Trust and the Peripheral Canal

OK. This is a problem:

Dante Nomellini Jr., representing Delta farmers, asked state Department of Water Resources Deputy Director Jerry Johns what assurance he would give that only surplus water would be diverted into the canal, even during a drought. “We are a system of laws,” Johns said, at which the crowd laughed.

It is, actually, most of the problem. This lack of trust is the reason that people that live or farm in the Delta are fighting the Peripheral Canal so furiously1. I’ve heard talk of two kinds of mistrust, one kind that I think is deluded, the other probably well justified.


One type of mistrust that Delta residents display is refusal to accept any governmental agency’s assessment of the situation. I ask my coworkers who go to meetings in the Delta2 what residents say when they present seismic or flood or sea level rise data. My coworkers say that Delta residents do not believe it. They imagine that state agencies are making up data in service of a complicated land and water grab conspiracy. They don’t believe the abstract data. The evidence of their eyes and lives is stronger. They see levees every day, and those always look just like working levees. They’ve never been in island collapse floods (as evidenced by the fact that they are alive) and they will not believe something that 1. is counter to their experience and 2. means leaving the lives they know. So they choose magical thinking and believe that the islands can last.

Well justified:

Some Delta residents do not want a Peripheral Canal for two more reasons. One is that so long as there is no canal, the state is forced to keep islands intact so we can keep the freshwater sloughs between them delivering water to the pumps. They do not trust the state to maintain their lifestyles if we are not forced to by how we pump water to LA and the San Joaquin Valley. I think this is absolutely accurate. The islands and all their farm production are worth less money than repairing and maintaining the island levees would cost. Any reasonable financial analysis would say to let them fail. Further, there are tens of thousands of people who depend on the Delta in its current state, which is a pretty small interest group in a state of 35 million people. This fear for their way of life is well founded3. (The water district for LA and San Diego once said out loud that they don’t want to get involved now and will simply wait until after the Delta collapse to build an emergency canal that will work for them. I gotta say, I can see the reasoning.)

The other mistrust that seems well justified to me is that Delta residents do not believe the Department of Water Resources will obey the laws that govern any new Peripheral Canal. I mean, the people at that meeting laughed at the notion. The environmental group Friends of the River says “plumbing is destiny”. They believe if you build a big canal (which you should, because you should have enough capacity to gulp up floodwaters and send those south at the rare times when it won’t hurt smelt), it will inevitably be used in dry years to divert the whole Sacramento River. They do not believe any agreements can hold against the need for urban water. It doesn’t help that current talk of raising dams will violate old assurances that reservoirs won’t encroach on the rivers above them. Even as DWR assures Delta residents that they’ll only take what they agree to, USBR is looking at ways to violate agreements that Shasta Dam wouldn’t backwater the wild and scenic McCloud River. No wonder people don’t trust water agencies’ assurances.

DWR hasn’t demonstrated a lot of respect for laws in the past few years. They got spanked by Judge Roesch when he told them they had to have a take permit to run their pumps. The agencies said “but look, we have documents (in binders!) that are JUST LIKE a take permit.” And Judge Roesch said, how ‘bout you obey the fucking law and come back to me with a real take permit?” And DWR said “but that would take a long time and be hard” and Judge Roesch said “Then you better get started and you can start your pumps again when you bring me a take permit that says Take Permit, not a pretend bunch of documents.” And everyone looking on said, “hmm. DWR thinks laws don’t apply to them.” No wonder they can’t convince Delta residents that they would abide by a governance agreement for a Peripheral Canal.

Which is a shame. I think it is staggeringly irresponsible to have the drinking water supply for two huge cities to be as vulnerable as ours is. The known risks are shockingly high and the Delta will fail whether we build a Peripheral Canal or not. Nothing will save most Delta islands, so we might as well protect against the consequences of Delta failure. The other two options are to depopulate Los Angeles and San Diego or to find other water for them. Of the three options, the Peripheral Canal strikes me as the only possible one. So I’m for it. Battling all these forms of mistrust will make building it that much harder.






1The Delta is a collection of islands created by levees where the Sacramento and the San Joaquin meet and flow into the SF Bay. Hundred years ago it was salt marsh and people pushed up humps of dirt to create farmable islands. Then the interior of the islands started both blowing away and sinking. Now they’re bowls, twenty feet below the water level on the other side. When they break (earthquake (60% chance by 2030), flood of freshwater pushing on them from the river side, storm surges from the ocean side, sealevel rise overtopping them) the ocean will rush in to fill the bowl that is hundreds of acres big and twenty feet deep. The water pressure from that inward rush will almost certainly break many of the surrounding island levees. When this fails, it will fail spectacularly. The situation is bad.

Worse, most of the water for the central and southern parts of the states, including drinking water for roughly twenty million people, is drawn through deep channels between islands in the Delta to big pumps on the south end. When the islands break, the rush of salt water will mean we can’t run the pumps. You might think we could let the islands break, wait until the sloshing stabilizes, use river water to maintain a freshwater front, and reopen the pumps. But, we don’t have that much river water yearround (upstream reservoirs can’t hold enough to release it over the year) and I am told the pumps aren’t strong enough to pull in sheet flow from the new huge pond in the Delta. Water needs to get mostly to the pumps in channels the way it does with intact islands.

The Peripheral Canal is a proposed canal that would skirt the Delta entirely and deliver (some) river water directly to the pumps in the south.

2I avoid working on Delta issues as a matter of personal policy. Far as I can see, the Delta has consumed the careers of better people than me and I don’t want to work on a problem that complex. I watch from a distance and ask people what is going on.

3It is worth saying again that the threat to Delta existence is earthquakes, storms and sea level rise, not the canal we build in response to the threat. The west Delta islands will fail whether there is a Peripheral Canal or not.

Also, I think it is worth considering what it says about a group of people that they want the very expensive continuation of their unsustainable way of life at the expense of drinking water to twenty million people. Maybe it just says that they are as parochial as all humans, but I think it is a fairly nasty bit of extortion.


Filed under Peripheral Canal, Uncategorized

4 responses to “Trust and the Peripheral Canal

  1. Margie

    I would’ve laughed at Johns too. DWR believes the only law it has to follow is California Water Code. And really it’s only recently that major lawsuits have been filed to challenge their beliefs.

  2. The Brucolac

    Doesn’t the take permit story actually undermine the claim that DWR does whatever it wants, regardless of the law? That story seems to tell us that DWR thinks that it is not subject to the law, but that in fact the structures of the law (other agencies, the courts) force the agency to play along. See also, eg, the longfin smelt situation, in which DWR has, albeit grudgingly, gone ahead and applied for the take permit.

    More generally, DWR (and whoever else is in play) is severely constrained by public opinion and politics. It’s taken thirty-i-cant-remember-how-many-years to get to the point where reasonable people like our fair blogger here are even talking about the canal– I would expect that if built, it not be what management dorks a “nimble” operation. Radically changing its operation will require punching through several layers of the most intransigent folks in the state.

    The Delta farmers should be worried, indeed, and DWR is not trustworthy. BUT it is not some sort of free-skating rogue untouched by limits.

  3. onthepublicrecord

    You’re right. The courts reined DWR back in, so it is clearly possible. DWR is not purely rogue. But DWR also didn’t start out obeying the ESA and claiming that a bunch of other EIR’s equaled a Take Permit is weak sauce.

    If DWR wants to convince Delta farmers than it will operate the Peripheral Canal in accordance with some governance agreement, it would help if it had a history of scrupulous adherence to the law to point to.

    (Also, I very much liked your comment over at EotW. Are you someone I know from blogland?)

  4. The Brucolac

    I’m no-one in particular, neither in blogland nor California-land. I just think about the Delta (and the water projects, and desal, ang big and little ag &c. &c.) a lot, professionally and otherwise.

    I’m glad you liked that comment. Keep it up here– your posts are pretty much exactly what I want to be reading these days.