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Let the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta go natural

My original copy of the 1957 California Water Plan. Half of it are maps.

It’s time we let the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta return to its natural state of tule and marsh land. No amount of money will ever create the ecosystem that everyone wants. The delta is a man-made artifice and we have no reliable data about its original state before we starting mucking around and building levees on it in the late 1800’s.

Accidental fresh water barrier

The levees were built to reclaim the land for farming. It wasn’t until the Central Valley Project came along in the 1930’s that the levee system helped facilitate the transfer of water south without building a canal. The Delta levee system concentrated fresh water in channels to help repel the intrusion of tidal salt water.

Annual summer droughts

Before the dams of Shasta, Oroville and Folsom were built, and their continual release of water, you could walk across the Sacramento River during the summer. What were the Delta ecosystems like with virtually no water flowing into it during the summer and fall? What type of fish were living in the Delta and how many of them were there in 1930? Of course, even with out water transfers, you still need loads of water just to dilute the treated sewage the Sacramento waste water plant dumps into the river every summer.

Restore to what point in time?

It is folly to suggest that you can restore the Delta to a specific point in time of stability when the Delta has been continuously changing for the last 60 years. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, in a Viewpoint in the Sacramento Bee, writes of restoring the delta, but never defines restoration. Her version is an unattainable happy balance between water transfers, fish, agricultural, recreation and modern-day water pollution from sewage treatment.

I agree with Ms. Wolk that the revised Bay Delta Conservation Plan costs too much and seems to have a boat load of bureaucracy full of holes. The tunnel conveyance structures are not a new idea and have been proposed before.

Bulletin No. 3 The California Water Plan May, 1957, page 186

The major works of the Delta Division would consist of two features: first, the delta Cross-Delta Canal of the Biemond Plan, utilizing natural and modified channels hydraulically isolated from the remainder of the Delta, and a siphon under the San Joaquin river to transfer the greater portion of the water developed in the Sacramento River Basin; and second, a conduit leading from the Montezuma Reservoir to the southerly edge of the Delta, and including a siphon beneath the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers near Antioch to transfer the water developed in the North Coastal Area and the upper Sacramento River Basin and delivered to the Delta by the Sacramento West Side Canal. Associated with facilities of the Biemond Plan would include control structures on the Sacramento River and Steamboat Slough, a system of master levees along the flood channel, floodways and control structures at several locations, barge locks and fish ways to pass anadromous fish.

The Delta was a cheap conduit to move water from north to south.

Fifty-five years after this report came out we have spent how many millions of dollars and still have nothing to show for it? The Central Valley Project and the State Water Project have had unforeseen and unindicted consequences with respect to the environment and business. Of all the parts of the The California Water Plan of 1957 that were not implemented the Trans-Delta System has probably had the most impact, research and political consternation of any of them.

What price farm land?

We are fortunate that the delta has been maintained primarily as agricultural land. There are few communities that need to be resettled in the aftermath of levee failure from a flood or natural decay. If farming operations wish to continue, they should bear the full cost of levy maintenance and insurance. With land 12 feet below sea level and crumbling levees, it is too costly to save.

Inaction hurts everyone

It is time to stop trying to prop up a house of cards known as the Delta. Put in place those structures California needs to transfer water and let the Delta go natural. There is no equation of facilities, money or management that will satisfy all the minority interests of the Delta. Stop wasting everyone’s time. Build the tunnels and move on.

I started learning about the important role the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta plays in water and agricultural while attending UC Davis in the 1980’s. While volunteering for a nonprofit agricultural organization I developed and lead several tours of the Delta including history and structures. Consequently, I have acquired numerous state and federal documents such as an original copy of the The California Water Plan, 1957.