Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Anything But Peripheral: An Occasional Blog Series on California's Delta | Part 1: A Second Chance for the Peripheral Canal


This is the first in an occasional series of blog posts I intend to write this fall about California Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to build a new peripheral canal in the California Delta.  While living in California for the past decade (I moved to Idaho last year to become a professor), I was slowly enchanted by the Delta:  its history, its wildlife, its role in California's water wars, and beyond.  I wanted to find a way to convey the peculiar issues arising in the Delta to a wider audience and explain why, as I noted in a previous post, I believe the issues in the California Delta are arguably the biggest land use story going on right now.  Standing behind that claim, I figure, requires some dedication to the cause.  And so, I plan to write this series in an effort to explain the current proposal for the Delta, but also some of the history of the place.  I will ultimately make an argument for why what happens in the Delta is a bellwhether for how we will engage with the necessities of adaptation to climate change in the next century. 

One caveat, before I begin, is that I intend these posts to be mini-primers of a sort, but by no means definitive, in contemplating the Delta's future.  It's a blog, after all!  But those who have followed Delta politics over the years will know that simply listing the agencies and coalitions that have had a hand in shaping the Delta could go on for pages.  I'm not going to tell all of those stories of agencies come and gone, but rather, seek to cut through the legal muck and provide those who are not mired in the Delta's details a little light into why we should all care about the Delta.  Moreover, I will seek to convince readers that what happens in the Delta speaks to larger questions we all face about resources, conservation, and climate change.

And so, without further adieu...

A Very Brief Introduction to the Peripheral Canal Proposal

First, some history on water infrastructure in California.  Constructon of a peripheral canal around California's Delta has been proposed since at least 1965.  In 1960, California voters approved the Burns-Porter Act, which authorized (1) the construction of the State Water Project and (2) the issuance of $1.75 billion of general obligation bonds to assist in financing the project.  In 1982, Gov. Jerry Brown, in his first term as governor, proposed a peripheral canal around the California Delta to link the two other parts of the State Water Project, which included a dam and reservoir in Oroville, California that stores water in the winter for release into the Sacramento River and the Sacraemento-San Joaquin River Delta in the summer and a large pumping plant at the southwestern edge of the Delta (near the Clifton Court Forebay, on the map below), to pump water from the Delta into an aqueduct system that services San Joaquin Valley and southern California. 

Gov. Jerry Brown's father, Gov. Pat Brown, was a major architect of the State's water program.  In 1982, when Gov. Jerry Brown was in his first term as governor, he committed to building a peripheral canal that would substantially complete the water project begun by his father.  He received the votes he needed to get the canal through the state legislature, which passed SB 900 (1979-80 session) approving the canal. But the canal soon became a political battle without match, pitting many of the states biggest players against each otherVoters subjected SB 900 to a referendum, and in June, 1982, resoundingly voted against the canal by a 2-to-1 margin.

Many years of wrangling as to the Delta's future ensued, to be discussed in future posts.

In July, 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown, now in his second term, returned to the podium with a new version of the peripheral canal.  Many thought the resounding defeat some thirty years ago made such a proposal untenable.  Ubiquitous declarations of the canal being a "third rail" of California politics were heard.

The 2012 version of the peripheral canal is wrapped in the July, 2012 Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP).  The mechanics of the new peripheral canal on the Sacramento River north of the Delta would include:  three pumpling plants; state-of-the-art fish screens that would protect passing fish; a forebay for temporarily storing water pumped from the river; and two tunnels to carry water 35 miles to the existing pumping plants in the south Delta.  From there the water would enter the existing aqueducts that supply much of southern California and the San Joaquin Valley.  See diagram below.

Peripheral Canal Diagram

Opinion around the state has exhibited a complex mix of complete shock that the governor would dare to bring the peripheral canal to the fore again, proclamations that the proposal is dead on arrival, declamations that it's the end of every fish in the Delta, and others arguing that, well, maybe California really needs the peripheral canal now.  (See news stories in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacremento, San Jose, and especially this nice summary). Environmental groups, one of the constituencies that helped sink the original peripheral canal plan back in the Eighties, are giving the peripheral canal a more nuanced look this time.  (See NRDC, Sierra Club.)

But arguably the most important single document in bringing the peripheral canal proposal back from the dead, and one of the most important documents in changing people's opinion about the canal, was a 2007 report by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), Envisioning Futures For the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, that spoke about the current status of the Delta, and why something big needs to be done there.  And fast. 

More about the ecosystem of the Delta, and the PPIC report, in the next installment.

Stephen R. Miller

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