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.
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.