The scenic drive along Highway 160 that winds through the Delta will look dramatically different in the upcoming decades, biologists, conservationists and other experts said at Thursday's Delta and California Water Forum in Oakland.
Speakers throughout the event hosted by the San Francisco Estuary Partnership said the 80 islands and 1,600 miles of levees in the Central Valley are reaching their breaking point, and action needs to be taken. Experts throughout the day took the podium and offered bleak outlooks on the future of the Delta, and their respective views on the recent water package passed by the state legislature. Multiple speakers said the Delta cannot and will not be restored to the way it was in the mid-1850s or even several decades ago and California's water system needs to be overhauled and climate change must be accounted for when deciding future Delta projects. The speakers also warned against the ecological breakdown the Delta is experiencing.
"What we had valued has turned into an aquatic version of cockroaches and rats," said Bruce Herbold, fish biologist for the Environmental Protection Agency.
The habitat in the Delta is undergoing a dramatic shift, and one of the biggest problems facing fish, such as the Delta Smelt and Chinook salmon, is the Delta's construction, he said.
Herbold said the physical alterations to the landscape have changed conditions for traditional species in the Delta and created an ecosystem in which non-native species, such as striped bass and toxic algae, are thriving.
Ellen Hanak, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, said the configuration and demands placed on the drinking water source for two-thirds of the state are unsustainable, and changes need to be made to the system's infrastructure because it's being required to do more than what is was constructed for.
Hanak said rising sea levels, climate change and future earthquakes would push the Delta to its structural and ecological limits. She said these are all undeniable realities that must be considered when thinking about the Delta's future.
By 2030, several of the median islands throughout the Delta are going to fail due to natural disasters, erosion or the sheer cost of maintaining them, Hanak said.
"Prepare for island failures," she said. "Not all islands are worth saving."
Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, said one of the biggest problems facing California is that it doesn't measure and monitor all water usage. He said it applies to both urban and agricultural supplies, and until it's under control, the effort to move forward will be severely hampered.
Gleick said the proposed $11 billion bond measure for the future of the state's water is similar to a game of chicken, because there are positive aspects to the bill as well as significant limitations. If passed, the $11 billion general obligation bond would cost the state's general fund $800 million a year in interest over the next 30 years.
While none of the speakers said the bill passed in special session by the legislature was a slam-dunk or anywhere near perfect, they generally agreed parts of it are a step in the right direction, and it's something to build off of.
The biggest complaints raised regarding the bond measure is that it would place more burden on taxpayers, and it could be a gateway to a peripheral canal or conveyance system.
The most common objections against the state's water package are that it doesn't place enough emphasis on conservation, and plans to monitor how water is used and distributed are virtually nonexistent.
Quotes from the day regarding legislative water package"I remember what Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said as the legislative process ended. He said, 'Now is the time for the legislature.' Now it is time for you."
— Alf Brandt, principal consultant for the Assembly Committee for Water, Parks and Wildlife
"It is time for people who have most at stake to educate
— Ezra Rapport, deputy executive director Association of Bay Area Governments
"What we ended up with in the final package is a very important
— Kate Poole, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council
"The Delta is more than a switching yard through which we move
— Randele Kanouse, special assistant East Bay Municipal Utilities District
"We have billions in the bond; great for cleanup and for
groundwater, but nothing about reducing reliance on the
— Jennifer Clary, policy analyst for Cleanwater Action