California Water: Old Song, New Lyrics

BY Spencer Michels  August 2, 2012 at 5:10 PM EST


The Sacramento San Joaquin delta waterway is a source of water and trouble. Photo by Spencer Michels.

When I was in junior high school in San Francisco, in the early 1950s, I had a student teacher in social studies named Mr. Smith who spent most of a semester teaching us about the Central Valley Project. The CVP, as it’s called, is the federal project that built Shasta Dam on the Sacramento River in the 1940s, and impounded water that was (and still is) sent down the river in the summer, when there isn’t much natural flow. That water has slaked the thirst of Californians to the south. Our class learned what a miracle the water plan was. A whole semester on the CVP? I was hooked on California water.

Then, in the 60s, at my first television job, I spent several weeks making a documentary on the dedication of Oroville Dam, part of the huge state water project, instituted by Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown. Like its federal brother, the state project carried northern California water south, to Los Angeles and San Diego, and to farmers in the very dry west part of the San Joaquin Valley. That water has made the valley bloom, and has enhanced the value of previously worthless land. Again, not a lot of vocal opposition. This was man taming nature. My 7th grade unit on California water was paying off.

The whole point of both these water projects was to take water from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where it falls plentifully as both rain and snow, and direct it to parts of California that are essentially deserts. Without northern California water, southern California would remain arid and (though it’s hard to imagine) unpopulated. And the west side of the San Joaquin valley would remain barren, like it was until a few decades ago.

The plumbing system that carries that water south is amazing. Huge pumps suck water from the Delta, the place where most of California’s water flows, on its way out to sea. Instead, the water is directed to gigantic canals that carry it hundreds of miles to the south; at the Tehachapis, the mountains that divide southern from northern California, the water is pumped over the mountains with a great expenditure of electricity, and it flows into the LA Basin and beyond. But the system has wreaked havoc with the natural order of things in the Delta.

The Delta used to be full of watery marshes, teeming with fish and wildlife. Today the Delta is full of levees that allow farmers to grow crops, often below sea level. Delta farmers mostly get free water, and they are not happy when anyone wants to take that water and ship it south. The water that goes to the pumps has reduced the flow through the Delta and out to sea, allowing salt water from San Francisco Bay to intrude into the Delta. The fish and the farmers don’t like that. And the pumps suck in fish, and turn them into hash. Even expensive fish screens have failed to stop the killing. The lack of water, plus the levees, changed the habitat; today fish populations have declined to the point of near extinction for some species. And the marshes are all but gone.

In 1982, when Jerry Brown — Pat Brown’s son — was governor the first time, he proposed and fought hard for a canal that would take water around the Delta, and deliver it to huge pumps so it could be sent south without the hassle of flowing through the small sloughs and rivers and channels. I covered the battle over that proposal, which was called the Peripheral Canal. And, unlike the campaigns to build the CVP and the State Water Project, there was plenty of opposition this time. It was a nasty fight, that mostly pitted Northern Californians against Southern. Big agriculture and eager developers in LA were painted as the villains — eager to profit by stealing water that nature intended to remain in Northern California. Northerners decried the image of Southern Californians filling their swimming pools with northern water. The north won; the plan was defeated, and now it appears that Jerry Brown never got over it.

In his second stint as governor, he’s proposing a new plan to ease the passage of water south. He and the federal government want to dig huge, 35-mile-long tunnels under the Delta, to carry water from the Sacramento River right to the big pumps. Farmers and Southern Californians have complained their supply isn’t reliable enough because courts have ordered less water pumped though the system, to ease the toll on fish. The new plan — at least $14 billion for the tunnels alone — would come with improved fish screens, and would make it easier to get water out of the Delta to where it’s needed. The plan is only partially developed; the exact engineering, financial and environmental details are yet to be worked out.

But already, the same old forces that battled 30 years ago are battling again. North vs. South; farmers vs. environmentalists; Delta land owners vs. West Valley agriculturalists. Governor Brown says he wants to get it done; there’s a hint of following in his father’s footsteps, leaving a watery legacy. But there is no assurance he will prevail. Despite agreements and much-ballyhooed cooperation over the years between these opposing forces, the old antagonisms are still there. While there doesn’t appear to be a state-wide vote on the twin tunnel plan in the cards, there will be local votes on bond issues to pay for the construction, and there will undoubtedly be law suits. The battle over California water has been joined.

Where have I heard that song before?