Delta Blues

This is a reprint of a Prospect article

Delta Blues: Sierra County and the Sacramento

Most of us know the Sacramento-San Juaquin Delta as somewhere "down there" in the south, but to the rest of the state, the delta is in "Northern California". The Delta actually starts on our doorstep, which is why we should care about the Delta. The gold in the Sierras powered the development of towns and waterways in the Delta even as it developed the mountains.

A hundred and fifty years ago the Delta, was one of those exquisitely intricate interactions between a great river and an ocean. It was composed of 1100 square miles of vast wetlands, deep rivers and channels abundant with wildlife in a way we don’t understand anymore. It performed its many ecological functions of cleaning and enriching with the grace of a seasonal dance. Rivers carry nutrient rich silts from high in the mountains, tulles and grasses grow and their roots capture those nutrients-and contaminants. The tides cause the ocean to rise in the delta, bringing a clean flush of sea water, and in exchange, the river gives up some of its nutrients. It formed a rich, stable interaction between the waters of the land and the sea. This richness was home to fish-including the tiny Delta smelt, the mighty salmon, the transplanted striped bass, and water fowl and mammals but especially invertebrates, crustaceans, bugs, worms and all their kin. The Delta soil isn’t really "dirt" in that sense, it’s sand and peat, a highly organic soil, which is important.

Delta  Map Source Bay Area Water (link)

Because the Coast Range almost prevents the Sacramento from reaching the sea, the Delta is "inverse" from most in that its rivers spread out high on the delta (which means "d", a triangle shaped letter in the Greek alphabet) and narrows as it approaches the Carquinez Strait, through which the San Francisco Bay and the rivers from the north exchange water. The Sacramento travels nearly 400 miles to pass through the strait to the sea.

Europeans, and many Chinese, upon seeing the richness and abundance, began carving it up, creating levees and dams to make fields and cities, some with their own ports. Sacramento is a Delta town, so are Stockton, Lodi and Antioch. The Delta remains a beautiful and rich, if deeply damaged, place, but that alone isn’t why we in "northern-northern California" should care. Something as rich as the Delta and its waters is fought over, big players are involved, our tax dollars, and our water, are involved.

About 23 million Californians use the freshwater from the Delta as all or part of their drinking water, AND the water is used to irrigate 380,000 acres in the Central Valley AND the courts have repeatedly ruled that California can’t take all the freshwater from the Delta and let the fish and tulles and mud worms die. The Delta needs fresh water, and they don’t want our cows pooping in it, because some of it comes from here. The Delta is one reason the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) cares so very much about what washes off the Sierra Valley and into the Middle Fork of the Feather river, and about what seeps out of mines and septic systems and into the Yuba.

In the West, water means money, and tax dollars are involved, because several things are happening at once around the Delta and they all need money to fix.

First, the levies and dams that create much of the inhabited land are like the two lane roads of the mountains, in a way. If you ever followed a local road which seems to wander and meander without reason, here’s why: once a calf ran down that way and a cowboy followed and that made a trail and wagons followed it and eventually the county paved it. The levies are much like that, except they are built on peat, which is so organic it will burn, you can’t have campfires in many areas. Farmers and town builders (1849) dug peat out and piled it up and over time created a rough levee about eight or ten feet high in many places.

Very rapidly (1861) government came along and improved what was there, but still a lot of the levees are built on foundations that were not "engineered" but simply heaped up. By 1880 most of the Delta is "reclaimed" and by 1930 scarcely any of it is in its natural state. About 1100 miles of levees of varying degrees of structural soundness parcel it up, creating over 52 "islands", most connected by roads and bridges. The first law suits over Delta water were in 1920.

The gold country contributed to the problem by sending millions of tons of silt and thousands of pounds of mercury down the rivers and into the Delta. In 1884 the Sawyer Decision stopped hydraulic mining, but the silt continued to be a problem for years.

Over time, critters have taken up residence in the levees, the peat has broken down, invasive weeds have choked the flow of water, and the sea has risen, causing the entire levee system to resemble a heart attack waiting to happen. The original levees have become more than 30 feet high, and very fragile, a situation reminiscent of pre-Katrina New Orleans.

Experts agree that a modest earthquake will cause most levees to liquefy, killing tens of thousands of people, covering farmland with silt, polluting the bay with oils and pesticides and plastic debris, and eventually returning the Delta to something more like its original state. But, it will cause a second catastrophe, when 23 million Californians turn the tap and nothing happens. Street fights over gasoline are nothing; wait until people are thirsty.

Which again draws our eyes to the pure sweet waters of the Sierras, and the next thing that is happening. In 1930 a plan was drawn which would become the Central Valley Project. In the years between 1902 and 1930 "government" had been busily creating itself as owner of the waters that fed the Delta. By 1940 northern California water was flowing to the Central Valley through the Contra Costa Canal. In 1944 Shasta Dam went on line, and in 1967 Oroville Dam captured the waters of the Feather River. For the next 40 years the population of California would grow, as would a market for water-thirsty crops like tomatoes and rice.

This leads to the final thing that is happening. Enormous pumps push water through 15-foot pipes and tend to puree incidental flotsam, most notably the Delta smelt, a 3 inch fish which used to be numberless in the Delta, but which is now practically extinct. Even the salmon and the bass are in decline, partly because the freshwater moving through the Delta no longer allows enough salt water to flush the estuaries. Salt water has been carefully excluded, since it can’t be used to drink or irrigate crops. Non native crustaceans and water plants thrive in what has become an artificial freshwater basin. To restore desirable wildlife, fresh water and salt water would have to flow more naturally.

But water is also necessary to the Central Valley to grow plants, and to the cities, to grow more cities. Without the water from the north, cities in the south would "down-size".

It 1965 the "peripheral canal" was suggested as a way of cutting the Delta out of the freshwater on its way to the Central Valley and the cities, though a similar suggestion had been made in 1944. The canal would make it easier to keep the northern water clean, it would simplify distribution, it would reduce the fresh water load in the Delta. It would be pricey, and involve a lot of landowners, but down the road, it would be the solution.

For the next twenty years money was pumped into the levees and Delta water system; the battle raged over water for the Delta and its ecosystem, and California grew and grew. In 1982 California voters defeated Proposition 9, which included a plan to fund the peripheral canal. The measure passed in only a handful of southern counties, and was stunningly defeated elsewhere: Sierra and Plumas counties voted over 90% "no"(in other words, "hell no"). There were concerns about environmental impact of the canal, about ownership, about cost and about the ability of the south to grab yet more water from the north.

Things are different now, though. Groundwater in California is disappearing, no longer in occasional pockets, but in large areas of the state. The groundwater in the Central Valley is often so polluted with pesticides and other agricultural chemicals that it can’t be used for domestic water. More Bay area residents use Delta water now. Further, an inquiry by Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo concluded that the Department of Water Resources "has the authority, without further legislative or voter approval, to build a conveyance facility, commonly referred to as the peripheral canal." The DWR, at the behest of the Governor, who supports the canal, might proceed without the legislature or the voters.

With so many players, the growing need for water, the increased likelihood of rising sea levels, the deteriorating ecology of the Delta, something has to happen. The only obvious solution is the peripheral canal, and many people think voters would now support such a canal, particularly if users paid for it.

The peripheral canal, though, would be a really big budget item, no one knows for sure, but likely between $5 and $10 billion. Water contractors may be willing to pay $4 billion for a new canal, but there are strong concerns about privatization of water in the state. Schwarzenegger has proposed $9.6 billion in bonds for the canal, and for more dams and more northern water rights. Some suggest that northern farmers will find it easier to sell water to the cities of the south, creating more barren northern agricultural lands stripped of water rights.

Very little can be done to change the course of what must happen. The big water users, Central Valley agriculture and the developers of the south, will continue to get their water, so the peripheral canal will be built. The fish and the courts will finally force some freshwater into the Delta, at the cost of some Delta farmland and some towns that will be "reclaimed" by the water. All that fresh water has to come from somewhere. The new, expanded canal will hold even more Sierra County water, as global climate change reduces our snow pack and in summer our forests burn.

That being the case, it is the duty of every Sierra County resident to send water south; go piddle in the river.

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