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

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

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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