Commentary: Cal Poly water expert offers an Rx for the delta


Issue Date: September 9, 2009
Charles Burt

When Gov. Schwarzenegger declared that the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta was in a worsening crisis that threatened statewide economic and ecologic disaster, he set in motion a process to cure a "sickness" before it spread throughout California.

The governor created a special Delta Vision Task Force in 2006 to achieve what were called two co-equal goals: restore the delta and make California's water supply more reliable.


Charles Burt

The flurry of water bills being debated by the California Legislature makes this clear, since the core proposals focus on intending to restore the delta. Regardless of Sacramento politics, the delta environment will still dominate decisions because the Endangered Species Act and other regulations give the environment preference over human needs.

U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger emphasized the point in his decision on delta smelt. He stated that the Endangered Species Act requires protecting species, "whatever the cost." Therefore, until the federal ESA is changed, the co-equal goals of the task force cannot be met.

What does it mean to restore health to the delta?

The Delta Vision Task Force 2008 Strategic Plan correctly notes that the delta ecosystem cannot be returned to its pre-European condition, or a pristine state. It calls for a "regeneration" of the ecosystem and more conservation by all water users in California.

Even so, regeneration still implies returning the delta to some previous healthy condition.

At least two fundamental principles must be applied when advancing the ideas of the task force.

First, the water needs of the delta must be quantified and documented, which has not been done.

Water resources are limited.

Therefore, a plan must be developed to effectively use the water available within the delta and the results must be quantified to show the environmental benefits.

Second, conservation must also apply to water allocated to the environment—not just agricultural and urban uses, as the task force implies.

Agricultural and urban users already measure how efficiently they use their water; there is no similar requirement for the environmental use of water in the delta. More water for the delta is not better when there is no guarantee of improved performance with the water that is already available—especially because under the current understanding "more water" will come from other users who are already efficient.

In dry years, about four times as much water flows through the delta and into the ocean as is used for urban and agricultural purposes within the region.

This is not efficient when measured the same way as other water uses.

Delta water use efficiency during wet years drops dramatically, when about 25 times as much water flows through the delta and out to the ocean as is used for other purposes.

Additional storage such as the proposed Sites Reservoir in the Sacramento Valley could significantly increase the level of water use efficiency during wet years by saving some of this unused water for environmental purposes during dry years.

We can't squeeze more water out of California's already highly efficient agricultural areas for the delta without further depleting groundwater aquifers and making them unsustainable.

The Sacramento Valley is a fertile region that might be sacrificed for the delta.

The valley extends from Sacramento northward to Mt. Shasta. It relies on irrigation to grow a variety of crops, fruits, nuts, cattle and dairy products.

Ricelands, croplands and wildlife refuges in the Sacramento Valley also provide habitat for several endangered species, 4 million to 6 million geese and other waterfowl. Clean, renewable hydroelectric energy, drinking water and recreation are also important uses of Sacramento Valley water.

Farmers and irrigation districts in the Sacramento Valley use sophisticated technology to achieve a very high level of water use efficiency.

Almost all the remaining water ends up in the delta.

Requiring major increases in water conservation in the Sacramento Valley, as suggested by the task force, would result in eliminating agriculture and the food, jobs and wildlife habitat it provides.

As state leaders consider water issues, they should accept the simple truth that we cannot conserve our way out of the water supply crisis.

Additional storage and conveyance facilities are critical.

But the public also deserves a scientific accounting of how much environmental benefit is achieved with specific amounts of water for the delta compared to the cost or loss to the rest of California.

We can't be expected to absorb the cost of providing an unlimited amount of water to the delta without knowing the benefits.

This is asking too much of the people and environment of California.

(Charles Burt is chairman of the Irrigation Training and Research Center at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He teaches Irrigation Water Management, Agricultural Irrigation Systems, Irrigation Engineering and other related disciplines.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.