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Life Amid the Levees

Will the California delta survive the pressures of a thirsty state?

At Big Break Regional Shoreline, nestled in Northern California’s San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta, Michael Moran, supervising naturalist for East Bay Regional Park District, leads about 30 people out along a path into the park. The group consists of various stakeholders from the Metropolitan Water District (met), a regional wholesaler that supplies water to 19 million people across 26 public agencies in Southern California, hundreds of miles away. Big Break is one stop on a tour of the Delta, an educational trip for those involved with the met.

aerial photo of flooded fieldsphoto Aerial Rchives / ALAMYThe San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta is at the center of a far-reaching debate about water use in the Golden State.

As they file along the trail, large blue dragonflies and fluttering kestrels hover above. Wild asparagus hides in the tall grass – in 1928 a broken levee flooded an expansive asparagus farm here. Although the risk of levee failure causes much concern for those in the Delta, such flooding, when it happens, is actually a return to normalcy for a radically transformed landscape. Once an expansive marshland – a rich ecosystem that supported countless fish, migratory birds, and other native animals – the Delta is now predominantly farmland. Roughly 95 percent of the historical wetlands have been converted or developed for human use, a statistic typical of wetlands across California.

The group stops at Big Map, a large topographical representation of the Delta built onto the ground. Printed satellite images overlay urban areas, showing intricate detail for each building and city street. In stark contrast, the space in between the cities is nearly uniform tan, with intermittent, squarish splotches of browns and greens, presumably farms. Winding through the landscape are meandering lines of blue, the water that is so central to the Delta landscape and way of life.

Members of the group peer down at the land on which they stand in an apparent attempt to make sense of a region that lies several hours from the customers they serve, but that is important enough to Southern California’s future to have brought them on this trip north. So important that the Southern California water district now owns some 20,000 acres in the Delta.

On October 10, the met voted to approve funding for WaterFix, a $17 billion water diversion project which would install two 35-mile-long, 40-foot-wide tunnels 150 feet below ground. When complete, the tunnels would move vast quantities of water from the northern Delta to pumping stations south of the Delta, near Tracy, California. From there, the water would supply Central Valley farms and Southern California water districts that serve counties like Los Angeles, San Diego, and Riverside – some 25 million people and 3 million acres of irrigated farmland. Construction is expected to take 10 years and inundate the Delta with an endless procession of trucks and heavy machinery.

The controversial project, more commonly known as the “Delta tunnels” or “twin tunnels,” is the latest battle in an ongoing tug-of-war over finite water resources in an increasingly thirsty state. It has inspired the creation of unique alliances between Delta farmers and conservationists, pitted Northern California communities against those farther south, and called attention to the deluge of challenges that already plagues the Delta, including a long history of ecosystem alteration, decades of water diversion, and the crumbling infrastructure holding the current system together. It has also thrust the Delta into the center of a far-reaching debate about water use in the Golden State, and has left many wondering about the future of this region.

Along with the San Francisco Bay, the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta makes up the largest estuary on the western coast of the United States. It is fed primarily with snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada, which flows down through the Sacramento, San Joaquin, Calaveras, and Mokelumne rivers on its way to the San Francisco Bay. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the mining boom brought settlers into the Delta, who, over time converted the region into farmland by installing about 1,100 miles of levees. Some 700,000 acres of marshland were transformed. Fifty-seven patched “islands” – farmland surrounded by irrigation canals, sloughs, and rivers – now blanket the area. As farming intensified over the years, tilling led to oxidation of the peat-rich soil, which caused the islands to sink. Today, these farmed islands sit as much as 25 feet below sea level, according to usgs California Water Science Center.

As agriculture and urbanization expanded during the twentieth century, water projects were rolled out to connect arid parts of California to distant water sources. The first large, comprehensive plan was the Central Valley Project, through which the federal government built a massive network of canals and dams to irrigate farmland throughout the Central Valley. Today, the flat and relatively dry Central Valley is home to about 7.2 million people and 20,000 farms. The region produces about half of California’s substantial agricultural output and subsists in no small part on water from the Delta. In fact, some 31 percent of all water used in the Central Valley comes from the Delta region, according to a 2017 report from the Public Policy Institute of California (ppic), a nonpartisan public policy research institution.

photo of a levee by a riverphoto Bob WhiteThe Delta landscape has been transformed through the installation of some 1,100 miles of levees, many of which are in disrepair.

Water allocation has long been considered a fraught and contentious issue in California. And it’s no wonder. Freshwater resources are abundant in the north, but farming and population centers are concentrated in the parched central and southern regions.

California’s recent five-year drought, the worst in over a century, only intensified the struggle over scarce water resources. In normal years, Southern and Central California aquifers are recharged by rainfall. But, due to the drought, farmers across the state pumped groundwater at unprecedented rates simply to keep their crops from dying. In the San Joaquin Valley alone, which lies within the Central Valley, 11 of 16 water basins were critically over-drafted.

Under the Delta Reform Act of 2009, the state must strike a Herculean balance between two “coequal goals” that run contrary to each other. On the one hand, its mandate is to provide greater water supply reliability throughout the state. On the other, it is tasked with restoring the Delta’s ecosystem. To top it off, the state must do all this without impairing agriculture, recreation, and culture in the Delta community.

It is against this backdrop that the Governor’s office has aggressively pushed the tunnels project, which has been in the works for more than ten years. The idea is that the tunnels would secure the Delta’s valuable freshwater resources for local and distant users alike against the risks from increasingly overburdened and unstable water supply infrastructure. Currently, water is drawn through large pumps in the southern end of the Delta after it has made its way through much of the Delta. If built, the tunnels would remove water from the Sacramento River north of the Delta, before it winds through the Delta. They would also have the combined capacity to divert 9,000 cubic feet of water per second, more than the entire volume of the Sacramento River for much of the year, and significantly more than the capacity of the existing diversion system. In practice, however, the state has said it plans to divert 4.9 million acre-feet annually, not much more than the average 4.5 million acre-feet currently withdrawn. The high capacity, it says, will allow for more water to be captured in wet years.

Surrounded by levees and well
below sea level, Delta farmlands are at perpetual risk of flooding.

Governor Jerry Brown has presented the project as the only route forward for a state dependent on the wealth of water in the Delta. “This project has been subjected to 10 years of detailed analysis and more environmental review than any other project in the history of the world,” he said in a statement last year. “It is absolutely essential if California is to maintain a reliable water supply.”

But many Delta advocates, including Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, a grassroots group that opposes the twin tunnels, strongly disagree. “There is no equity,” she said. “This project has not been designed to protect the environment [or] everyday working people along the way … This is about facilitating water transfers from one end of the state to the other, be damned everyone and everything in between.”

Just north of Clarksburg, farmer Craig Nakahara climbs into his truck. From a pistachio grove next to his house, a timed propane gun emits intermittent pops to scare away birds. All around the property lie flat, exposed tomato fields. Harvested tomatoes are visible piled high in open trucks, destined for a canning facility. Throughout the season, Nakahara grows various crops, including alfalfa and corn for feed, and cucumbers for pickling.

“It’s a small-town feel,” Nakahara says of the Delta community as he drives along the patchwork of irrigation canals and sloughs. “People know each other, wave to each other on the highway.” A third-generation farmer, Nakahara’s family emigrated from Japan, and his father and grandfather suffered internment during wwii. The family expanded their farming operations gradually over the years.

Nakahara is one of an estimated 25,125 people involved in the $5.3 billion Delta agriculture economy, according to a 2013 report by the California Delta Council. Some 75 percent of land in the Delta is dedicated to farming. Traditionally, Delta farms have produced cotton and grain crops, but with shifting market prices, farmland is increasingly allocated to higher value wine grapes and orchard fruits. Like their counterparts in the Central Valley, local farmers here, too, depend on the Delta for water – irrigation water is pumped directly from the Sacramento River to a distribution system of canals and sloughs. Excess water is pumped back into the river.

“Farmers use only the water we need,” said Nakahara.

But these distribution systems, put in place nearly a hundred years ago, have no shortage of problems. Surrounded by levees and well below sea level, Delta farmland is at perpetual risk of flooding. Much of the levee infrastructure dates back to the 1930s, so few levees meet modern engineering standards. In addition, the levees are beset by erosion, seepage, and even rodents, who burrow into levee foundations. Breaches can inundate land, damage property, and contaminate freshwater with brackish water. A 2011 report from the University of California Agricultural Issues Center explains that around 100,000 acres – representing nearly a quarter of irrigated cropland in the Delta – is prone to long-term flooding.

Such flooding has been a prominent feature of the Delta’s history. According to a report from ppic, there were some 166 levees failures in the Delta between 1908 and 2008. A series of levee failures on Sherman Island beginning in 1872, for instance, led farmers to abandon agricultural enterprises and allow the island to return to nature. The island is now a designated wildlife area. In 2004, the Jones Tract Levee broke, flooding 12,000 acres of farmland and causing some $90 million in damage. And as recently as January 2017, a roughly 1,000-foot levee break on Van Sickle Island in the Suisun Marsh caused flooding that displaced 20 duck hunting clubs.

No one disputes that the Delta levee system is in disrepair. It’s well accepted that the levees are in poor shape, and that as a result, local farmland as well as state water supplies are both at risk. The possibility of an earthquake cracking or jarring the levees compounds the danger – the Delta lies in an active seismic zone near several major faults, including the well-known San Andreas. This threatens not only local inundation and California agriculture, but also freshwater supplies for densely populated regions in the Bay Area.

Climate change poses an added threat. Warming temperatures are expected to increase drought severity and unpredictability, and some climate models predict that in California, droughts will be punctuated by heavy rainy seasons – just the combination of weather phenomena that can contribute to erosion and infrastructure failure, as was seen with the Oroville dam spillway break in February 2017.

The cost of repairing the crumbling levee system would be steep. According to one study, published in San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science, the average cost to repair a single levee breach in the Delta is between $20 to 40 million, and even with upgrades, levees remain unreliable.

Proponents of the tunnels present the project as a way to safeguard Delta water from the impacts of crumbling infrastructure – because the tunnels would remove freshwater in the northern Delta, they would preserve it for consumption across the state. Restore the Delta, on the other hand, points out that the $17 billion price tag for the tunnels far exceeds the cost of seismic levee upgrades, which has been estimated at $2-4 billion.

Most Delta farmers, however, aren’t convinced. Much of the Delta community lies south of the intake for the proposed tunnels. Local farmers are concerned that water diversions in the north will lead to declining water quality in the southern Delta, and that in dry years there won’t be enough water to go around. California’s recent drought only compounded these fears. Many farmers, including Nakamara, also worry that the state could divert more water than it has claimed it will. The tunnels’ capacity, after all, far exceeds the diversion levels laid out in planning documents.

There’s also the issue of saltwater incursion, something Delta farmers are all too familiar with. As freshwater passes through the Delta and into the San Francisco Bay, it creates a fluid barrier that stops brackish seawater from encroaching too far into the estuary. Diminished water flows mean that brackish water makes it farther inland. Already, farmers in the southern Delta struggle with saltier soils, which has led some to sell their farm or convert them into cow pastures. Decreasing freshwater flows to the southern Delta, not to mention sea level rise associated with climate change, could allow brackish water to inundate more and more farmland. (Tunnel proponents, however, note that the existing pumps are closer to sea level than the tunnel intake would be, and as a result are vulnerable to saltwater incursion as sea levels rise.)

Some farmers have also lamented the disruptive impacts of construction. “Can you imagine all the dirt they’re going to have to remove for two tunnels 35 miles long?” Gary Merwin, a Delta grape farmer, asks. “It might as well be a million truckloads. That’s two million truck trips,” he told the East Bay Express. Merwin’s concerned that kind of heavy truck traffic will impact quality of life in the Delta and disrupt local economies by impeding the transportation of Delta crops to market. Barrigan-Parrilla mentions similar construction-related concerns, including exhaust emissions from trucks, and extensive dredging, which she worries could stir up legacy pollutants such as toxic metals that long ago washed down from gold mining operations in the Sierras.

All told, the local farming community is worried that their own livelihoods will suffer, sacrificed to those of larger agribusinesses producing everything from tomatoes to almonds to artichokes farther south. And when asked if Delta farmers are generally against the tunnels project, Nakahara is unequivocal: “I wouldn’t say generally – I would say unanimously against it.”

The town of Isleton, located 12 miles south of Clarksburg, has a culture inextricably linked to water. It’s situated along the Sacramento River, which snakes around the tiny town before continuing north to cut the valley into islands. The houses along the river all have docks, and small boats are ubiquitous. Straw-like tubes jut out of the river, pumping water to an expansive patchwork of cornfields, fruit orchards, and cow pasture. All but a few shops are closed on a late Monday morning. “Save the Delta” signs are pasted in several windows.

The crux of restoration work in the Delta hinges on increasing water flows and expanding wetlands habitat.

In the Master Baiter, a cheekily named fishing shop, an employee plays solitaire on her desktop computer. She is adamant that God intends the water to stay here. A few miles outside town at a local farm stand, proprietor Greg Lea points to a map of the area near the register. He describes how his family’s peach orchards have been hit with increasingly saline soil over the years. “No one in big cities cares about what happens to the Delta,” he said.

It is not only farmers who rely heavily on the Delta water. It is the lifeline for much of the local recreation and tourism economy as well. Approximately half of California’s migratory waterfowl and shorebirds pass through the Delta, as do two-thirds of the state’s spawning salmon, making it a popular destination for birders and anglers. Fishing, water sports, birding, hunting, and other outdoor recreation account for around $750 million in annual revenue and support around 8,000 jobs in the region. The Delta has about 290 shoreline recreation areas, and it draws around 7 million visitors each year. This industry relies on a sustained, robust ecosystem to support the Delta’s 55 fish species and roughly 750 plant and animal species.

But the challenges faced by Delta wildlife have become seriously daunting. Over the past 150 years, humans have altered river flow patterns and diked and drained marshland with such enthusiasm that crucial wildlife habitat – or what remains of it – is now carved up and sectioned off. Nonnative species like water hyacinth and Mississippi silverside have taken hold, in some cases outcompeting native species for limited resources and habitat. All told, about 35 native Delta plant and animal species are listed as threatened or endangered under state or federal law and at least another 27 species in the area are in line to join them if conditions do not improve.

boats at dockphoto Orin ZebestIt’s not just the Delta economy that is closely tied to the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers – many local communities have a culture that’s closely linked to the region’s vast water resources.

“The Delta has been so modified by human intervention and development, that it doesn’t really resemble its native self,” says John McManus, executive director of Golden Gate Salmon Association.

Delta fish have fared dismally over the years. Aquatic species face a veritable onslaught from agricultural and urban runoff, including pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, excess nutrients from urban wastewater, and other chemicals. Lower water levels – the result of pumping – lead to temperature increases that are hard on fish. They also alter how the river current flows, which disorients juvenile and migratory fish like salmon as they attempt to navigate the system. On top of all that, the existing pumps entrain fish, endangering already tenuous populations.

McManus says that the state has done a “lousy job” with fish ecosystems. Chinook salmon runs in Central California are an illustrative case. They were once among the largest in the world; now, only a tiny fraction of historical numbers remains. Despite efforts by state managers, salmon runs have dramatically declined over the last century as a result of water diversions for agriculture and hydropower, as well as overfishing and stream degradation from mining. Today, wildlife managers supplement salmon populations with hatchery-raised fry to keep them stable. Forecasts from the Department of Fish and Wildlife predict that when the numbers come in for 2017, they will show that fewer than 300,000 fish have run the Sacramento and Klamath Rivers combined.

Fish advocates and water diversion proponents have been locked in contentious legal battles for years. Past efforts to remove existing limits on Delta water exports have been stymied by court decisions due to potential impacts on imperiled native fish protected under the US Endangered Species Act. Perhaps the most well-known battles have been fought over the Delta smelt, an endemic, finger-length fish which is endangered. During the state’s five-year drought, the US Supreme Court upheld controversial water diversion limits put in place in to protect the tiny fish.

Despite the smelt’s tenuous status, in June of this year, the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service both approved the Delta tunnels project, concluding that the tunnels would not negatively impact native species, a determination that conservation groups strongly contest. And in July, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife issued what’s known as an “incidental take” permit for the project, essentially allowing for a certain number of endangered California fish to be killed as a result of construction and operation. Since these permits came through, environmental and fishing groups have filed a slew of lawsuits challenging the agency decisions.

“Our primary concern about WaterFix is that it will be operated in a manner that further degrades the Bay-Delta estuary and its native fish and wildlife by diverting too much water out of the estuary during times when native species need more freshwater flows,” says Kate Poole, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (nrdc), which has filed suit to block the project. “The current WaterFix proposal would divert more water than is currently diverted, while the overwhelming scientific evidence shows that we must divert less.”

photo of agricultural workers in a field being irrigatedphoto Harold LitwilerAny proposal to restore large sections of the Delta will likely destroy the fragile alliance between local farmers and environmentalists.

McManus underscores this point, noting that the capacity of the twin tunnels is a sticking point for fish advocates. If the state truly means to leave enough water for native fish, he says, they should lower the tunnels’ carrying capacity. He worries that, despite assurances, more water would be taken than promised. “When push comes to shove, which is what happens in droughts,” he said, “the salmon always seem to get the short end of the stick.”

As Poole and McManus suggest, the crux of any restoration work in the Delta hinges on increasing water flows through the Delta and expanding wetlands habitat. Other interventions might involve removing old levee infrastructure and allowing long dry areas to flood, or even removing dams higher up on the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, which could go a long way towards helping fish. From an ecological perspective, the goal of returning the Delta to what it was prior to human intervention isn’t just unrealistic – most parties agree that would be impossible. But restoring some long-altered land to a more natural state could provide much-needed habitat for struggling wildlife.

For over a decade, “WaterFix” has been in the works in one form or another. The project has gone through several iterations, but despite all the controversy, it never really disappears. As Thomas Keeling, a Stockton-based lawyer who represents San Joaquin County and Delta advocacy groups against the tunnels, puts it: “This [project] is like a vampire. Every time someone shoots it and it falls down, in the next scene it’s crawling out of a grave somewhere.”

And it’s feasible that this version, too, could ultimately be shot down. Funding for the project is meant to come from the water districts that stand to benefit from it. Over the last several months these districts have been voting on whether or not to endorse it – and the price tag seems to have made some wary districts balk.

Though the met is the largest water district involved in the process, its assenting October vote doesn’t ensure that the project will succeed. Weeks earlier, the Westlands Water District, located in central California and the second largest district involved, voted against the plan. Then on October 17, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, the largest water agency in Silicon Valley, unanimously voted against the tunnels. However, Santa Clara signaled support for a scaled down, single-tunnel version of the project.

There is no one-size-fits all solution to the problems facing this region.

A single tunnel version could go a long way to mitigate concerns in the Delta. The nrdc proposed one such option, the so-called “portfolio alternative,” with several other environmental and business groups back in 2013. The portfolio includes construction of a single, smaller tunnel with a maximum flow capacity of 3,000 cubic feet per second, one-third that of the twin tunnels. Though its capacity would be lower, the single tunnel would offer a back-up to the southern Delta pumps currently in operation, helping to assuage concerns about water-supply reliability. The portfolio also proposes water storage enhancements, habitat restoration, and increased investment in local water supply projects, as well as in water conservation projects aimed at decreasing use and demand.

But a new project would require a new environmental review and approval process. Starting again from scratch would set the construction back years on a project that, according to Keeling, already won’t produce “a drop of water” until 2035.

Another option is to do away with the tunnel concept entirely. Restore the Delta advocates reinforcing the existing levee system and improving fish screens on the current pumps in the southern Delta to reduce fish mortality, while also weaning the state of its dependence on Delta water. According to the grassroots group, this might require retiring some Central Valley farmland as well as bolstering local water capture and storage systems. It would almost certainly free up more water to flow through the Delta system.

Were such a proposal to gain momentum, it would surely face fierce opposition from Central California farmers. And any plan involving more restoration of the Delta estuary might also shake up the intricate alliances that have formed there over the past decades. Though local farmers and environmentalists are mostly unified in opposition to the tunnels, plans to restore large sections of the Delta would likely thrust the two groups into conflict. There are some, including Jerry Meral, California water program director at the National Heritage Institute, an environmental nonprofit dedicated to restoring river basins, who believe that long-term farming in the Delta is unsustainable. Meral, who previously worked for the state on an earlier version of the tunnels project, advocates a shift away from farming – which results in an estimated 1-2 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually in the Delta – and towards farmers selling carbon sequestration services. Planting wetland vegetation on Delta islands, he writes, would improve ecosystem services and raise island elevations. Barrigan-Parrilla has described the proposal as insulting to Delta farmers.

Public-private conservation partnerships, in which the government compensates farmers to enhance wildlife habitat on their property, may provide an alternative avenue for compromise. In the northern Delta, the Nature Conservancy runs a project with the Fish and Wildlife Service, private farmers, and a number of other organizations that combines farming with riparian habitat restoration. Farmers participating in the Cosumnes River Preserve project are incentivized to engage in agricultural practices that align with restoration priorities, including planting native vegetation and flooding fields. The goal is to see if farming and ecosystem restoration can be reconciled in one of the more “natural” rivers remaining – the Cosumnes is the last undammed river in the Delta system.

Moran describes the project as an experiment. “You’re setting the table and seeing what happens,” he says, adding that opinions about the project’s success depend on the goal. Migratory birds have utilized the preserve area, to the joy of bird enthusiasts, but certain crops cannot be grown where flooding occurs – a potential frustration to farmers. Ultimately, such projects aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution, and they depend greatly on farmer buy-in and suitable location.

Though opinions differ as to what the future of the Delta may, or should, hold, most parties seem to concede that the status quo is unsustainable. The Delta-system is overtaxed, buckling under the pressures of competing interests and natural forces. Without swift action, things stand to get much worse.

photo of colorful songbirds, roosting in a fieldphoto Karen VittorioNearly half of California’s migratory waterfowl and shorebirds pass through the
Delta, along with some two-thirds of the state’s spawning salmon.

“Institutional inertia is immense,” says Jeffrey Mount of ppic’s Water Policy Center. Mount, an internationally acclaimed geomorphologist who specializes in the study of rivers, streams, and wetlands, doesn’t advocate either side in the tunnel debate, but is clear that something needs to give. “For many of these risk-averse organizations, it’s better to do nothing than to risk doing something – we’re going way too slow on this,” he says.

The inertia, in part, may reflect the gravity of the situation. The choices that are made for this intricate system will have impacts that reverberate throughout the state, and perhaps the country. Most Californians can trace the water that they use back to this imperiled estuary and the food they eat to the Delta’s embattled waterways. Species that make their home only in the Delta vie for space, and local communities depend on a functional and bountiful Delta for their livelihood.

Back at the Big Break, the met group has wandered back to the tour bus. The topographical map is abandoned, its simple contours and colors belying the complex choices facing this fragile watershed and its many human and nonhuman stakeholders. Beneath the feet of the met visitors, the watershed’s vulnerability was apparent.

But with the group now gone, the Delta, with its maze of waterways that shape and reshape the land and defy containment, offers up another story – one that underscores how, ultimately, it is humanity’s control over nature that is fragile. Despite our best efforts to manage and manipulate Nature, it will inexorably push back and insist on going its own way. It reminds us that if we cannot find a balance between human needs and those of the wild, we may destroy this rare and delicate landscape upon which so many rely.

Jacob Shea is an Oakland, California-based freelance journalist, specializing in science and the environment. He is also a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

This story was produced in collaboration with the Earth Journalism Network.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Cosumnes River as the Columns River.

   

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