San Joaquin River DOTMDL -- Technical Working Group

Editorial: Death of the Delta? California must rethink its water plan, or face catastrophe.

Fresno Bee - October 18, 2004

Imagine the state's primary drinking water source, the Delta, suddenly gone, its sinking islands submerged, the water an undrinkable, saline soup.

A scientific symposium the other day on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta unveiled for California the doomsday scenario that is as unthinkable as it is real.

Farming on the Delta islands -- exposing the peat soils to sunlight and cultivation -- has caused the islands to dramatically subside. These soils continue to oxidize and compact. The sea level, meanwhile, is slowly rising. Many of these islands already would be under water were it not for the substandard levees that keep these deepening holes dry.

Think of these islands as giant holes deepening, every day, to the tune of 27,000 cubic meters. That equates to creating a new hole the size of Pasadena's Rose Bowl every 12 days. The existing depressions in these Delta islands are equivalent to nearly 8,000 Rose Bowls.

As the holes deepen, the pressure on the levees increases. Scientists predict that several levees protecting several islands could give way simultaneously during a moderate flood or moderate earthquake, either of which is a likely event during the next 50 years. And if that happens, the Delta suddenly turns saline. And gone, probably forever, is a fresh drinking water source for 22 million Californians and water for millions of acres of agriculture.

The state's water leaders would prefer to ignore this dirty little secret. They assume the same old Delta will exist as does the Delta strategy espoused by the state and federal government. Worse yet, Southern California, Kern County and other farming interests are obsessing over a plan to pump even more fresh water from the Delta.

It is no wonder that water's political elite was largely missing the other day as the state's top geologists and fishery biologists met at this Sacramento symposium to discuss the Delta's eventual demise. It is a reflection of how Delta science and Delta water politics are heading in opposite directions, certainly a dangerous divergence.

"Change is taking place so dramatically and so rapidly," said Jeffrey Mount, a UC Davis geology professor commissioned by the state and federal governments to study what is happening in the Delta. "We have to get a handle around the scale of this problem."

He is right. But how? Here is the "easy" part: Challenge any further urbanization into the Delta. Stockton's expansion west of Interstate 5 is particularly reckless. So is Lathrop's proposal to populate a Delta island with thousands of homes.

The hard part is changing the plumbing in the Delta, and lessening the state's dependence on this single source so that California isn't so vulnerable to a sudden collapse of the system.

That public conversation can't begin until water's political elite (derisively known as "water buffaloes" for their slow-moving, herd-like behavior) confront reality.

Natural forces are poised to reshape the Delta, maybe very soon, maybe decades from now. These forces are no match for any water leader, lobbyist or legislator.#

Home Background Studies Meetings Resources Contact Search