It is a simple matter to outline the problems with our existing water conveyance system. Currently we divert fresh water from the Sacramento and American Rivers after it has passed through the San Joaquin delta. It is pumped into a reservoir, then sent South in the California aqueduct. It is a system that works, but which is fraught with problems.
The Delta pumps can actually reverse the water flow in the Delta, increasing its salinity and threatening its’ use for agriculture. Fish killed in the pumps include endangered species – and that provides legal leverage to environmentalists who can shut the pumps down to save the smelt regardless of the problems that might create at the other end of the pipe.
The Delta itself is reclaimed swampland – reclaimed with dikes and levies constructed decades ago. Tidal action in winter can threaten these private levies and, if they go, the Delta becomes again a swamp filled with water too salty to use in Valley agriculture.
To protect the Delta’s islands – which would be to shore up the current system, providing no new sources of water or protection from the pumps for endangered fish – would be to spend billions of public dollars protecting the farmland of a relative handful of farmers.
The hard headed alternative is to divert water around the Delta through a canal on the periphery – the ‘peripheral canal’. But the upstream diversion not only does nothing for the existing fragile system of levies, it opens the possibility that insufficient water will be left to flush the Delta after the upstream diversions. Diversions could be limited to protect the current system, but if a drought hits Southern California would those flow limits be recognized? More storage would help, but also opens a new set of controversies.
At the end of the day, the option of a peripheral canal eliminates the need of Southern California voters to protect the fragile ecology of the San Joaquin Delta. No hostage would exist in the North against the sheer numbers of the South. Today, the Delta is the toll gate through which water must pass to get to L.A. The toll required is Delta Protection. Allow the circumvention of the toll gate and the North loses the wherewithal to protect the Delta. That’s the politics of the issue.
A campaign against the canal starts out there. But it quickly devolves into the question of whether the South can be trusted to protect Northern interests without
leverage. In Northern California that answer was ‘no’. A resounding ‘no’. A ‘no’
so nearly unanimous as to represent an intensity rarely seen on any issue in Caifornia.
San Francisco – which does not drink Delta Water – voted 5% to 95% against giving the spigot to LA. That was typical.
That was 25 years ago. Have attitudes changed?
Bill Cavala was Deputy Director of the Assembly Speaker’s Office of Member Services where he worked for over 30 years.
He attended undergraduate and graduate school in the 1960’s and received a doctorate in political science at UC Berkeley. He taught political science at UC Berkeley during the 1970’s while he worked part-time for the State Assembly.
Cavala left teaching at UC Berkeley and went to work for Assembly Speaker Willie Brown in 1981 until his tenure as Speaker ended in 1995, and he has worked for his five successors as Speaker up to and including Speaker Fabian Nunez.
Mr. Cavala manages election campaigns for Democratic candidates.
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