The Sacramento‑San Joaquin Delta is a special place. It is where the two longest rivers in the state come together. It is home to more than 700 plant and animal species, both thriving and endangered, and serves as a stop along the Pacific Flyway bird migration route. Its fertile soil supports an important part of our state’s agricultural landscape.
The Delta also serves as the hub of California’s water system. Snowmelt and rain flows down five rivers from various points in northern California and through the Delta. This in turn provides drinking water to 25 million Californians, including those in Santa Clara County, and irrigation water to 3 million acres of farm land, including Central Valley farmers who contribute over a third of the country’s vegetables and two‑thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts.
But this place that so many depend on is under threat. Climate change and rising seas, aging levees, the possibility of earthquake damage and a fragile Delta ecosystem all threaten the reliability of the water that is transported to us through the Delta by the State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project.
Water managers, politicians, law-makers and academics agree we must find a comprehensive solution to ensure the reliability of the water from the Delta, as well as to protect the sensitive Delta ecosystem and the economy and homes of those who live and work there. However, not everyone agrees on what that solution is.
In an effort to resolve the Delta’s issues, the state put forth a draft plan in 2010 called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan that aimed to meet the goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem. In response to public concerns, in 2015 the state split the plan into two pieces. Today, the state’s preferred alternative for the water supply reliability goal of that plan is known as the “California WaterFix” project and the majority of ecosystem restoration work is now occurring under a separate program known as “California EcoRestore”.
This is not the only plan that has been proposed to improve water supply reliability, but it is by far the most developed and critiqued. Based on its own analysis, the state believes the project will significantly improve the reliability of supplies transported from the Delta, but at a cost of about $17 billion (2014 dollars). The plan is also intended to reduce impacts to fish caused by the existing pumping plants.
It’s important to note that this project is still in the planning phase, and this planning is what the Santa Clara Valley Water District is relying on to provide our board with the information it needs to determine whether to support or participate in the California WaterFix project, or to forego participation.
What is the plan?
The California WaterFix project is an attempt to improve the reliability of the water supply moving through the Delta while also improving ecosystem health and protecting fish and wildlife. It is not intended to increase the amount of water that water districts south of the Delta will receive, but to guard the existing water supply from the effects of sea level rise, climate change, earthquakes, and increasing regulatory constraints. In this capacity, the state expects it to protect the homes and businesses that rely on water flowing through the Delta should any of those disasters strike.
The plan will include the following features:
Adding a new point from which the state and federal water projects draw water from the Delta. Currently, those intake points are in the south end of the Delta near endangered species habitats. Operation of these south Delta pumps is often restricted to protect these species. The plan would build new intakes in the north end of the Delta that are equipped with fish screens designed to protect fish, including small fish like the Delta Smelt. This will also give the state flexibility to draw water from either the south or north Delta as needed to minimize impacts to fisheries.
Moving water using gravity through two underground tunnels intended to protect the water from sea level rise, earthquakes, floods and levee failure.
Transporting water drawn from the north through the new pipeline to the existing pumping plants in the south Delta, which will not be modified or expanded. All water diverted from the Delta would have to move through these existing pumping plants, whether or not the tunnels are put in place. Therefore, the project would not increase the physical capacity of the state or federal governments to divert water from the Delta. But because of the ability to draw water from the north with less environmental impact, the state anticipates being able to provide a more consistent water supply to contractors such as the Santa Clara Valley Water District, with the tunnels in place.
Establishing criteria to protect river flows and fish, including reinstating more natural flow directions. The existing pumps often cause rivers in the south Delta to flow backwards. The proposed project would reduce this occurrence in the south, and new regulations would prevent the new intakes from creating these conditions in the north.
Does the water district support the plan?
The Santa Clara Valley Water District Board of Directors has not yet decided whether to support or participate in the California WaterFix project. They are still gathering information and weighing options.
The public is invited to the board’s discussions of the California WaterFix project. These often happen during regular board meetings, but also during ad hoc board committee meetings and special workshops. Over the last several years, the board has hosted several dozen workshops and presentations on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and California WaterFix projects to hear updates and consider diverse perspectives.
More information on the state’s plans can be found on the state’s California WaterFix website.
In parallel with development of the California WaterFix, the State is proposing to accelerate restoration of at least 30,000 acres of habitat by the year 2020 under a separate program called California EcoRestore. The State’s intent is to continue restoring habitat beyond this initial target under the California EcoRestore program.
According to a recent report by the San Francisco Estuary Institute, 98% of the freshwater emergent marsh in the Delta has been lost. That report concludes, “[t]he Delta no longer functions as a delta, spreading river and bay water and sediment across wetlands, floodplains, and riparian forests. Recovery of some of these lost ecological functions is considered crucial to ecosystem restoration in the Delta.”
The water that used to spread across these areas during the twice daily tides, monthly spring tides, and seasonal flood flows would transport nutrients between these marshes and the adjacent waterways. These nutrients essentially fed the ecosystem. Wetlands are highly productive habitat, creating food for fish and wildlife within the marsh, as well as along its edges, and potentially beyond. Many of these wetland areas also provide critical rearing, spawning and refuge habitat for numerous fish and wildlife species. The deepening, straightening, and leveeing of Delta channels has disconnected these habitats and eliminated many of the important functions they served.
Numerous researchers have concluded that the current Delta does not provide enough food, at the right time, and place for native fish to thrive, and the food that is available is often of lower quality than found historically. Delta food levels are often described as among the lowest of all estuaries studied. And, the food web supporting native fishes has shifted to smaller and less nutritious sources.
California EcoRestore will use funding from several sources including from the water agencies that import water from the State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project such as the Santa Clara Valley Water District. The initial targets are:
3,500 acres of managed wetlands created
17,500+ acres of floodplain restoration
9,000 acres of tidal and sub-tidal habitat restoration
1,000+ acres of aquatic, riparian and upland habitat restoration
5 fish passage improvement projects
35,000 feet of riparian habitat created
More information on the state’s plans can be found on the state’s California EcoRestore website.
California WaterFix Fact Sheet [PDF]
California EcoRestore Fact Sheet [PDF]
Previous Bay Delta Conservation Plan Updates and Special Board Meetings on Delta Planning Efforts
Santa Clara Valley Water District Bay Delta Conservation Plan Ad Hoc Committee
Proposed Tunnel Intake map
Click to enlarge