Big Step Forward in Quest to Shore Up California’s Water Supply

Geoff Vanden Heuvel

Geoffrey Vanden HeuvelEditor’s note:  The author, a dairyman in Chino, Calif., is a board member and economics consultant for the Milk Producers Council.  This piece appeared in the MPC newsletter dated June 30 and is used here with permission.

As we all know, Central and Southern California are for the most part, desert areas with very low annual rainfall. Yet millions of people and millions of acres of very productive farmland are sustained year after year by means of irrigation. The backbone infrastructure that makes this wonderful place we call home possible is primarily a plumbing system that collects and transports water from areas of abundance in the Northern part of our state to dry areas of need in the Central and Southern part of California.

The two major water delivery systems in the heart of California are the federally sponsored Central Valley Project (CVP) and the State of California sponsored State Water Project (SWP). The SWP exclusively, and the CVP substantially, gather the water supply that they deliver behind big dams, upstream of the Sacramento River, in the Northern part of California. Nature and gravity are sending that water out to the ocean, but before it enters the San Francisco Bay on its way to the ocean, it passes through the Delta. As you may remember from your school days, a delta is a geographic region where fresh water meets the salt water environment of an ocean or sea, and we learned about the Nile Delta in Egypt, or the Mississippi Delta in the American South.

California DeltaIn California, we have our own Delta where the Sacramento River from the North and the San Joaquin River from the South converge and head out to the Pacific Ocean. This is an area about 60 miles long and 40 miles across where all kinds of important ecological processes take place. It is also a place where agriculture has been developed and flourished through the decades.

When the engineers first conceived and then designed and built the CVP and SWP systems, they knew that the Delta was going to be a vulnerable part of this system. This is because these projects are designed to divert water that nature is sending to the sea, into canals for delivery to the dry parts of California. The Delta itself has been significantly altered over the past 150 years. Its soil is primarily peat, which is accumulated dead plant material from thousands of years of being a marshy area. One of the characteristics of peat soil is that when it is plowed and exposed to the air it oxidizes and disappears.

The Delta area today consists of islands that are really holes, because the land surface has fallen in some cases by 30 plus feet. The water that now flows through the Delta is up above the land and is held there by levies consisting of peat soil which are very susceptible to failure. And they do fail.

In addition, a number of endangered species live in the Delta. Protecting them is the Endangered Species Act, the most powerful environmental law ever conceived by man. This law governs the operation of the CVP and SWP because their diversion points impact these endangered fish. Millions of acre feet of fresh water that could have been used to help California deal with the consequences of drought over the last few years were lost to the ocean because of pumping restrictions brought about by Endangered Species Act regulations. For these reasons, from the beginning, the designers of these projects knew that there needed to be a by-pass facility constructed to be able to move the relatively small percentage of the total flow of the Sacramento River that would be diverted into the CVP and SWP canals through or around the Delta, so as not to depend on the Delta as a water transfer valve.

Building this by-pass facility has proved to be the most politically difficult water infrastructure project in California. Many attempts to build either a peripheral canal (a canal that would take the export water around the periphery of the Delta) or some type of isolated through-Delta canal have been opposed by either or both environmentalists, local Delta farmers or in the case of the 1982 effort, powerful Central Valley farming companies, who thought the “deal” to build the canal gave too much to the environment. It is interesting history for another day.

But today what we have before us is the latest effort named the California Water Fix. Sponsored by Governor Brown, it proposes to build two side-by-side tunnels (or big pipelines) to transport the export water directly from new intakes on the Sacramento River (north of the Delta) 35 miles underground directly to the California Aqueduct and Delta-Mendota Canal.

What happened at the end of June is that the federal agencies in charge of enforcing the Endangered Species Act (ESA) issued biological opinions that the construction and operation of the California Water Fix would not jeopardize the continued existence of the ESA listed species or destroy or adversely modify critical habitat for those species. This is a huge step forward for the California Water Fix. There are a number of important steps ahead, not the least of which is that SWP and CVP water users need to be willing to pay for the costs of building the project. But without the actions of the federal agencies in charge of the ESA, no progress is possible.

Until a reliable delivery system is constructed in the Delta, the backbone water infrastructure that makes California possible remains extremely vulnerable, and therefore undermines our long-term success as a society. The stakes are large. We stand on the shoulders of previous generations that made the investments that made our success possible. We owe future generations no less. More information about the California Water Fix is available here (