The Battle Over the Big Ditch 

A fight has broken out among environmentalists over a newly proposed peripheral canal. Backers say it could save the delta and protect our water supply, but critics contend it will do more harm than good.

When a proposal for a peripheral canal came before voters in 1982, environmentalists universally opposed it. The canal, which would have run around the east side of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, was rightly viewed at the time as a water grab by Southern California developers and Central Valley agribusiness. But since then the delta's ecosystem has nearly collapsed and its fragile levees have continued to crumble. As a result, the governor and state legislative leaders are once again discussing a peripheral canal plan, and this time it's creating a schism in the environmental community.

Proponents of the canal, which include the Nature Conservancy, say neither the delta's severe ecological problems nor the state's water shortage can be solved without it. "The delta has not worked, and is not working," said Leo Winternitz, delta project director for the Nature Conservancy. Proponents also point to the work of UC Davis' Jeffrey Mount, who probably knows more about the delta's levees than anyone and says that without a peripheral canal, a major earthquake on the Hayward Fault would collapse the levees and inundate the delta with saltwater, thereby destroying the freshwater supply of more than two-thirds of the state's residents.

However, opponents, including Friends of the River and the California Sport Fishing Protection Alliance, say a canal would rob the delta of essential freshwater at a time when major fisheries, including salmon, are already in serious trouble. They also maintain that if the state builds a giant canal as proposed, Southern California interests and big agribusiness will exert political pressure to divert even more freshwater in the future, thereby ensuring the delta's destruction. "The problem is that no one wants to talk about the elephant in the room," said Bill Jennings, executive director of the fishing protection alliance. "California has already over-appropriated its water supply."

Currently, there are no immediate plans for a peripheral canal. Instead, the legislature has been holding hearings on establishing a statewide commission that would have extensive power over the delta and could authorize a canal. The commission idea is being pushed by state Senator Joe Simitian, a Democrat whose constituents in Santa Clara County depend on the delta for freshwater supplies. Governor Schwarzenegger also supports a canal, along with building new dams.

Understanding the current canal debate requires a bit of background on how the delta "works." The delta gets its freshwater from some of Northern California's largest rivers — the Sacramento, the San Joaquin, and the Mokelumne. But the delta was altered substantially in the past century, first by the construction of levees to make way for farms, and then by the creation of the State Water Project, which has been siphoning about 6 million acre feet of water a year and sending it south. Fresh water from the delta is supposed to flow into San Francisco Bay, but instead a substantial portion of it is sucked through pumps in the southern delta near Tracy. This water then slakes the thirst of more than 22 million California residents — including most of the southern Central Valley, Southern California, and much of Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties. Most of Alameda County, including Berkeley, Oakland, and Alameda, gets its water directly from the Mokelumne River before it empties into the delta.

But the changes to the delta have caused several major problems. First, the siphoning of freshwater has severely damaged the delta's health and brought fisheries to the brink of extinction. In addition, millions of fish, particularly the Delta Smelt, are shredded each year in the giant pumps. And finally, the pumps reverse the natural flow of water in the delta, thereby trapping migrating fish and making them more vulnerable to predators. "It's a black hole — fish get caught there and can't get out," Winternitz explained.

Proponents of the canal contend that it will eliminate fish shredding and help plug the black hole. Under a plan floating around the capital, the peripheral canal would take freshwater from the Sacramento River before it reaches the delta and then divert it around the delta to the southern pumps. State-of-art fish screens, in turn, would keep fish out of the canal. In addition, the canal would act as a safe harbor for the state's freshwater supply in case of a major quake.

Some opponents of the canal, on the other hand, refer it derisively as the "Big Ditch," because it could be nearly as large as the Panama Canal, running up to 50 miles in length and extending up to 700 feet in width. And with a potential $15 billion price tag, the canal could do more harm than good. Currently, freshwater from the Sacramento flows through the delta on its way to the southern pumps. But a canal would siphon a substantial amount of freshwater before it reaches delta in the first place. The absence of essential freshwater, in turn, could turn the delta much more salty, thereby ruining fish habitat and leaving delta farmers without enough water for their crops.

Some environmental groups say they'll fight the canal unless there are ironclad guarantees of enough freshwater for the delta. "It needs more freshwater than it has been getting for the past several decades," said Tina Swanson, executive director of the Bay Institute. "We have exceeded the capacity of the system." But other groups are less confident that any such guarantees will ever be made. "We could be convinced to support a peripheral canal if we were having discussion about what we need to do about fisheries, but we are not," said Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity, which has fought several court battles to protect the smelt. "Instead, we're having this massive infrastructure project jammed down our throats."

Other environmental groups, meanwhile, likely won't support a peripheral canal under any circumstances. They argue that the fish shredding problem could be greatly improved right away if the state were to install proper screens in front of the southern pumps. They also advocate shoring up levees to protect against future quakes. And they say that once a canal is built, any guarantees about freshwater flows in the delta will bow to future political pressures from the East Bay, the South Bay, Southern California, and big agribusiness.

From the perspective of Bill Jennings of the fishing protection alliance, the delta's problems will continue until California stops subsidizing water-intensive crops in the dry southern and western Central Valley. He notes that agribusiness already takes 70 to 80 percent of the state's developed water, and a significant portion of it is wasted on nonessential, nonnative crops that represent only a fraction of California's economy. "We can serve our urban water needs, and we can serve most of our agricultural needs, but we can't continue to subsidize farming in the desert," he said, adding: "We have to ask ourselves, how much do we sacrifice of this public resource for benefit of a small sector of the economy."

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