Jerry Meral has posted a three-part blog series over at the Bay Delta Conservation Plan website which covers the history of the controversy in the Delta, from development of the State Water Project to present day. “Californians have been debating the role of the Delta and the best way to move water to where it’s needed for nearly 70 years,” he writes in the introduction. “The recently released draft Bay Delta Conservation Plan and accompanying draft Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement (EIR/EIS) reflect the ongoing evolution of Delta water policy in the critical areas of supply, water quality, environmental impacts, species preservation and the interests of the Delta communities. This is the first of a three-part blog that summarizes how our understanding of these issues has changed in relation to the dynamic growth of California and our constantly expanding appreciation of the needs of its environment.”
Part I: The Delta – Origins of Controversy
“The State Water Project was developed to bring water from Northern California to support the growing needs of the Bay Area, Southern California and the Central Valley after World War II. As it was being designed in the 1950s, the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) was concerned that increasing the draw of water across the Delta — on top of existing diversions by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation through the Delta Cross Channel — would draw millions of young fish (especially salmon, striped bass, and other sports fish) into dead-end channels in the south Delta. Although state and federal screens would capture many of them, some would still be lost in the process of trucking and relocation mortality. Other fish would inevitably be destroyed by predators and the operation of water export pumps.
DFG was supported in this view by commercial and sport fishing interests, and by powerful recreational boating advocates. The boaters wanted to isolate the water project’s operations from the Delta channels for fear that some of those channels might otherwise be closed to boating in order to facilitate the export of water. … “
“On a quiet summer day in June 1972, the failure of the Andrus-Brannan Islands caused sea water to rush into the Delta, jeopardizing the quality of supplies for the Contra Costa Water District and for the exports that serve millions of consumers in the Bay Area, Southern California and the Central Valley. This event forced decision makers to focus on the need for an alternative way to export water that currently flows into the Delta, given the mounting concerns about the reliability of its levees. In 1973, the Legislature established a program to provide funds for maintenance of the Delta levee system to reduce the risk of levee failure and island flooding.
These concerns for finding more reliable means of meeting the state’s water needs gained additional urgency from some fundamental changes in water policy that were occurring far away from the Delta itself. From a Northern California perspective, the two big threats in the 1970’s involved ever-increasing exports by the state and federal water projects, and the danger that dams would be built on North Coast rivers to add to the Delta supply. The Reagan Administration responded to environmentalists’ concerns on this score, first by vetoing the proposed Dos Rios Dam, and then by approving the creation of a California Wild and Scenic Rivers system to protect the most vulnerable of the North Coast rivers. Governor Jerry Brown inserted the rivers in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System in 1980. Today, although the fear of increased exports continues to animate debate in some parts of Northern California, the notion of new dams on the North Coast is no longer entertained by the federal or state governments. But at the same time, the closing of these opportunities for future water development put additional emphasis on the need to find an alternative to Delta conveyance that would protect water quality and safeguard the supplies that two-thirds of the state depend on. … “
“There should be no question that public thinking about the Delta will continue to change in the future, given the lessons of the past. The first question anyone must ask about the future of the Delta is whether the voters will continue to subsidize the maintenance and improvement of the Delta levees, based on the public benefits the levees provide.
Because the water supplies for two-thirds of California’s residents are currently pumped through the Delta, the maintenance of those levees as a protection against saltwater contamination from San Francisco Bay is a matter of vital importance to the state’s economy and the well being of most of the people who live here. The state’s Delta levee program began providing general fund money in 1973. More recently, funding has gradually shifted from the general fund to general obligation bond acts.
Without a state subsidy, Delta landowners are unlikely to pay for levee improvements themselves while also maintaining existing Delta levees. This is because the landowners’ ability to pay is determined by the economic productivity of the individual Delta islands. Fortunately, the voters have approved a variety of water bond acts through the mid-2000s. But much more of this funding will be needed. … “