It’s baaack! Immense canal at center stage

Near the tiny Delta town of Hood, there is a barren, wind-swept patch covered with brush and rock just off a two-lane rural highway. Drivers whiz by and ignore it. Hikers walk over it. There is no plaque, no monument, nothing that lets a visitor know that the site is special. But it is: This is where construction on the Peripheral Canal would have begun–and still may.

Driven in part by a governor seeking a legacy, by farmers down the Central Valley, by the builders of public-works projects and by some water districts, the Capitol debate over water policy is focusing–again–on the Peripheral Canal. That concrete-lined ditch, as wide as a 12-lane freeway, would take water from the Sacramento River and carry it 43-miles southward around the edge of the huge Delta east of San Francisco toward the California Aqueduct. The idea, which in one form or another it had been on the drawing boards since World War II, was to get more northern water to the south without pumping it directly from the Delta, thus preserving the latter’s fragile ecology. If built, it would be the biggest public-works project in American history, with a price tag now estimated at $3 billion to $10 billion, and possibly more.

It was never built. The Legislature approved it, but voters rejected it in 1982 in a package of water projects known as SB 200. Denounced by some environmentalists as a catastrophe-in-waiting for the Delta and many in the north state as a Southern California water grab, the canal died at the polls.
“But we’re not in 1982 anymore. Things have changed. We’ve got a governor who is willing to take the lead. There are different players. We have municipal water agencies that are bigger, more powerful now than they were back in 1982. They understand that we are all connected in this state. In my district, this is life or death to them,” said Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter. “This time,” he added, “it could be done without the voters.”

So the canal is back, prompted by changes in the political landscape.

First, there is a popular governor who supports it. Second, there is an electorate that already has approved spending billions of dollars on water improvements. Third, there is legislation authored by a Northern California lawmaker–Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto–with options that include a canal in or around the Delta. Fourth, there is widespread concern over global warming and greenhouse gases, and proponents of the canal–and some $5 billion in new dams proposed in the areas of Sites and Temperance Flat–argue that the projects will protect water flows as temperatures rise. Finally, there is a sense in the Capitol that it is time to act, and that the time to study the problem is over. “We need more water,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in Bakersfield. “We have to build more storage, and we have to build conveyance, the canal and all of those kinds of things.”

“Senator Simitian has that proposal [SB 27]. It doesn’t mention the ‘P’ word; it talks about an alternative conveyance around the Delta, but this is from a San Francisco Bay Area legislator. Ten or 20 years ago, that wouldn’t have been done. There has been a lot more evolution on water issues,” said Senate GOP leader Dick Ackerman. That evolution includes Central and Southern California farmers, their groundwater depleted and facing dwindling supplies, who need water and don’t believe the principal solutions offered by environmentalists–conservation and recycling–will turn the tide.

But if the politics of water are more favorable to the canal, the fears of environmentalists remain strong. Water quality in the Delta is declining and fish are threatened by the pumping–periodically halted–that sends water into the California Aqueduct. The Delta’s 400,000 population is far larger than in 1982; more people live, work and farm closer to more levees than ever before. And those levees, which date from the 19th century, are weaker than ever before. Flood control and levee management are not part of the Peripheral Canal discussion, but they should be, environmentalists argue, because they go to the heart of protecting the Delta. The Delta is a confluence of rivers east of San Francisco, a flat, levee-laced jumble of rivers, sloughs, farmland and villages. Most of California’s drinking passes through the Delta, fed by melting snows 60 miles to the east in the Sierra.

Major levee-improvement legislation is in the Legislature.

“So many people rely on fragile and aging levees that are taken care of by small, local reclamation districts,” said Jim Metropulos, a water and energy expert for the Sierra Club. “[Levees] really haven’t been looked at since 2004, since the Jones Tract broke, and then Katrina.”

Taking water out of the Sacramento River and shunting it around the Delta may get more water south, but what happens to the river? For that matter, what happens to the Delta, which will now get less water from the river?

“First, the Delta needs more water, not less,” said Barry Nelson, senior policy analysis for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The original theory was that the Sacramento River was healthy and could absorb a big new canal. We’ve listed [as endangered or threatened] steelhead, two species of salmon, sturgeon. We have whole host of species for listing or proposed listing. What happens to those species if we build a massive new diversion on the Sacramento River? I don’t think any agency has looked at this.”

Not only environmentalists are concerned. The Contra Costa Water District, with 550,00 customers in central and eastern Contra Costa County, is the largest urban district in the state to get 100 percent of its water from the Delta. “Everything that happens in the Delta is of primary concern to us,” said Patty Friesen, the district’s public-affairs director.

Water-quality protections, water-supply reliability, conservation, recycling–all are part of improving the Delta, regardless of whether a canal ultimately is built. “You get the sense that people are looking for action, that they are looking to us to tell them what should be done. We’ve got a list of projects, and we agree that it’s been studied enough,” she said.

In the central and lower Central Valley, conservation and recycling don’t necessarily hold sway over reservoirs, more incoming supplies and better storage. “People in a quantitative way can see that this [canal] is the answer. All the arguments today are that we need to build this facility,” Florez said. “This is not 1982, and people know that this isn’t a ‘Southern California water grab.’ We are more sophisticated than that now.”

But there also is concern among environmentalists about the governor’s actions. Schwarzenegger set up a “Delta Vision” panel of experts to look at options for the Delta. The idea was to start at ground zero, jettison pre-conceived notions, examine the possibilities and come up with recommendations.

“The Delta is a complicated place, and we are all trying to participate in the governor’s Delta Vision process with an open mind. It certainly is troubling when he announces his support for a canal. He’s announced that we don’t need any more study in the debate. That raises real questions about the governor’s vision,” Nelson said.

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