intricate web that needs to be carefully managed. Saying yes or no to the tunnels is only the beginning of the question.”