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Think most of the Delta's water flows south to L.A.? Think again

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Posted: Monday, July 21, 2008 10:00 pm

Many people in San Joaquin County don't know very much about the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that occupies the west side of the county.

We know we are driving through it when we take Highway 12 to the Bay Area. Boaters, water skiers, and people who fish are aware of the declining quality of water in the Delta's rivers and sloughs. When driving south on Interstate 5, we've seen the Delta-Mendota Canal and the California Aqueduct, those artificial rivers taking "our" water from the Delta to people in other parts of the state.

We've heard about the smelt, those small fish dying in large numbers. More recently, we're heard about drastic declines in the salmon population. The giant pumps near Tracy that export fresh water from the Delta seem to be the main culprit in these fish deaths. Modifying pumping to protect the smelt means a 30 percent reduction in export water. Oh well, we may think. Those people in Southern California just use our water to fill their swimming pools anyway.

Actually, that isn't where most of the water is going. We all need to be more informed than that, because there is a plan afoot to export even more fresh water from the Delta. To defeat that plan, we need to know the facts.

I was surprised to learn that less than 20 percent of water exported from the Delta goes directly to urban users in the South Bay Area and Southern California. The majority goes to water export contractors in the Southern San Joaquin Valley, where it supports California's multi-billion dollar agriculture industry.

I was also surprised to learn that urban users in other parts of California use water much more efficiently than we do. They have been putting into place a variety of conservation strategies, from groundwater recharge and banking to wastewater recycling. Water metering gives people in these areas a strong incentive not to waste water.

Efforts like these toward regional self-sufficiency offer hope that California can decrease its reliance on moving large amounts of water around.

But the population of California is growing, and export water contractors want to ensure that they have access to plenty of high quality water. In 1982, California voters defeated a proposal to build a Peripheral Canal that would divert Sacramento River water around the Delta. The same idea has resurfaced, only now it is being called an "isolated conveyance."

The recently released report by the Public Policy Institute of California is only the latest in a series of carefully orchestrated studies and task force activities over the past 18 months. Gov. Schwarzenegger and the Department of Water Resources have used these studies and activities to focus attention on the variety of crises facing the Delta. In addition to fish dying, the Delta faces threats from water pollution, saltwater intrusion, earthquakes and rising sea levels. Housing development is pushing at the edges of the Delta.

Furthermore, the Delta's thousand miles of levees need major maintenance if we hope to avoid a flood disaster on the scale of Katrina.

The state's favored solution is to build a very expensive system (estimates start at $12 billion) to convey fresh water through or around the Delta. This solution is being pursued with a project called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP). The BDCP's objectives are to restore the Delta ecosystem and to protect water supplies, by which it means water supplies for export. The plan isn't too interested in protecting water supplies for use within the Delta, including the Delta's own billion dollar agricultural economy.

California's Water Code says that water needs within the Delta must be met before water is exported. The Department of Water Resources and the Department of Fish and Game admit that they don't actually know how much fresh water the Delta needs to be healthy. But that hasn't kept DWR from meeting export water contracts for the last decade, in defiance of the Water Code.

DWR itself has charts showing that in recent dry years, when the Delta itself has less water, exports have actually been higher because export contractors in other parts of California need more water.

San Joaquin County has adopted a resolution opposing the state's plan for an isolated conveyance, and cities in the county are being asked to adopt their own resolutions.

Even people who haven't made up their minds about the isolated conveyance agree that there is a serious lack of local involvement in the decision-making process. The BDCP's steering committee has 23 members. Seven members are water agencies. None of those water agencies represents San Joaquin County or the Delta.

This feels like being a kid and having grownups talk about you over your head. If you think this is a bit insulting, you can go to the BDCP Web site (www.resources.ca.gov/bdcp/), click on the link for the Background Documents for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, and leave a comment under "Contact Us."

Jane Wagner-Tyack is a freelance writer, writing consultant, and former educator who 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 Jane at janetyack@gmail.com.

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