Western Water Excerpt Gary PitzerRita Schmidt Sudman

Developing a Delta Vision
May/Jun 2006

The Delta has been in the spotlight recently, with a cascade of tumultuous events that have spotlighted the importance and fragility of a unique resource that is mostly out of sight and out of mind to most Californians. Issues of sustainability, governance, water quality, ecosystem health and levee stability have reached the forefront in recent months, punctuated by congressional inquiries and even discussion of revisiting the proposed peripheral canal that was trumped at the polls more than 20 years ago.


The Delta has been in the spotlight recently, with a cascade of tumultuous events that have spotlighted the importance and fragility of a unique resource that is mostly out of sight and out of mind to most Californians. Issues of sustainability, governance, water quality, ecosystem health and levee stability have reached the forefront in recent months, punctuated by congressional inquiries and even discussion of revisiting the proposed peripheral canal that was trumped at the polls more than 20 years ago.

“When you take a look at this, no matter where you look the solution for California’s water starts in the Delta,” said Sen. Mike Machado, D- Linden. “Without the Delta, where would California be?”

Indeed, the Delta is a major component of the state’s plumbing system, providing a portion of the water supply for more than 22 million people and 7 million acres of farmland. Home to massive state and federal pumping operations that redistribute water from wetter areas to farms and cities, the Delta is also the gateway for migrating salmon as well as home to hundreds of species of plants, wildlife and fish, some of which have been declared threatened or endangered.

The sense of urgency revolving around the Delta has many dimensions, most of which defy easy solution. By nature, the Delta is a complicated place, with narrow, twisting waterways, a continual mingling of freshwater and tides from San Francisco Bay, and a soft, spongy soil mass that makes the place anything but a bastion of stability. Reshaped from its marshy origin, the Delta today retains much of its agricultural heritage while slowly yielding to the development pressure that shows no sign of ebbing as the 21st century unfolds.

Longtime observers say building houses near the Delta’s edge sets a dangerous precedent because of the flood risk that exists from levee failure. As a result, the idea of drafting some kind of general plan for Delta development has been broached as a way of managing development. However, any Delta-wide blueprint would be controversial and challenging, given the fact that the region encompasses so many counties and cities. Local governments are fiercely protective of their planning duties and are adverse to the notion of surrendering jurisdiction to large-scale, eponymous regional planning entities.

Marci Coglianese, a longtime Delta resident who has been active in many Delta forums, said the adverse conditions facing the region are emblematic of the struggles facing the state as a whole. “I think a better question is whether California is sustainable, given the relentless demands that unbridled growth and development are putting on our complex and fragile environment statewide,” she said. “Should the Delta be abandoned and its fresh water rerouted so that we can build subdivisions on alluvial fans in the desert or irrigate subsided or waterlogged ag land in the valley? How sustainable is that?”

Thousands of miles to the southeast of the Delta, events unfolded in summer 2005 that would be a precursor for the heightened attention on Delta levees. A hurricane of immense magnitude, labeled “Katrina” by weather forecasters, smashed into New Orleans, a city not unlike the Delta, at least in its geographic profile of being below sea level. Powered by a storm surge that brought the sea to the city’s doorstep, levee failures inundated much of the city, taking lives and destroying property.

The reverberations were felt in California, where the threats posed by levee failure in the Delta had been on the front burner following the release of a December 2004 scientific report that predicted a two-thirds chance of catastrophic levee failure in the Delta in the next 50 years. Early this year, the Department of Water Resources (DWR), in a dramatic presentation, outlined the dire consequences in the event of a major earthquake occurring within or very close to the Delta. Under the worst circumstances, multiple levee failures would completely disrupt major water conveyance systems, causing an untold economic impact to the state and, for that matter, the nation.

“Hurricane Katrina was a wake-up call,” said Assemblymember Lois Wolk, D-Davis, at the Water Education Foundation’s Executive Briefing March 23 in Sacramento. “We’ve heard the ring and lifted the receiver. Now we have to determine how we respond to the call.”

Jolted by the threat facing the state, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year signed AB 1200 by Assemblymember John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, which directed DWR to assess the level of risk of Delta levee failures and to evaluate how to best protect the water supplies in the Delta as well as exports. A legislative analysis of the bill found the “most conservative” estimates of the economic impacts of multiple levee failures are $300 million to $500 million to agricultural users in the San Joaquin Valley and $500 million to $3 billion (emphasis added) to urban water districts.

As DWR officials contemplated their plan for implementing the law, which also included an evaluation by the Department of Fish and Game of the options to restore salmon and other fish species, it became immediately apparent that more than water is at stake in the Delta and that as such, a broader scope was necessary in order for the state to truly put its stamp on what the Delta’s fate should be. Jerry Johns, DWR’s deputy director for water resources planning and management, told members of the Bay-Delta Public Advisory Committee (BDPAC) in March that the bill’s “water-centric” focus convinced him and other officials that it was necessary to “draw on a larger canvas” in order to evaluate which uses the Delta can continue to serve.

At the same time, several entities have busied themselves with Delta planning activities, a process predicated on the mutually agreed upon assumption that the present uses and resources of the Delta are not sustainable for the next 100 years, and that a more comprehensive view of the region is a prerequisite for any large scale blueprint and long-term investment of public funds.

“The fact is we now have a current pattern of use in the Delta – including land use – that I don’t see how somebody with a straight face could argue is sustainable,” said Tim Quinn, vice president for State Water Project (SWP) operations at the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California.

The litany of concerns facing the Delta and the needed response by state and federal officials was outlined late last year in a report prepared by the Little Hoover Commission, a legislative oversight team that was given the task of analyzing the CALFED Bay- Delta Program. In its November 2005 report, “Still Imperiled, Still Important – A Review of the CALFED Bay- Delta Program,” the commission found a program in disarray but not without hope of making progress in the quest to restore the Delta while assuring security to reliable water delivery.

“The current troubles in the Delta – including fish declines and levee concerns – make it essential that today’s leaders confront the remaining conflicts and fully resolve them,” the report says. The commission made a number of recommendations, such as replacing the California Bay-Delta Authority (CBDA) with “a leadership structure that has the authority to accomplish CALFED’s mission.”

Besides land use planning, a proposed “Delta Vision Process” aims to tackle all other pertinent matters, including the future of Delta agriculture, recreation, ecosystem restoration, energy, rail and transportation infrastructure. Inherent is the acknowledgement that a wide variety of interests have a stake in the Delta and that their participation is vital in shaping a future for the region.

“When you stop to ask what’s best for the state as a whole, it goes beyond resource issues,” Coglianese said. “We have to figure a way that sustains this beyond a single administration. We don’t have a coherent state policy about where we are going.”

This issue of Western Water examines the Delta as it stands today and the efforts by government agencies, policy experts, elected officials and the public at large to craft a vision for a sustainable future. Some of the information and quotes in this article are derived from the Foundation’s Executive Briefing, held March 23-24

NOTE: A complete copy of this 16-page magazine is available from the Foundation for $3. Visit our Products Page and add the May/June 2006 issue of Western Water to your shopping cart, http://www.watereducation.org/store/default.asp?parentid=7

Editor’s Desk

This issue of Western Water is devoted to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. In recent months we have focused on producing information about the Delta – an area in crisis. While winter storms pummeled northern California, CALFED was being revamped and many stakeholders and agency people started looking for a new “big picture” vision of the Delta – one that could take us into the next century. In this magazine, writer Gary Pitzer chronicles the Delta vision effort.

So the Foundation is launching an effort to help look for that Delta vision. We recently produced a short documentary, Delta Warning, exploring what will happen when, not if, an earthquake hits affecting the Delta levees. We are bringing stakeholders together for a major workshop, Developing a Delta Vision: How to Connect the Dots, June 6-7 in Stockton at the University of the Pacific. And we will explore many of these issues on our annual Bay-Delta Tour, June 14-16. If you care about drinking water, agricultural water uses and water for the environment in California, I urge you to get involved in these programs to help determine the future of Delta.

On the drinking water front, we are very excited about a new way Californians can discover their drinking water source(s). We recently added a new page, http://www.watereducation.org/watersources/default.asp, to our web site that helps people answer the question “Where Does My Water Come From?” As we note on the page, when a person opens a spigot to draw a glass of water, he or she may be tapping a source close to home or hundreds of miles away. With just a click of the mouse, if you are in an incorporated city of over 10,000 people, you can learn whether you have groundwater, or surface water from the Colorado River, State Water Project, federal Central Valley Project, another major reservoir system, or local reservoirs and streams. General text defines these terms and offers valuable information on how drinking water is treated, how to help prevent nonpoint source pollution and how agencies are working to stretch our urban water supplies.

Development of this web site was funded by a Proposition 50 California Bay-Delta Authority Drinking Water Grant administered through the State Water Resources Control Board. And we offer a special thanks to EIP Associates for donating their time to provide the GIS data for the 400-plus cities included on the site.

- Rita Schmidt Sudman

In the News

Arsenic Compliance Difficulties Prompt EPA To Mull Variances, Exemptions

Responding to the financial hardship placed on small scale water delivery systems by the new federal drinking water standard for arsenic, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering whether to grant a variance or exemption to the rule that would allow higher levels in some communities.

The action, announced in a March 2 Federal Register notice, comes on the heels of the Jan. 23, 2006 adoption of a 10 parts per billion (ppb) drinking water standard for arsenic. That figure replaced the previous standard of 50 ppb, which had been in place since 1942 but was determined to be insufficiently protective of human health. One ppb is equivalent to one drop in an Olympic-size swimming pool.

EPA’s proposal would allow water systems serving 10,000 or fewer residents to have arsenic at 30 ppb. Naturally-occurring arsenic is prevalent in many parts of the West, including Arizona, New Mexico and California’s Central Valley.

According to scientific research, trace amounts of arsenic in drinking water can cause an increased risk of skin, bladder, lung, kidney and liver cancer. Many of the studies that are the basis of current knowledge were done in Taiwan where some people had consumed well water with arsenic levels in excess of 300 ppb. The possible cancer-causing effects of arsenic at levels of 5 to 50 ppb in drinking water are the focus of current concerns about public health in the United States.

In its announcement, EPA cited the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1996, which stipulated that complying with federal drinking water standards is not to cost water systems more than 2.5 percent of the median U.S. household income. “The fundamental problem is one of economics,” the notice says. “Maximum contaminant levels in national primary drinking water regulations have been based on the best available treatment techniques that are affordable for large systems. Because small systems do not enjoy the economies of scale that are available to large systems (infrastructure costs cannot be spread over a large number of households) drinking water regulations can have a much greater economic impact on small systems.”

Environmentalists are concerned that allowing more than 10 ppb arsenic in drinking water could have serious public health implications while the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators fear the higher standard would become the rule, not the exception if larger water agencies seek relief.

Krista Clark, regulatory affairs specialist with the Association of California Water Agencies, said EPA has always had the ability to grant variances or exemptions to certain parts of the regulated community. In this case, she said it became apparent the costs of meeting a 10 ppb arsenic standard would be beyond the financial ability of small water delivery systems.

“I think EPA came to the realization that some of the smaller systems can’t afford it and that they are going to bankrupt them,” she said.

Arsenic’s natural occurrence in many parts of California is problematic for many rural water districts. Of the 487 wells with detections at least 10 ppb, 154 of them serve populations of 200 or fewer people, Clark said. Some water districts, including the Coachella Valley Water District, are “ahead of the pack” in coming to grips with arsenic treatment. Steve Bigley, water quality specialist with Coachella, said two of the five smaller systems served by the district are grappling with the compliance issue.

“It’s interesting because we are kind of like the country,” he said. “The small guys are the ones getting hurt in our area.” Coachella has pledged more than $12 for its compliance strategy, which includes two treatment plants using state of the art technology.

- Gary Pitzer

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