For millions of Californians, San Joaquin County and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are a sort of glorified plumbing system through which passes the water they need to get on with their lives.
Last month, the Delta Vision Committee released its strategic plan for the Delta. The multi-year Delta Vision process, with all its hearings and solicitations for input, appears to have been mostly a public relations tactic to justify the solution the governor, the Resources Agency and export contractors have favored all along: an "alternative conveyance," or peripheral canal.
They want to build a massive piece of infrastructure to ensure reliable water for other parts of California. It will be 500 to 700 feet wide, 40 to 50 miles long and up to 10 feet above ground level.
They say they plan to protect the Delta environment also. But since they have no way to increase the total water available for all uses, and since exporters will surely take what they need first, as they've been doing for decades, we shouldn't expect much more than promises regarding fish, other wildlife or Delta agriculture. Promises like that are what got us into the present crisis with smelt and salmon.
There are several reasons why Lodi residents might care about what is happening west of town.
First, as I pointed out in an earlier column, we drink groundwater here, and the water table is dropping. Diverting Sacramento River water will turn the Delta into a brackish inland sea. The hydrology of the whole region will change, and then Lodi will have to worry about saltwater intrusion into its drinking water.
Second, the conveyance plan and the strategies used to develop it are so flawed that litigation is certain. This will cost everybody a lot of money, "everybody" being taxpayers. It will also cause delays. Meanwhile, resources are being diverted from less ambitious but potentially effective strategies for fixing the Delta.
The governor is prepared to move forward with this whole thing without either voter or legislative approval. A decades-old attorney general's opinion reputedly gives him the power to do this. He wants construction to begin in 2011.
Meanwhile, current drought conditions appear to warrant some kind of immediate action. It doesn't help that a federal judge has shut down the export pumps at Tracy to protect fish, especially the Delta smelt.
Congressman George Radanovich of Mariposa has gone to Congress with the California Drought Alleviation Act (CDAA), "a proposal to temporarily suspend the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as it applies to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta pumping facilities during Gubernatorial declared times of drought emergencies until such conditions are alleviated."
Radanovich calls efforts to protect the Delta smelt "eco-terrorism." Thus the smelt joins other species that have in the past interfered with people's attempts to earn a livelihood.
But here, as in other cases, it is only partly about the smelt. The most vulnerable species are the ones that alert us that we are doing something unsustainable - something that may endanger other species, including homo sapiens, further down the line.
There is no question that limitations on exports and lack of reliable water supply hurt the agricultural economy in the southern San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. Jobs are lost, as they will be lost in San Joaquin County if conveyance advocates get their canal.
Last week at a water issues debate at Fresno State University, a reporter interviewed Lloyd Carter, a long-time journalist and water activist from Fresno. The interviewer expressed concern about the loss of 40,000 agricultural jobs on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley as a result of drought and reduced pumping.
Carter made some insensitive observations about the social problems that farm laborers, many of them illegal, create. This generated 20 seconds of sound bites pulled from an interview over 10 minutes long. Carter's point, lost in the editing, was this: "The farm economy of Fresno County does not spread the affluence."
According to Carter, water itself is the "new cash crop," worth more to farmers than whatever they can grow (and therefore whatever jobs agriculture provides). He notes that farmers are buying water from the public for less than $100 an acre-foot, but the same water is selling on the retail market for urban uses at $600 an acre-foot. Meanwhile, "it takes $750 worth of retail water to grow $150 worth of wholesale cotton." So "some people in agriculture are positioning themselves to resell their farm water to urban interests."
The Department of Water Resources has promised export contractors more water than can actually be delivered. Throughout the state, development has taken place based on this "paper water." And people south of the Delta have planted crops and hired workers and built businesses on the expectation that that water would be permanently available.
Now we have drought conditions, and the water isn't available. No alternative conveyance could magically create that water. The most it could do is to take water from someplace else that needs it, too.
So far, proposals for solving problems associated with the Delta have come from outside the Delta. But on Saturday, Restore the Delta is sponsoring a symposium at which local interests can be heard. "A Bold Direction: The People's Vision for the Delta" will address issues such as regional self-sufficiency, managing changing conditions in the Delta, current litigation, governance for the Delta and the controversial issue of a Delta Conservancy.
What happens to the Delta will affect everyone who lives in San Joaquin County and the rest of the Delta region. If you have ideas about some of these issues, you might want to attend the symposium. Registration information is available at www.restorethedelta.org.
Jane Wagner-Tyack studies and writes about land use and water policy. She serves on the board of directors of Restore the Delta (restorethedelta.org), a grassroots campaign focused on protecting recreation, agriculture and the environment in the Delta. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.