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Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Some Claim Environmental Benefit to Plan that Would Send More Northern California Water to the South

(Map of 1981 Proposed Peripheral Canal Project)

By Rex Frankel


A long-fought plan that would construct a canal to divert Sacramento River water away from the Delta region that is just upriver from the San Francisco Bay and into aqueducts leading to Southern California has resurfaced under the blessing of a panel appointed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The so-called peripheral canal project was crushed by the State’s voters in 1982, amid fears that it was a water grab to serve development interests but dressed up with token environmental benefits. Given that the State’s Sacramento and Feather Rivers are the source for a huge amount of Southern California’s water supply, this political-environmental battle has huge implications.

So far, the one person with environmentalist credentials to endorse the project is Jerry Meral, former director of the Planning and Conservation League, which has been known in the past to cut deals that angered their other environmental allies. Other large environmental groups have endorsed a study of the project, taking a wait and see approach. Those groups are the Nature Conservancy, the Natural Resources Institute, American Rivers and Environmental Defense. Still other local groups and fishermen’s associations vehemently oppose spending any money to study such a plan given the suspicion that it is a water grab for development interests.

The impetus for the latest incarnation of the canal is because endangered fish are becoming extinct in the Delta region. Longtime backers of the canal project are reasoning that a relocated suction pipe on the north side of the Delta will stop the aqueduct’s pumps, which are on the south side of the Delta, from catching the endangered Delta Smelt fish or give water agency operators the flexibility to choose either the old intake pipes or the new one to suck water based on where fish are found at a given time. Because the fish populations in the Delta have crashed in recent years, a federal judge has ordered the aqueduct operators to cut by 30% the amount of water they ship south.

Given the development motivations behind the backers, I find it hard to believe that this is a solution to a fragile Endangered Species Act (ESA) conflict with water facilities development, but rather it’s just another scheme to cover a bad plan with a new coat of green paint.

Environmentalist groups say that the Delta is “broken”, that the ESA requires that more freshwater stay in the Delta to protect the fish, and that any plan that catches freshwater upstream of the Delta, as the peripheral canal would, will inevitably lead to more salt water from the SF Bay to flow inland, killing the fish that rely on the freshwater.

In fact, the slow conversion of the freshwater Delta into a saltwater marsh due to water agency diversions has lead to a crisis that the federal and state governments have worked at since the early 1990’s to solve. This solution, a so-called compromise called CalFed, has produced many feet of reports, but has largely been defunded by the U.S. Congress. The inevitable conflict has been that development interests continue to want to pump away more of the freshwater, while environmentalists say that existing laws mandate that more freshwater be returned to the Delta which is already severely out of balance. Environmental interests who feel that the deck has historically been stacked against them say they are not willing to compromise with the playing field so unlevel. This conflict led to an appeals court ruling in 2005, which is now before the State Supreme Court, that held that CalFed was in violation of the State Environmental Quality Act because its two goals, ecosystem restoration as mandated by the Endangered Species Act, and water reallocation to urban development interests, as desired but not mandated by any law, were diametrically opposed to each other.

The appeals court concluded that “CALFED concluded an alternative with reduced Delta exports would not meet all of the Program's goals, in particular this reallocation goal…
But CALFED's rejection of a reduced exports alternative is premised on the false assumption that, for an alternative to be feasible, it must meet all of the Program's goals…Because an EIR must identify ways to mitigate or avoid the significant effects that a project may have on the environment, the discussion of alternatives shall focus on alternatives to the project or its location which are capable of avoiding or substantially lessening any significant effects of the project, even if these alternatives would impede to some degree the attainment of the project objectives, or would be more costly.

(For those that want to research this case more, the name of this case is “In re BAY-DELTA PROGRAMMATIC ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT REPORT COORDINATED PROCEEDINGS” C044267, C044577, October 7, 2005.)

The Court also concluded that there is no legal mandate for California to continue to grow at the expense of its protected natural resources:

“CALFED conducted its environmental analysis by assuming certain population growth in the State over the next 15 years and then finding ways to provide water to that population. But CALFED appears not to have considered, as an alternative, smaller water exports from the Bay-Delta region which might, in turn, lead to smaller population growth due to the unavailability of water to support such growth. Taking an assumed population as a given and then finding ways to provide water to that population overlooked an alternative that would provide less water for population growth leaving more for other beneficial uses. CALFED apparently assumed that the California population would grow as projected regardless of the availability of water and did not consider whether, if less water was supplied, population growth would be affected accordingly, leading to less demand. …. However, if there is no water to support the growth, will it occur as projected? Population growth is not an immutable fact of life. Stable populations have been established in such states as New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.”


Debate revived: 25 years after voters defeated the 'peripheral canal,' proposal resurfaces as an option to save the Delta

By Jerry Meral - Special to The Bee

Sunday, August 5, 2007

More than 50 years ago, the California Department of Fish and Game recommended that the giant state and federal water projects divert the water they export from the Sacramento River near the town of Hood, south of Sacramento. Fish and Game opposed allowing Sacramento River water to enter the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and be diverted near Tracy. The reason: Diverting the water from dead-end channels in the south Delta would make it impossible to successfully screen out fish sucked in by the massive pumps.

Half a century later, Fish and Game is being proven right. Delta smelt and other native fish species are threatened with extinction, because the Sacramento River diversion -- the "peripheral canal" -- was never built. Today, biologists continue to call for the diversion facility to be built, so that fish can safely bypass the intake pumps on their way to the sea or as they renew their lives in the Delta.

Now there are other, more urgent reasons to divert water from the Sacramento River rather than the southern part of the Delta. More than 20 million Californians in the Bay Area, Central Valley and Southern California drink and farm with water from the Delta supplied by the state and federal water projects. Seawater entering the Delta from the San Francisco Bay and chemicals leached from the organic Delta soils contaminate the water before it reaches the state and federal pumps. Diverting the water from the Sacramento River north of the Delta would eliminate most pollutants, and improve the quality of the water by more than 50 percent.

It has long been known that a major earthquake could crumble many old, fragile Delta levees. The likelihood of massive levee collapse, which would lead to water supplies being cut off to cities and farms, has increased because of predictions of a major earthquake. A huge flood from upstream rivers could have the same effect. Rising sea level due to global warming makes all these problems worse. The Department of Water Resources estimates that massive levee failure could eliminate the Delta water supply for a year or more. It might never recover if there were multiple levee failures.

The islands in the Delta are eroding from farming that oxidizes the peat soil; some islands are more than 25 feet below sea level. Based on field experiments by the U.S. Geological Survey if wetlands replaced Delta farmlands, soils could recover and huge amounts of carbon could be captured, which would help reduce global warming. But farming continues to be allowed, even on state-owned islands. With so many islands below sea level, if a levee were to break and an island flooded, it would be very costly to restore.

Scientists at the University of California, Davis, estimate that the likelihood of a major Delta catastrophe due to multiple failed levees and flooded islands is greater than 60 percent over the next 45 years. No rational society should take this kind of chance. New Orleans rolled the dice and came up Katrina.

Only an ostrich could deny the problems of the Delta and argue for business as usual. But some say that building a peripheral canal to move water around the Delta must wait. And wait. And wait.

A variety of reasons are given. Some argue that we don't know how much water must flow past the intake of a peripheral canal to preserve the water quality in the Delta, meet Delta farmer water rights and preserve the fisheries. Although tens of millions of dollars have already been spent to answer these questions, undoubtedly we will learn more after the facility is built. Strong requirements must be put into place to take advantage of that new knowledge to adapt the operation of the facility to changing conditions.

Others fear the power of urban and agricultural water users from the Bay Area, the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. Surely, they will take water needed for environmental protection in the Delta and for farming Delta islands, the critics say. This legitimate concern must be answered by amending the California Constitution to better protect Northern California, and by establishing a new governing body for the facility that adequately represents the interests of the north.

Finally, biologists note that huge amounts of money are needed to restore habitat for fish and wildlife in the Delta and the Central Valley watershed. To generate these funds, anyone who wants to export water through the new facility should be charged a fee, which will go into a fish and wildlife restoration fund. This would be in addition to a fee to repay the cost of the facility.

In the past, Northern California fears of a new method to export water outweighed the obvious benefits of an isolated water transport facility. But the biological crisis in the Delta, coupled with the huge water quality and reliability problems of the existing method of moving water across the Delta require that the Legislature and governor find a way to solve the political problems. Sens. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto; Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento; Mike Machado, D-Linden; and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, have passed legislation through a unanimous Senate to resolve this problem. Now it needs to move through the Assembly to the governor's desk.

It will take a decade or more to build the canal after it is authorized and approved by the voters. During that time, the risks to the environment and water supply will gradually increase. We must start immediately to authorize and construct the facility, and hope that nature will be kind enough to wait until it is finished before unleashing a storm or earthquake. We must also immediately stop farming on Delta islands that are below sea level and begin to rebuild them. Perhaps at least some islands can be restored to sea level before the big one hits. Spending $5 billion now can prevent more than $40 billion in economic damages if the levees fail.

About the writer:

Jerry Meral is a director of the National Wildlife Federation. He served as executive director of the Planning and Conservation League and deputy director of the California Department of Water Resources.


or see

Delta Flows: Water Bonds and Bay Delta Conservation Plan

by Dan Bacher
Friday Dec 7th, 2007 8:30 AM

In the latest Delta Flows newsletter, director Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla updates us the latest developments in the battle of the water bonds and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan process.

Parrilla is very concerned that some environmental NGOs have signed on to the peripheral canal concept in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan process. "While Restore the Delta has had a productive working relationship with these environmental groups in other arenas and a good deal of respect for their past work, we are extremely disappointed that they have made a theoretical statement supporting a peripheral canal without including language that would guarantee flows, water quality, and water quantity in order to protect the needs of Delta fisheries and Delta communities. Habitat restoration without freshwater restoration for the Delta is simply not achievable," she stated.

The environmental groups participating in the BDPC process (ed. Note: Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense, American Rivers, Natural Heritage Institute), have, unfortunately, agreed in a document entitled “Points of Agreement for Continuing into the Planning Process – November 16, 2007” that:

The most promising approach for achieving the BDCP conservation and water supply goals involves a new conveyance system with points of diversion, the ultimate acceptability of which will turn on important design, operational, and institutional arrangements that the Steering Committee will develop and evaluation throughout the planning process. The main new physical feature of this conveyance system includes the construction and operation of a new point (or points) of diversion in the North Delta on the Sacramento River and an isolated conveyance facility around the Delta…”



More Government Propaganda for Peripheral Canal

Plan suggests canal is crucial to Delta revival

By Mike Taugher, Contra Costa Times, 11/18/07

Government biologists have concluded the most promising way to save the Delta is to divert water around it through a canal — an idea often derided as a Southern California water grab that would ensure the destruction of the region.

final vision doc

calls for study of dual conveyance plan


environmental defense website


1 comment:

Gary Patton said...

Just to be clear, the Planning and Conservation League (PCL) has NOT endorsed the peripheral canal. Jerry Meral is the "former," not current, Executive Director of PCL, and the positions he takes on water policy and other issues are his personal positions. -Gary Patton, Executive Director (soon to be General Counsel) of the Planning and Conservation League.


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