Thomas D. Elias: Smelt ruling offers return to sanity
Smelt ruling offers return to sanity
The historic delta smelt decision that now has many California cities, farmers and water agencies in near panic also bears the potential to restore sanity to California on at least two fronts.
The ruling will force huge pumps at the south end of the delta formed by the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers that now send water south and west year-round to reduce their activity by one-third or more during the spawning season of the rare and endangered three-inch-long delta smelt.
That’s from December to June. By coincidence, that’s also the wettest season of the year, the time when the pumps push the major share of their yearly take of water south to the huge San Juan Reservoir west of Los Banos and other points south and west. San Luis now is barely one-third filled and appears likely to stay well below capacity for years to come.
Spawning season is also the time when the rivers and the delta are most likely to cause massive flood damage. The ruling was made in the hope that fewer silver-colored smelt will be sucked into the pumps and killed. But it will unquestionably cause untold millions of gallons of usable fresh water to run out to the San Francisco Bay, where it morphs into brackish salt water.
The widespread panic this spurs comes because water from the delta serves 400 water agencies and even more cities and counties. There has been some snickering over all this in Northern California because of a sense that Southern California regularly “steals” northern water and a smug feeling that no water shortage will much affect anyone in the north.
Wrong. If there’s mandatory rationing in Southern California cities and counties, the same will be true for all Santa Clara County (including Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, San Jose, Los Altos and many more cities) and the Tri-Valley area of the East Bay, including cities like Livermore, Pleasanton, Danville and Dublin. If a significant drought should follow, agencies like the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California will no longer have sufficient supplies to run water through a pipeline across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to bail out parched Marin County, as it did during dry spells in the 1980s and ’90s.
And if farmers in the Central Valley who depend on the water even more than any cities and counties are forced to fallow fields, everyone in California and the entire nation will pay far higher prices for all manner of fruits, vegetables, nuts and meat.
Which is why Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, once a prime opponent of the Peripheral Canal project proposed in the early 1980s, is dead-on correct when she says “Whatever we do, we have to do it together. The delta is critical for everyone in California.”
There is plenty the state can do to ensure it has copious water for many years to come without any environmental depredation. But doing any of it will require a return to sanity, stepping away from some crazy prejudices and practices of the recent past.
Item No. 1 has got to be constructing something like the Peripheral Canal, which was to be a concrete-lined ditch bringing wet-season water around the delta to reservoirs south of it. This facility must have gates that allow release of water into the delta whenever water quality or fish life is threatened.
Item No. 2 will have to be the construction of new reservoirs to handle the presumably increased water supply. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed such new storage, a change from anti-reservoir sentiments that have prevailed in Sacramento since the 1970s.
Item No. 3 must be inclusion of strong protections for the wild and currently untapped rivers of Northern California, the Smith, the Eel, the Trinity, the Klamath. Fears they would inevitably be exploited by Southern California led to a near-unanimous Northern California vote against the old canal plan. Says Feinstein, “We know a lot more now than we knew then.”
Her irrational opposition to the old canal plan, which did include strong protection for wild rivers, has thus been reversed. Time will soon tell how much company she has.
Item No. 4 should be a return to fiscal sanity, a move away from the constant issuing of bonds that now hamstring state budget writers because so much revenue goes to interest payments. Any canal and reservoir project will take years to build. Start financing it now out of the state’s general fund, with legislators committing themselves to allocating a set amount each year for that purpose, and there would be no need for bonds.
It’s been both laziness and craziness that put the state into a position where it can possibly be crippled by the draconian ruling of U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger. For 25 years, no one has wanted to touch the Peripheral Canal concept for fear of political radioactivity. No one has had the courage to finance infrastructure on a pay-as-you-go basis.
It’s past time for all this idiocy to end and sane planning for the state’s future to begin. If Wanger’s decision proves to be the necessary spur driving such change, then it may yet turn out to be constructive.
Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist who writes about California issues. Contact him via e-mail at email@example.com.
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