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

Page 2

To see the people who live in the path of the proposed Delta tunnels, I travel 20 minutes north of Staten Island, to the town of Courtland, 30 minutes south of Sacramento. Posted all along Highway 160, which wends atop the levees, are small signs that read STOP THE TUNNELS.  Unlike the sprawling farms of the southern Central Valley, most of the Delta’s 500,000 acres of agricultural land is comprised of far smaller parcels, occupying 160 acres or less.

The state is reluctant to say how many residents could potentially affected by the proposed tunnels, or how much private property would have to be condemned if the project were to move forward. But a lawsuit filed by dozens of property owners in the Delta in 2011 may give a hint.

In 2008, DWR surveyors sought temporary permission to take soil samples on private property along the proposed tunnel route. In response, roughly 150 property owners filed suit, saying that the state first needed to undergo eminent domain proceedings before entering private property to conduct the surveys. In 2011, a San Joaquin County superior court ruled that the DWR surveys constituted a “taking” of property and required a formal hearing. Last month, an appellate court upheld that ruling, stating that the 200-foot deep bore holes for soil sampling “would intentionally result in a permanent physical occupation.”

Doug Hemly owns land at the proposed starting place of the tunnels. His farm, Greene and Hemly, grows pears, apples and other fruits on a 160-acre plot beside the Sacramento River. “We’ve been farming the same piece of dirt for the last 150 years,” says Hemly. In a conference room, he unrolls an aerial photograph map of the Delta, tracing his finger along the proposed path of the two tunnels, rattling off the names of farmers in the path of the project.

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

Like many in the Delta, Hemly sees the BDCP as an elaborate water grab. He says the demands of southern California have grown beyond what the Delta can possibly support. “I saw what was in the cards for the Delta on a trip to (Central Asia’s) Aral Sea,” he said. There, unchecked water diversions reduced the inland sea to 10 percent of its original size, decimating once vibrant fisheries. “That’s where we’re headed here if we don’t think this thing through.”

The threats to the Delta, however, are not purely external. Farming and urban development in and around the region has had a major impact on both land and water. In summer, crop dusters careen over the low fields, trailing pesticides from their wingtips. And then there are the levees, which have altered the natural drainage patterns. Restricted within high banks, the rivers weaving through the Delta no longer overtop their banks during great spring floods, which once replenished the native peat soils with organic material. Over the years, this “ straitjacketing” of the rivers, along with intensive cultivation, has caused large sections of Delta soils to dry up and the land to sink.

This subsidence can be seen firsthand from the levee roads between Rio Vista and Sacramento. On one side of the road, the languid Sacramento River rolls toward San Francisco Bay; on the other, orchard rows radiate from the base of the levees, 10 to 15 feet below the level of the water.

Not only is low-lying farmland at severe risk from levee failure, say state officials, so, too, are the intake pumps for the state and federal water projects. One nightmare scenario could result from a combination of sea level rise and levee failure – possibly triggered by an earthquake – causing the inrush of brackish water from San Francisco Bay and overwhelming the pumps that feed the California Aqueduct and Delta-Mendota Canal.  In a 2006 study, University of California Davis geology professor Jeff Mount projected a 64-percent risk of a massive levee failure within the next 50 years.


Back on Staten Island under the massive levees, I watch more cranes wing in against the setting sun and wonder about the future of the Delta as the state moves into another year in an era defined by drought and intensifying water conflict. The Delta remains, in spite of our best efforts to untangle it, a great knot – a watery maze in which numerous endangered species and 500,000 residents happen to dwell.

As the sun dips past the horizon, the clatter of the cranes ceases. It’s time to head home. Silence is soothing when you are in search of a respite, but can be unnerving when you know you are standing on a battlefield.

Jeremy Miller is a contributing editor to High Country News. Photographs are by the author.

Alexander Clayton
Alexander Clayton says:
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 says:
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 says:
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 says:
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 says:
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 says:
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 says:
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 says:
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.