Tunneling under Bay Delta water wars

Posted on | August 20, 2012 | No Comments

Map source: California Natural Resources Agency. Most of the roughly 5 million acre feet of water exported from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta every year comes through two pumping plants in the South Delta. The force of those pumps trap migrating fish. Biologists at the National Marine Fisheries Service hope that new pumps in the north Delta would allow for adaptive pumping as salmon and steelhead migrate through the estuary. Opponents worry about what  new pumps tapping a key fresh water tributary north of the Delta would do to the salinity of the estuary. To read the Bay Delta Conservation Plan now under review, click on the map.

On July 25, California Gov. Jerry Brown announced to an expectant press corps that the state plans to construct a pair of multibillion-dollar tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta in order to modernize and possibly expand the export of Northern California’s water, mostly south to farms and cities. After decades of rancor over what was once envisioned as the “peripheral canal,” there had been enough studies. There had been enough policy groups. Above all, there had been enough fighting. “I want to get shit done,” said Brown.

Central and Southern California water contractors have long supported the plan, and initially some critics saw the governor’s announcement as yet another blow to the Delta’s fisheries — already devastated by a combination of pumping, drought and chronic mismanagement. Yet alongside Brown stood an administrator from the National Marine Fisheries Service, which has been fighting tooth-and-nail in federal court to protect the Delta’s fish from water exporters. This was no shotgun wedding, William Stelle insisted. His department and its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, support the tunnels. In fact, he argued, properly operated new intakes — scaled down to the size that his scientists believe are safe — might actually help Delta smelt, salmon and steelhead.

Click here to keep reading this article in High Country News about why the National Marine Fisheries Service sees new scaled down pumps away from the current slaughter zone as something of a last chance for migrating salmon and steelhead along with resident smelt.

Click here for a photo essay from the editor of Aquafornia showing the Bill Jones Pumping Plant in the South Delta. The Jones pumps, operated by the US Bureau of Reclamation, serve the Central Valley Project and San Joaquin Valley farms. Nearby in the South Delta, fish must also out-swim the pull of  the Harvey O Banks pumps, which are operated by California and serve the State Water Project and Southern Californian cities. For the truly interested, click here for provisional data kindly provided by the California Department of Water Resources as to what flows into the Delta and what is pumped out.


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