The future of the Sacramento Delta hangs in the balance

But few Californians seem to grasp what is at stake.

  • Doug Hemly points to a map where the Bay Delta Conservation Plan tunnels would pass.

    Jeremy Miller

I stand in flooded farmland on a dead end dirt road in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta. Overhead, dozens of greater sandhill cranes make a jagged line against the gray winter sky, descending into the beige fields with an eerie clatter. Snowy egrets and great blue herons stalk the shallow water, while flocks of starlings launch from the roadside and coalesce into great swarms.

The wild avian display here on Staten Island – one of 60 islands scattered across the Delta’s waters – is a jarring contrast to the human drama unfolding across the region. For most people outside this watery region, where the state’s two largest rivers end and its greatest water engineering projects begin, the Delta is typically seen through a veil of conflict – one pitting endangered fish against the needs of water-starved farms in the Central Valley and cities in southern California.

Today that conflict has escalated, as the state faces its most severe drought on record and Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Department of Water Resources push ahead with an ambitious $25 billion plan to re-plumb the Delta, known as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, or BDCP.

And yet, as the Delta’s future hangs in the balance, few Californians seem to grasp what is at stake. Though water from here irrigates some three million acres of farmland and supplies drinking water to over 25 million people, three out of four Californians don’t know where or what the Delta is, much less how it functions in the state’s highly engineered water systems.

Sandhill cranes fly in over Staten Island, an important stopover on the Pacific Flyway in the path of the proposed Delta tunnels.

Can California possibly make good decisions about the fate of this 1,100-square-mile estuary when it remains terra incognita to such a large proportion of its citizenry?

Indeed, from the very first European expedition into its dark heart, the Delta has perplexed travelers. Though I live near its western margin and have visited the watery region numerous times over the years, it still remains a difficult place for me to fathom – a place of maze-like channels, clipped sightlines and mists that seem to emanate from the imagination of Carl Sandburg himself. Last December, in hopes of further allaying my own ignorance, I traveled to the Delta once again, this time to see a small swath of its landscapes and its species, and to speak with a few residents who depend on the integrity of its land and water for survival.


Like most of the Delta, Staten Island has been reclaimed by way of an intricate system of levees. A “working landscape” acquired in 2001 by the Nature Conservancy, the sanctuary occupies 9,000 acres of intensively cultivated land made habitable for birds through systematic floods meant to mimic natural winter floods that took place before the levees were built.

In addition to being an important migratory stopover, the island also happens to be situated in the proposed path of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan’s centerpiece twin water delivery tunnels. Each capable of siphoning 75,000 gallons of water per second out of the Sacramento River, the tunnels would deliver the water some 35 miles to pumps in the southern reaches of the Delta.

Touted by Gov. Jerry Brown as a solution to the state’s intractable water conflicts, the BDCP seeks “co-equal” goals: restoring the Delta’s aquatic ecosystems while also enhancing the state’s water supplies.

But there also lies the rub. Critics of the plan, such as local activists Osha Meserve and Erik Ringelberg, question the plausibility of a plan to “restore” the Delta while simultaneously shunting large volumes of water under it. “The whole Delta ecosystem is in bad shape,” says Ringelberg, who works as a biologist with a Sacramento based consultancy firm. “And if you take more water out of a system that is already stressed, you exacerbate the problems.”

The island is an important migratory stopover and is also situated in the proposed path of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan’s centerpiece twin water delivery tunnels. 

In addition to the tunnels’ great volume, Meserve, an attorney with Sacramento-based firm Soluri Meserve, points out that construction will require the use of massive tunneling machines that will create significant land impacts. “There’s going to be a heck of a lot of disturbance associated with ten years of construction,” she says. “It will sweep through the area with noise, light and glare and create millions of tons of muck that will displace birds and damage what is now good habitat.”

According to the Department of Water Resources, however, a mere one percent of Staten Island would be disturbed by the tunneling and  “the BDCP would implement stringent avoidance and minimization measures year round.” Among these measures are barriers to isolate roost sites from construction zones. The DWR also says the plan would protect an additional 7,000 acres of new crane habitat elsewhere in the Delta.

The triangular summit of Mt. Diablo rises beyond the flooded fields of Staten Island, an important sanctuary for California’s Sandhill cranes

But Ringelberg says it’s not as simple as designating suitable habitat. Each winter, the cranes return to within a few feet of their previous years’ roost sites, he says, and even if tens of thousands of acres of habitat for the birds are protected, there’s no guarantee that they would use it. He points out that it took several years after the establishment of the winter marshes for birds to come to roost on Staten Island. “The construction of the tunnels on Staten Island will be 24-7. With that kind of disturbance, there’s little doubt the birds will leave,” says Ringelberg. “This habitat is simply incompatible with massive industrial activity.”

Alexander Clayton
Alexander Clayton Subscriber
Apr 03, 2014 07:39 PM
The peripheral canal concept in all its many incarnations (CALFED and others, now BDCP) has been around for a long time. And now, more than ever, something needs to be done to ensure a stable water supply for those who need it - the problem is, so many need it, and the battle for it is fierce.

The fragile, patchwork-quilt Delta area is untenable in the long run - one natural disaster, and Californians and various ecosystems will be in dire straits. Having roughly 2/3 of the people in the southern part of the state and 2/3 (or more) of the water in the northwest causes problems...we have the same skew in Colorado, though it's an east-west divide.

Water management will be perhaps the most important balancing act for the foreseeable future, and while there may be those who benefit more and others less from whatever plan is implemented, this is the time for decisive action and long-term vision. Here's to hoping it is done well and without a zero-sum game mentality on any side, since virtually all life depends on water.
Osha Meserve
Osha Meserve
Apr 08, 2014 04:57 PM
DWR's assertion that the plan would protect an additional 7,000 acres of new crane habitat elsewhere in the Delta is not true. The BDCP (including the tunnels and the so-called habitat creation) would destroy 7,248 acres of crane habitat - mostly through flooding of land currently in rowcrops. The BDCP plans to create a net increase of 533 acres of crane habitat by the end of the 50-year plan period. (BDCP, p. 5.6-48.) Except for the replacement habitat directly destroyed by the tunnels, all of the replacement habitat would be paid for by the public through statewide bonds and other funds. It is ridiculous for the BDCP to assert that it would benefit cranes; it is not clear that the crane population in this part of the Pacific Flyway can even survive the BDCP.
Jim Cooper
Jim Cooper Subscriber
Apr 09, 2014 03:27 AM
In Nevada we have a terminal lake (no outlet) called Walker Lake where the Walker River ends. Due to upstream demands on the water, primarily irrigated agriculture between the Eastern Sierra and the Lake. Walker Lake was once known for it's large Lahontan Cutthroat Trout that supported a sport fishery in Hawthorne at the Lake's southern end.
Thirty to forty pound Cutthroat were common in the catch until the 50's and 60's when the TDS (salt) content of the lake reached levels that the trout could not tolerate. This in combination with the lack of spawning habitat in the River and oxygen depletion in the deep water of the Lake combined to make the ecosystem intolerable for the trout. Today even the Tui Chub that the Trout depended upon as a food source are also rapidly declining. A consortium of universities and state and federal agencies are attempting to come up with a solution to the problem such as finding
a crop that uses less water and purchasing water rights from willing sellers in combination with studies on the River and Lake's ecosystem.
Although the Bay Delta issues are larger in scope by an order of magnitude, the agent driving each problem is the same.
Bill Kier
Bill Kier Subscriber
Apr 09, 2014 01:06 PM
Thank you Mr Miller for a pretty good piece about the problems in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta estuary. Your reference to the Delta estuary as a place 'where the state’s two largest rivers end and its greatest water engineering projects begin' merits comment, however, on two levels. First, the Klamath River, not the San Joaquin River, is California's second largest river, if one rates rivers on the size of their outflow. And the Central Valley's rivers do not 'end' in the Delta. They are part of a river-estuary-San Francisco Bay-Pacific Ocean continuum in which the rivers, the coastal ocean and everything in between works as an integrated natural system – an ecosystem. This notion that the rivers somehow 'end' in the Delta and that it's just great 'water engineering projects' from there is precisely the kind of 1950s thinking that got us into today’s need to face up to the essential connection of the Central Valley rivers to the coastal ocean and to the coastal communities which depend on a healthy ocean.
Charles Fox
Charles Fox Subscriber
Apr 09, 2014 02:37 PM
This water diversion project is called the "Bay Delta Conservation Plan" because it won't conserve anything but an elected office holder here or there. There's nothing this project would do to actually conserve any biological resource anywhere. The BDCP "solution" is Grand Theft Agua.

This is a plan to incrementally kill the Delta. Due to massive diversions of water to the Central Valley and Southern California, this area has been struggling to function under essentially drought conditions for decades.

There is too much consumption of water in California due to high population and intensely consumptive and polluting agriculture. Freshwater is the limiting resource to the ever-bold human endeavor and the limits have been reached.

Schemes like these tunnels are another symptom of the death spiral of poor decisions, poor planning and absurd expectations that make failure a guaranteed outcome for people and ecosystems.
Eric Mills
Eric Mills
Apr 09, 2014 07:03 PM
Remember when Jerry Meral said that the Delta can't be saved? Was/is he right?

A key to the problem which is almost never addressed,is the fact that California is already grossly over-populated (with humans), with another 25 million expected by mid-century. Not sustainable, not acceptable. What to do?
Isa Christi
Isa Christi
Apr 10, 2014 11:20 AM
I agree with Eric. The more significant problem is that there are too many people. Our numbers are unsustainable; we degrade the environment with daily activities, such as turning on the tap, burning fossil fuels, creating garbage, etc. People need to understand how much our very existence is harmful to species other than our own and our own environment. If we are to leave a reasonably good environment for future generations, we need to address our numbers. For starters, why not ask for something in return for all the benefits we hand out? Folks receiving gov't benefits could agree to do something in return, like stop having more children.
Richard Atwater
Richard Atwater
Apr 11, 2014 07:33 AM
Please note the article fails to point out that twice as much water is diverted upstream of the Delta as is exported from the BDCP tunnels. Note that most of the residents in the SF Bay area either get their drinking water from supplies upstream (SF gets their water from Yosemite Natl Park) or is exported from the Delta (e.g., Silicon Valley) and SF just completed a new tunnel under SF Bay from its Hetch Hetchy Yosemite supply. And the article should have included the facts that not more water would be exported through the tunnels and actually could be less under the Endangered Species Act permits. The reality the century old Delta levees will fail during an earthquake (USGS) and the seawater from SF Bay will flood the Delta and over 25 million Californians could lose their drinking water without the tunnels.