Tunnel Vision Part One: Delta in Peril 

How Jerry Brown's plan to build two giant water tunnels could devastate the largest estuary on the West Coast.

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Most farmers in the Delta are like Loben-Sels: They operate on a fairly small scale (although most are much smaller than 2,500 acres), and they have roots that extend back generations. Many also embrace sustainable farming practices, plant wildlife-friendly crops, and grow organic food.

Nonetheless, this unique farming community faces an uncertain future. In parts of the southern and western Delta, it is not uncommon for farmland to be 10 to 25 feet below sea level, which is due to a natural oxidation process that occurs in peat soil, and is aggravated by some agricultural practices. This subsidence creates a disorienting sight near levees, where rushing rivers often flow at elevation levels higher than nearby farms and grazing land. When levees breach, water rushes in and inundates the surrounding area with little warning.

Such catastrophic scenarios may become common in the future: a combination of rising sea level and sinking land is putting an increasing amount of water pressure on the Delta's aging levee system. As a result, more than half of the Delta's islands have a 90 percent chance of failing some time in the next fifty years unless they're fixed, according to a 2010 report issued by the Public Policy Institute of California. "[T]he Delta of the future — with large bodies of open water — will significantly differ from the Delta of yesterday or today," the report concluded.

In 2006, after Hurricane Katrina, California received federal grants and approved hundreds of millions of dollars in state bonds to repair the Delta's levees. However, many experts believe that this endeavor is a Sisyphean task: There are more than 1,000 miles of levees in the Delta, and many are more than a century old and in poor shape. In reference to the Public Policy Institute report, Nancy Vogel, a representative for the California Department of Water Resources, a main backer of BDCP, said: "It's just going to get more and more expensive to try and maintain the levees. ... And sometimes if a levee breaks, society as a whole needs to ask, 'Hey, is it really worth it to repair that?'"

Vogel noted that levee repairs fall outside of BDCP's goals and objectives. As part of BDCP, state officials instead would transition tens of thousands of at-risk farmland into tidal wetlands in the hopes that the Delta's six endangered or threatened fish species — the Delta smelt, green sturgeon, Sacramento splittail, Longfin smelt, Steelhead trout, and Chinook salmon — will rebound. "We're going to meet the most progressive parts of the US and California Endangered Species act[s] — the parts that say try and protect a multitude of species, over a large area, all at once, and comprehensively over time," said Vogel.

Some past restoration projects, such as the intentional flooding of Liberty Island in the North Delta, have become strongholds for green sturgeon and Delta smelt. However, the state has yet to properly analyze these efforts — despite numerous requests from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service to do so. As a result, it's uncertain whether habitat restoration would benefit some native fish in the Delta. "The assumption is that if you restore tidal marshes, it will increase the amount of nutrients in the [estuary], which will eventually work its way up the food chain and reach the targeted fish," said Peter Moyle, a professor and former chair of the Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology at UC Davis. However, Moyle noted that the Delta's ecosystem is so compromised that invasive species may also gain from BDCP's habitat restorations. "We know that tidal restoration will be good for a lot of things, but it may or may not be good for these fish."

Some scientists also note that some native fish may not benefit at all from the restoration project — including the Longfin smelt. "What's threatening the Longfin smelt is a lack of freshwater flow, and the idea that the habitat restoration will benefit them is pure speculation and highly unlikely," said Jon Rosenfield, a conservation biologist with the Bay Institute, an environmental group that is working to improve BDCP. State and federal fish agencies are also concerned that the project will end up being significantly smaller than 120,000 acres.

There is no question, however, that the forceful retirement of farmland will decimate many small farmers in the Delta. "If they go into the core area, where we grow our high value crops, it could devastate our agricultural infrastructure," said Loben-Sels.

If that were to happen, the Delta farming communities would face economic ruin. "I think it's important for the Delta to change over time, not to have someone say, 'You're not sustainable anymore, so we're going to destroy you,'" said Loben-Sels. "That would be like saying to San Francisco, 'You have a big earthquake problem, so we're not going to allow you to develop anymore in the city.'"

A century ago, the Sacramento River was one of the most powerful rivers in the West. It originated near Mount Shasta, in the Cascade Mountain range, but its watershed reached as far north as central Oregon. On its 320-mile journey to the Pacific, the river was fed by numerous tributaries and streams, and was home to robust runs of Chinook salmon.

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