California’s Waves of Water Projects
California’s water history is like a set of waves. The earliest big wave was tapping the mountain water in the Owens Valley. The 250-mile Los Angeles Aqueduct built in 1913 was a remarkable engineering feat (see ENN Volume 10 #12).
LA’s visionary, William Mulholland, knew that the City would need another supply to develop. So in 1927, Metropolitan Water District (MWD) was authorized and incorporated in 1928. A megalopolis was born.
Along the way, other big conveyance projects were completed, drawing California’s modern-day gold to the population centers. East Bay MUD built a 130-mile pipeline to bring water to its growing region. San Francisco completed the Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct in 1934.
In 1931 the State Water Plan was presented by the California Division of Water Resources; then halted abruptly by the Great Depression. The federal Bureau of Reclamation stepped in to build the first elements of the State Water Project. Shasta Dam – which now holds 4.7 million acre feet of water. It was built from 1938 to 1945.
In 1941, MWD developed the 242-mile Colorado River Aqueduct to bring water from the Colorado River to Southern California. Then, in the late 1940s, the California legislature authorized water planning studies of the “unruly Feather River" in the north. Billions of gallons of flood waters in spring wreaked havoc and were being “lost” to the sea. Could this flood water be controlled and captured for later use?
The Feather River project – precursor to the State Water Project – was born. In 1959, Californians authorized a bond issuance to build the massive system. The project began with construction of the Oroville Dam, about 75 miles north of Sacramento. Its waters then flow through “the Delta” and into a massive canal that extends south from the Delta to Southern California.
The weakest link in the State Water Project is the Delta. Given the fragile Delta ecosystem, the notion of building a “peripheral canal” to skirt east and around the Delta – while assuring adequate stream flows to provide for fisheries and ecosystems -- is back on the table.
The Peripheral Canal was approved by Californians in 1982, but it has been mired in controversy and in the courts ever since. Is it naïve to believe that a systematic solution is at hand? Supported by both Governor Schwarzenegger and Senator Diane Feinstein, the $4.5 billion project may well be the best means of addressing the compound threats to the region and to the State.
State Water Project
The California State Water Project is the largest state-built water and power system in the nation. It spans more than 600 miles, running down the heart of the Golden State, and is operated by California Department of Water Resources (DWR).
In 1959, the California legislature passed the Burns-Porter Act. It authorized $1.75 billion in bonds for construction. Today the system is made up of 23 dams and reservoirs, 22 pumping plants, and 9 power plants. The State Water Project’s 473 miles of canals, 175 miles pipeline, and 20 miles of tunnels can move 4.23 million acre feet of water a year.
First in the chain, the State Water Project feeds supplies water from the northern delta to Napa and Solano counties through the North Bay Aqueduct. Further downstream, the Coastal Branch supplies water to San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.
The water leaves the Delta on its way to Los Angeles with a 244-foot lift, thanks to the Harvey Banks pumping station. Before reaching the foot of the Tehachapi Mountains, the water is lifted another 169 feet. Then, at the Edmonton pumping plant the water is raised by 14, 80,000 horsepower pumps another 1,970 feet, the highest single-lift pump plant in the world.
Today the State Water Project that supplies water to more than 25 million Californians and to 755,000 acres of farm land. The State Water Project provides 33% of Bay Area’s water and 30% of Southern California’s water demand. It also provides 23 – 90% of the Central Valley’s drinking and irrigation water.
Oroville is about 75 miles north of Sacramento.
The Oroville Dam is a massive structure with power plant submerged below. At 780 feet, it’s the highest dam in America, about the height of the TransAmerica and Eiffel towers. The Hyatt Plant is built into the bedrock below the lake, generating 2.2 billion kWh in a typical year.
A special railroad was brought in to Oroville to build the dam. It moved 72 million cubic yards of mine tailings from 11 miles away. The base of the dam is 3,500 feet, decreasing gradually to 80 feet at its peak.
Oroville Dam collects water from the Feather River’s tributaries, from 36,000 square miles of northern mountain areas. When full it can hold 3.5 million acre feet of water. The dam created a lake that covers 15,800 acres and 167 miles of shoreline.
We were struck by the low lake levels; the result of three consecutive drought years. The water is down 200 feet, drawing supply down by 75%. In 2008, its lowest level was 28% of capacity. The lake has 450 of “dead water” below its intakes, room for sedimentation. The scale is massive. We drive over the mile-long dam, passing joggers. Fingers of the lake extend twenty miles in two directions.
Oroville Dam provides a formidable barrier for salmon making their way upstream to spawn. DWR operates a hatchery for salmon and steelhead, “harvesting” about 20,000 salmon and steelhead each year and providing 17 million eggs to be hatched and then released in the Feather and Sacramento Rivers and the Delta. The scale of mitigation is large.
From Oroville and its hatcheries, the water flows south. Its natural course of events is to flow through “the Delta,” perhaps down the Sacramento River or the San Joaquin River, out through the Karkanas Straits and then the San Francisco Bay and out under the Golden Gate.
Most of the water will take this natural course, some will be diverted south after flowing through a maze of rivers and canals, through the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project south.
California’s most important estuary, some would say. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is where State’s two largest rivers meet. It is an area where salt water from the Pacific meets freshwater from the mountains. Like the Everglades, the Delta is marked by a web of waterways, rivers, canals, sloughs, and islands.
The Delta is a troubled case of man and environment. It reminded me of visiting the Netherlands, the dikes, and water works to maintain acreage below sea level. The Delta’s 738,000 acres are unusual in that unlike river deltas that flare out into the sea, this one is inverse and inland, a collection point for California’s great rivers.
Enter farming, a big part of the Delta roadblock.
It began in earnest after the Gold Rush. Beginning in 1850, Chinese laborers built levees in the Delta region to “reclaim” land and create rich farmlands. The marshes were drained and transformed into highly productive fields where pears, almonds, and asparagus grow. Overall, some 1,100 miles of un-engineered levees were built. Land areas – called islands – are inversely lower than the water surrounding them. Yes, there have been notorious breaches such as the Jones Track that flooded in 2004.
Kurt Schmutte gave one of the most compelling power point presentations that I have ever seen. A gentle, clean cut, and reasoned soul; his professional animations of water flows in the Delta, of liquefaction of levees in the event of earthquakes, were astonishing.
Kurt worked for the Department of Water Resources for 16 years and has been with MWD four. His knowledge of the Delta is extraordinary; matched nicely by his genuine style and enthusiasm for consensus and Delta problem solving. He sees the biggest problems as the Big 3 Ss: subsidence, salinity, and seismology.
There are more Ss: salmon and smelt, the latter officially known as Hypomesus Transpacificus. Recently this 2 – 3 inch minnow-like fish became the icon of the opposition when it joined the endangered species list in 2004, its habitat compromised by an eastward salinity gradient. This has caused SWP pumping restrictions to assure adequate flows to flush the Delta habitat.
Delta farmers have it good: Free water, no need for fertilizer, and a mix of federal and state guarantees. These farmers have been the most vocal opponents of a Peripheral Canal, feeling that it will take “their water” south. Environmentalists have long opposed the Canal to check Southern California growth. Duck hunters and bass fisherman are also outspoken.
Farming, however, creates a negative feedback loop: Levees channel water that naturally would meander through rich ecosystems. Lots of critical habitat is lost. Second, farming is causing subsidence that compounds the problem, threatening the levees further. As subsidence occurs, coupled with lower river flows, the saline gradient between ocean salt water and mountain fresh water is drawn further inland. When that happens, indigenous species are in peril.
Subsidence in the Delta has been as much as six inches a year. Currently it is occurring at an average rate of 1.5 inches per year. In the early 1900s this was due to compaction, burning and wind erosion. Today it is the result of oxidation of organic peat moss soils due to farming. A DWR reclamation effort involves buying land from farmers to return it to its natural state. In these cases, farmland is reverted to habitats that build soils rather than mines them.
Climate Change and Seismic Threats
The threat of sea level rise is severe in the Delta. DWR projects a one-foot rise by 2050 and a 55-inch rise by 2100 due to climate change. Keeping up would require $4 - 12 billion in levee improvements. Sea level rise will also push salinity inland. And when this happens, salt water with bromides will be sucked into the CVP and SWP, causing carcinogens when chlorinated.
The United States Geological Survey projects a 60% chance of a 6.7 magnitude earthquake by 2032. The “Dreams Study,” Delta Risk Management Study, suggests a 30% chance of 30% of the levees failing in the Delta in 30 years. A catastrophic failure of the levees in the Delta could wipe out 75% of the State’s drinking water over night.
That has a compound effect: Water is the lifeblood of California’s economy, responsible for as much as half of the State’s domestic product, some $750 billion of annual activity. This stands in stark contrast to the $1 billion in agricultural output from the Delta.
Building a Balance
There is no such thing as a “natural Delta balance,” but there may be a balance.
The Delta has been manipulated by mankind, and now will be again. Fish are currently screened at pumping plants, trucked 20 miles upstream to continue on to their natural spawning grounds. Striped and black bass – popular among fishermen – are eating salmon and smelt in record quantities. Fully 95% of the biomass in the Delta is non-native, or “invasive.”
So “a natural balance” just won’t happen, but perhaps a sustainable state is attainable. Systems will always be in flux. Can a portion of the mountain water be diverted south in a way that solves the complex issues presented above?
Proponents of the Peripheral Canal and the Bar Delta Conservation Plan believe it will solve the Delta’s compounded problem, without taking more water. Smelt and salmon can be protected, saline intrusion can be checked, and money can be invested in a solution -either a western or eastern alignment- instead of the band-aid approach of raising levees and the seismic stakes.
The $4.5 billion system will, of course, be seismically engineered. It will also alleviate a stressed levee system by controlling stream flows through the Delta. It can precisely draw water from the system in five inlets, providing great flexibility. It will maintain Delta flows, carry fresh water to the pumping stations, while balancing farming, recreation, and the demands of all Californians.
The Delta is far from a natural habitat. For years, its natural flooding has been disrupted, channeled, its rich soils mined of nutrients. Today, the levees play a greater and greater role, making our dependence on Northern California water that much more precarious. The Delta is fragile, too fragile. Drink up and take action.