Drinking water for 23 million Californians. Lifeblood of our farm economy. Why it’s so vital to save this Sacramento delta.
Originally published in On Earth.
ON THIS BRISK, CLOUDLESS DAY, Tom Zuckerman and I are driving to his duck-hunting club on Rindge Tract, one of the low-slung rural islands that form the nucleus of California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. With Zuckerman’s two black Labradors kenneled in the back of his SUV, we bump along the rutted levee road that traces the curve of an inlet called Disappointment Slough. Below us lies a sunken cornfield, intentionally flooded after the harvest to attract migrating ducks like pintails and mallards. We pass an unused asparagus shed, but otherwise there’s hardly a building in sight. A sign posted on a low fence warns visitors not to build outdoor fires: The soil is so rich in organic matter that it has been known to combust.
Once mostly tidal marsh, the 1,153-square-mile delta was tamed in the nineteenth century into isles of farmland laced with waterways. Rindge Tract, Zuckerman tells me, was co-owned by Herbert Hoover, who grew and processed spearmint here. As we drive, the bustle of northern California seems far away—until a Panamanian cargo ship passes by at startlingly close range. “Right on time,” says Zuckerman, a retired lawyer from an old delta farming family. The giant vessel glides by without a struggle, navigating a deepwater channel that leads to the landlocked Port of Stockton, 75 miles east of San Francisco and 50 miles south of the state capital, Sacramento.
It seems as if everywhere I drive in this inverted delta—unlike conventional deltas, its broadest side faces away from the ocean—there’s another Escheresque twist or Roadside America absurdity. Huge cargo ships sail inland. Farms sit below sea level. Rivers run backward. The soil burns. Posters advertise a local Spam festival. A hidden turnoff leads to Locke, a weathered rural Chinatown with a steakhouse called Al the Wops. The delta, along with San Francisco Bay, forms the largest estuary on the western coast of the Americas, yet for most Californians it remains unexplored and somewhat mysterious territory.
It is also territory of outsize importance. The delta serves as a vast switching yard for much of the state’s water supply, including drinking water for 23 million people from the Bay Area to San Diego. Freshwater from its namesake rivers is channeled to two massive pumping stations, one owned by the state and the other by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. From the state facility, water enters a labyrinth of pipelines, tunnels, and canals, including the 444-mile-long California Aqueduct, that carries it to residential users. The federal pumps, meanwhile, divert water to the sprawling farms of the San Joaquin Valley, the core of U.S. fruit and vegetable production.
For all its value and beauty, though, the delta is also on the verge of collapse. Much of its land is kept artificially dry by 1,100 miles of jury-rigged levees that are inadequate to withstand a litany of growing stresses. First there’s global warming, which could push sea levels two feet higher, or more, by century’s end. Add to this the risk of flooding—also linked to climate change—as a result of increased rainfall and quicker snowmelt in the mountains. Finally, there’s the growing chance of a devastating earthquake. Any of these phenomena could trigger a chain reaction of levee breaches, inundating farms and communities, displacing thousands of people, and sucking salt water deep into an already overstressed system. That, in turn, could leave Californians scrambling for freshwater for agriculture and residential consumption. In 2005 a respected study by the geologist Jeffrey Mount, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis, and the environmental planner Robert Twiss added up the combined risks posed by earthquakes and floods and calculated a 64 percent chance that up to 20 levees will fail simultaneously within the next 50 years.
Some scientists draw parallels to the Gulf Coast just before Hurricane Katrina. “When I look at New Orleans and then turn and look at the Sacramento Delta, it’s eerie,” says Robert Bea, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.
A more immediate crisis has already beset the delta, one that shows how deeply its ecological health and human welfare are entwined. Native fish populations—salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, smelt—are declining at such an alarming rate that the entire ecosystem appears to be in peril. Among the many culprits are the two pumping stations, which not only suck the fish into their machinery but also alter the region’s underlying hydrology. The estuary’s key indicator species, the delta smelt, is in such danger of extinction that in 2007 a federal judge limited the amount of water that could be exported from the delta during the months when the smelt was most vulnerable. San Joaquin Valley farmers, lacking sufficient water, say they let significant acreage go unplanted this year.
Those with a stake in the delta—who live within its boundaries, study its wildlife, drink its water, or use that water for irrigation—agree the place cannot sustain itself in its present state. That’s where the consensus ends. Even basic scientific assumptions about the estuary’s ecology are hotly disputed. So is the question of who should make the biggest sacrifices to rescue the delta, and California, from the brink of disaster.
IT WAS ONCE CALLED A BACK SWAMP. As the tide rolled in and out, the delta’s wetlands would flood, then dry out, exposing a complex terrain that befuddled early white visitors. In 1846, one of them, Edwin Bryant, described “a terraqueous labyrinth of such intricacy, that unskillful and inexperienced navigators have been lost for many days in it, and some, I have been told, have perished.” Others navigated the delta more deftly: grizzlies and elk, sandhill cranes and tundra swans. Giant bulrushes called tules grew in dense clusters, and sycamores overhung the riverbanks.
In the mid-1800s, with a push from Congress, settlers began to “reclaim” the delta for agriculture. They drained the marshes, forming islands like Rindge Tract, then built soil levees (often using Chinese-American labor) to keep them from flooding. By the 1920s the delta looked pretty much the way it does today. The resulting farmland was incredibly fertile, producing crops like sugar beets and pears. The town of Isleton, on the delta’s west side, was dubbed the Asparagus Capital of the World. In the 1950s its canneries exported more than 300,000 cases annually. But the organic soil is prone to oxidizing, compacting, and blowing away. As it disappeared, the islands began sinking until many were below sea level—in some cases as much as 25 feet. This put pressure on the levees, which cracked and were periodically overtopped. Landowners patched the holes and piled on more dirt.
Meanwhile, California grew. The Stockton Deep Water Ship Channel was dredged through the delta in 1933, and incoming vessels introduced alien plants and animals that thrived in the altered ecosystem. And the state’s drier regions began eyeing the delta thirstily. In 1951 the federal government finished building its pumping plant near the south delta town of Tracy, giving San Joaquin Valley farmers their first stable supply of irrigation water. The Tracy plant is enormous, its six pumps powered by enough juice to move more than 16 million cubic feet of water per hour. From there the water is lifted into a canal that runs 117 miles into the valley. In 1968 the state built a second facility, this one to serve California’s booming south, including Los Angeles and San Diego. Some years, depending on the rainfall, the two stations divert enough water to flood 1,000 football fields more than a mile deep.
Despite all these changes, the delta remained a land in isolation. Marci Coglianese moved from San Francisco to Rio Vista, a town on the delta’s western edge, in 1966. “It was like going back into the fifties,” she says. “There was a clock face outside City Hall, but it had no hands. That was the perfect metaphor: Rio Vista was the town that time forgot.” Even today, as we sit inside a downtown bakery, the town has a certain Route 66 feel. Outside Main Street’s Striper Cafe, a neon sign depicts a striped bass peering dolefully at a martini glass.
At first, Coglianese couldn’t wait to leave. But over time she fell captive to the subtleties of delta light. “What looked all tan and muddy green was actually a whole spectrum of colors,” she says. When Isleton, five miles away, flooded in 1972, “everybody came out to try to save the levee,” she recalls. Men slung sandbags. Women cooked for refugees who had crossed the Sacramento River to Rio Vista. “A lot of people had folks living in their backyards in travel trailers or took families into the house,” she says. “I had never seen that kind of person-to-person connection.” Coglianese not only stayed; she eventually became mayor, serving from 2000 to 2004.
IN RIO VISTA COGLIANESE FOUND a community oriented to the water, one that celebrated its civic pride at a striped bass festival every year. “The fish were jumping,” she says. “Old Man River was rolling along.”
Stories abound about the thriving aquatic life in the mid-century delta. Roger Mammon, a sportfisherman active in delta wildlife issues, talks about an old-timer who as a child visited the San Joaquin River during the striped-bass spawn. “There were so many fish that the water would be white with their milt,” Mammon tells me, using the technical term for the striper’s sperm. By slapping a towel on the water, the old-timer’s grandfather could trick males to the surface, then scoop them out with a net. Now, a day of fishing often yields just one or two bass.
Peter Moyle, a fish biologist at the University of California, Davis, is even more worried about the delta smelt, a tiny, translucent native fish that smells pleasantly like cucumbers. Declared threatened by the state and federal governments in 1993, the delta smelt has seen its numbers plunge 97 percent since then.
Because it evolved to live in one particular estuary and spends its entire life cycle in that system, the smelt is uniquely sensitive to changing delta conditions. Indeed, the same factors that have killed off the smelt are partly responsible for the collapse of other populations, including Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, greentail sturgeon, and Sacramento splittail. This year, in an unprecedented move, the state and federal governments shut down California’s commercial salmon fishery because of record low numbers.
Scientists point to many possible reasons for this free fall: toxic pesticides, shrinking rearing habitat, and the invasion of the overbite clam, which hogs the estuary’s plankton. But the key suspects are the pumping stations that quench California’s thirst. Pumping alters the natural flow of the delta, wreaking havoc with fish habitat. Not only that: The animals get lethally trapped in the pumps, which suck water with such force that they reverse the flow of two smaller rivers, the Old and the Middle.
The fish crisis goes beyond the delta’s ecology: It has set off a legal chain reaction that affects both drinking water and food supplies. Last year, in response to a lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and four other organizations, U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger restricted pumping between December and June, when delta smelt venture nearest the pumps. In addition, in July 2008 he ordered federal and state water managers to come up with a plan to protect native salmon and steelhead.
Environmentalists say that by curtailing water exports, the rulings will improve the delta’s water quality. But they acknowledge a flip side that needs California’s attention: others are going without needed water. Particularly hard hit is the San Joaquin Valley, which the historian Kevin Starr once described as “the most productive unnatural environment on Earth.” The valley’s eight counties grow more than $20 billion worth of crops each year, more than the rest of California combined (and more than any other state, for that matter). This year, valley farmers left about 10 percent of their land—some 200,000 acres normally devoted to tomatoes, peppers, and cotton—unplanted because of delta water restrictions, according to Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition. Several thousand additional acres were planted but later abandoned. “It’s a dire situation,” Wade says.
There is still a chance that the delta will dodge the bigger crisis—a sudden, widespread levee failure. But a single natural disaster could alter the delta’s landscape as thoroughly as Hurricane Katrina changed the Gulf Coast.
Most delta levees were not designed by engineers, and over the past century they have failed 166 times, usually affecting one island at a time. On a sunny day in 2004, the earthen levee protecting Jones Tract, west of Stockton, collapsed without warning, burying the island’s asparagus and tomato farms under 12 feet of water. The force of the Middle River, as it poured across the breach, scooped out automobile-size chunks of peat. It took more than six months to pump out the water, which caused $90 million worth of damage and forced a three-day shutdown of both the state and federal export pumps.
A levee breach may cost California taxpayers from $20 million to $40 million to repair, says Jeffrey Mount, the geologist. And the Jones Tract incident was a single breach on one agricultural island. What would happen if multiple levees failed at once? And what if they failed on islands with larger populations?
According to geologists, northern California is ripe for an earthquake. The shock waves from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake—with an estimated magnitude between 7.7 and 8.3 on the Richter scale—reached the delta in less than half a minute. Back then, though, the delta was not as vulnerable as it is today. “In the 1906 quake, you could rest your arm on the levees because the islands hadn’t subsided yet,” Mount says. “Now the levees are 30 feet tall, on unstable foundations, and poorly constructed.” The U.S. Geological Survey says there is a 62 percent chance that a tremor of at least 6.7 in magnitude will hit the Bay Area by 2032.
A strong earthquake could damage many levees at once, liquefying the sand beneath them by reducing the cohesion of the grains, and causing those levees to sag and fail. “Once water starts pouring over the top, that’s an unstoppable force,” Mount says. Because the islands are deep bowls, they would suck in a huge amount of water, much of it salty water from San Francisco Bay. Until that water could be flushed out—no easy task—the export pumps would have to be shut down, and farmers on the intact delta islands would not have freshwater for irrigation.
It wouldn’t even take a trauma like an earthquake to destroy the levees. They could buckle under the incremental pressure caused by rising sea levels, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts could reach 23 inches by 2100 (and more if the ice melt from Greenland and Antarctica accelerates). The delta could also be besieged by flooding as global warming melts California’s mountain snowpack more rapidly and causes more precipitation to fall as rain rather than snow. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2004 predicted a reduction of up to 90 percent in the Sierra Nevada snowpack by century’s end.
One California state government study estimated in 2007 that multiple levee failures could cost tens of billions of dollars and displace up to 35,000 of the delta’s 400,000 residents. What makes this scenario all the more frightening is that parts of the delta no longer look like the sparsely populated Jones Tract, where the levee failed in 2004.
A 1992 California law divided the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta into two zones with very different approaches to land use. In its rural center, known as the Primary Zone, new construction is sharply limited. Last March state regulators quashed plans for a 123-home neighborhood centered on an abandoned sugar-beet processing plant in the farm community of Clarksburg. This would have been the Primary Zone’s first “urban” development, and opponents argued that it would harm the ecosystem and put new home owners at high risk for flooding.
Tracts closer to the periphery, in the so-called Secondary Zone, have few protections, though, as becomes clear on a drive through the small city of Oakley. Along Highway 4, billboards lined up like the old Burma-Shave signs beckon home buyers to brand-new subdivisions. In one of them, Summer Lake, residents are moving into two-story houses painted taupe and dark goldenrod as bulldozers clear the land around them for expansion. When finished, Summer Lake will include 1,330 new homes, a fire station, two public schools, and a 25-acre man-made lake. It’s an attractive location for people who are priced out of the Bay Area and don’t mind an hour’s commute.
Hotchkiss Tract, where Summer Lake is being built, has the Anyplace, U.S.A. look of a rural patch primed for suburban development. Less apparent to the untrained eye is that Hotchkiss Tract sits below sea level. To protect the development, city officials authorized a ring of wide levees designed to withstand the type of flooding that comes once every 300 years. (This is tougher than federal requirements but pales next to the 10,000-year standard for cities in the Netherlands, which lies mostly below sea level.) “We have homes behind levees throughout the country,” says city manager Bryan Montgomery. “We have homes in Tornado Alley, in Hurricane Row”—in the Midwest and on Gulf Coast, respectively. “All those occurrences are far more likely than any kind of flooding in this area.”
When Greenbelt Alliance, a Bay Area anti-sprawl group, challenged Oakley’s flood protection plans, a state judge ruled with the city, clearing one of several obstacles to construction. But experts warn against too much confidence—especially when extreme weather events are rendering terms like “100-year flood” virtually meaningless.
“If you ever hear anyone say they have designed something breach-proof, run,” says Robert Bea, the Berkeley engineer. “Nature can always come up with a card that trumps your card.” And John Cain, director of restoration programs for the San Francisco-based Natural Heritage Institute, warns, “When your house is below sea level and that levee breaks, it’s the Ninth Ward.”
THERE IS NO “SINGLE SILVER BULLET” to solve the problems of the delta, says Barry Nelson, director of NRDC’s Western Water Project. “We’re going to need a portfolio of responses.” Scientists, environmentalists, water managers, and farmers all favor the creation of managed floodplains—chunks of agricultural land that seasonally collect excess floodwater, taking pressure off levees and reducing the risk of breaches. Not only do these “bypasses” lower flood levels, but they also make exceptional habitat for fish like salmon and steelhead. Farmers can still plant seasonal crops—the flooding typically occurs in the winter—and they get paid for accepting some risk of crop loss. The one existing floodplain in the delta, the Yolo Bypass, has helped keep nearby Sacramento, which sits just 17 feet above sea level, above water. This year NRDC negotiated with a developer to set aside land for a second bypass near the south delta town of Lathrop.
Not all the suggested fixes are so popular, though. Limiting development preserves habitat and decreases flood risks, but it also harms town governments that are desperate for property tax revenues. Idling or slowing the water pumps benefits fish, but it creates hardships for San Joaquin Valley farmers and Southern California water managers. Underlying any talk of solutions is a deeply contentious question: who makes the sacrifices necessary to save the delta?
One of the most compelling—and most criticized—voices in the debate belongs to Jeffrey Mount, the geologist. Impassioned and self-confident, he has become the de facto spokesman for an interdisciplinary team of researchers who have produced two major reports for the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). The reports generated considerable buzz when they were released in February 2007 and July 2008.
Mount and his colleagues argue that the delta’s woes stem from efforts to keep it in its current state: a predictable freshwater system stripped of the physical complexity that defined it until the nineteenth century. Before human intervention, Mount says, “it must have been a maze of tule marshes, with thousands of channels in it.” Today “the 1,100 miles of levees have utterly separated the water from the land.”
Historically, Mount says, the delta was a “disturbance regime”; its plants and animals “evolved in a system that would occasionally get salty.” A healthier delta, the PPIC says, would again change with the seasons, with fluctuations in the level of salt water flowing in and out. To bring this about, the PPIC recommends reengineering the delta to create a “mosaic” of interconnected habitats. This might include letting some levees fail—particularly those closest to San Francisco Bay, which protect the most subsided and least valuable islands—or intentionally breaching levees and allowing farmland to flood, compensating landowners for their losses. Mount acknowledges that some unflooded farmland would also have to be taken out of production as the delta gets saltier. He calls this a necessary trade-off but not a ruinous one: The six delta counties produce only 2 percent of California’s farm sales. Mount warns that if humans don’t reengineer the delta, nature will take it back in its own helter-skelter way.
This is where the debate grows contentious. Mount’s critics, many of whom live in the delta, insist that the 2007 report misinterprets the science—and that the delta was historically a freshwater system. Exhibit No. 1 for them is the work of Greg Gartrell, an environmental engineer with the Contra Costa Water District, which overlaps the delta. Gartrell has examined a century’s worth of salinity records, along with studies that dated algae and seeds with carbon 14 to determine the estuary’s historic salinity. “The past 100 years has been far saltier than any period in the last 800 years,” he concludes.
The dispute remains unresolved. Tina Swanson, a biologist who heads the Bay Institute, a research and advocacy group that focuses on the delta and its surrounding watershed, served as an expert witness in the delta smelt lawsuit. She agrees with Gartrell that “historically, the delta may not have gotten all that salty.” Even so, she says, letting it get periodically saltier “might not be a bad management tool.” Creating a new disturbance regime, she says, could allow native species to flourish again and make it harder for invasive pests like the overbite clam to survive.
But local residents worry about the impact of salt water on today’s delta, with its farm-based economy. “If ag goes down, these communities don’t have any real reason to exist,” says Marci Coglianese, the former mayor of Rio Vista. “I don’t think the people that are sitting on the campus—that aren’t down here—really understand the consequences of what they’re proposing.” She believes a more aggressive effort to shore up levees should be the first step toward protecting the delta. “There are ways to engineer out of this if you want to make the investment,” she insists. The PPIC says that even with the $1.4 billion needed to upgrade the levees to meet federal standards, a “levees as usual” approach would have no guarantee of success.
Mount’s proposal for a fluctuating delta has an even bigger consequence: because of periodic salt water intrusion, the delta would no longer be a reliable source of water for export. In its July 2008 report, the PPIC proposes two possible solutions. The one that would benefit the estuary the most, giving its fish populations the best chance to recover, is simply to end exports, letting the rest of California fend for itself. But the authors acknowledge that this would cost at least $1.5 billion a year and prove “catastrophic” to the state’s farm economy. That’s why they ultimately come down in favor of a second course, one that horrifies many delta residents: building a multibillion-dollar canal to divert freshwater away from the Sacramento River before it reaches the delta.
The logic is straightforward: With lawsuits and unstable levees threatening to shut down the pumps, the delta can no longer reliably provide water to outsiders. A canal would bypass this unstable system, guaranteeing uninterrupted deliveries to Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley. An alternative favored by some state planners would split the water between a peripheral canal and the current system.
Voters rejected a canal in 1982, but the proposal is again on the table, with the support of valley farm interests, Southern California water users, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration. They say the delta’s precarious dirt levees pose too great a risk. “Do you want two-thirds of the people in the state of California to have their water supply solely predicated on something that was never engineered in the first place?” asks Jerry Johns, deputy director of the state Department of Water Resources. “As we go into the future, the threats are so large that we’re going to have to consider some other system.”
Mount and his colleagues say a peripheral canal, by decoupling the Tracy pumps from the delta, could potentially help the estuary’s fish recover. Other advocates insist it’s possible to build a canal while providing the delta with adequate freshwater, though they have offered no detailed plans. But those living in the delta don’t believe the reassurances. They see the canal as a step toward their communities’ abandonment. If the delta doesn’t export water, they fear, it will lose its value to other Californians, and the state government would no longer have any incentive to maintain levees or control salt levels.
“The delta will be the region that’s written off, like New Orleans,” says Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, who runs Restore the Delta, an unusually broad coalition of clergy, business leaders, farmers, sportfishermen, duck hunters, and environmentalists. State leaders have done little to allay those fears of abandonment. “Bluntly?” asks Roger Mammon, the fisherman (and Restore the Delta steering committee member), when I ask about the peripheral canal. “It could conceivably be the death of the delta.”
That sentiment runs deep. Tom Zuckerman, the attorney, worries so much that a canal would mean “the end of agriculture” in the delta that he’s willing to spend his retirement, and his savings, fighting it. “A lot of people I know in this area feel the same way,” he says. “It’s part of our blood here, and we’re not going to sit by and allow a big transfer ditch to be built right through our midst.”
THE OVERRIDING DILEMMA HERE is that California is growing rapidly but its water supply isn’t. Any long-term solution must be predicated on finding ways to use less water.
“When you look at the history of water development in California, there’s a very clear pattern of growing cities looking for the next river to tap into,” says Barry Nelson of NRDC, who works with Restore the Delta. “Over the course of the last decade, we’ve run out of rivers.” Nelson talks about one remaining water source: a “virtual river” consisting of water saved by efficiency and reuse, along with captured storm water and cleaned-up groundwater. There are hints that state officials are coming around: Governor Schwarzenegger has called for a 20 percent reduction in per-capita urban water use by 2020. A similar measure is making its way through the state legislature.
Three years ago a detailed report by the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based think tank, called for better land-use planning, higher efficiency standards for appliances like washing machines, improvements in crop irrigation, and better consumer education. Peter Gleick, the institute’s president, says those changes can come about with little hardship and no new inventions. “But it’s going to require more effort than we’ve put into water management,” he says. “In the past we’ve always assumed, ‘Let’s just find a new supply.’ Well, if there’s anything that the delta is telling us in its ecological death throes, it’s that this paradigm has failed. There is no more unclaimed water.”