Who’s Serious about Delta Solutions?


CA_deltaby Shawn Smallwood –

It’s easy to forget that Yolo County encompasses a portion of the San Joaquin Delta — one of the Earth’s great estuaries.  Most of us in Yolo County live in upland areas relatively far from Delta waterways.  We often drive to Sacramento oblivious to the Delta’s presence beneath and around us, because the Delta was radically transformed from what most of us imagine a delta waterway is supposed to look like.  Where shallow flows in meandering and braided stream beds once supported expansive marshes and riparian forests, usually empty flood control basins now support agricultural crops over most years of the 10 to12-year El Nino climate cycle.  A levee system contains Delta streams within relatively linear channels, as well as periodic floodwaters within the flood control basins during El Nino events.  It’s when Yolo County’s flood control basins are filled that we in Yolo County are more aware of the Delta’s presence.

Those who transformed the San Joaquin Delta undoubtedly believed that their fete vastly improved conditions then and into the future for Californians.  Their work supplied much of the water needed to fill the Los Angeles Basin with people and to irrigate millions of acres of the Central Valley.  Their work also freed land for residential developments in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, brought shipping to Stockton and Sacramento, and fostered recreational boating and fishing.  The transforming work done during the Great Depression also employed many and helped bring America out of the Depression.  These benefits, however, come with great costs, most of which were unseen for decades but which are mounting as many interest groups draw battle lines to protect the specific benefits they realized from the Delta’s transformation.

Limits have been reached, and some limits were far exceeded due to abysmal, short-sighted planning decisions. The amount of water heading to the Central Valley and Los Angeles Basin leaves insufficient flow to the Bay to maintain the health and integrity of the San Francisco Bay and San Joaquin Delta system (Bay-Delta).  Native species are declining in this stressed system while invasive species spread throughout, including exotic mussels, crabs, fish, and channel-choking aquatic plants.  As salmon fisheries collapsed, the endangered Delta Smelt declined to critically low numbers, and herring numbers in the Bay crashed, sympathy waned for continuing water diversions to farmers and urban sprawl.  However, past and ongoing decisions established resource trajectories that severely impinge on the feasibility of alternative management strategies for responding to the crises in the Bay-Delta.

The Delta’s levee system cannot work forever to contain flows, unless of course flows are diverted to the point of leaving only a trickle to reach the Bay.  From my father’s boat on a recent Delta excursion, I had to look down to see the adjacent agricultural fields on the other side of the levees.  Delta water flows perilously high above the rest of the landscape, which of course floods whenever the levees fail.  How much longer should we believe these levees will manage to contain Delta flows?  If it is finally determined that we need to knock the levees back to at least partially repair the Delta’s flow regime, the land use and land ownership disputes will be fierce.

The decision to channelize the Delta’s flows also resulted in surrounding lands being converted to agriculture and severely limiting the extent of wildlife habitat.  Marsh vegetation was knocked back to within some portions of water channels and flood control basins, and riparian vegetation exists only as a narrow strip along the levees.  For species dependent on these vegetation complexes for nesting, foraging, or refuge, such as Swainson’s hawks, white-tailed kites, black-crowned nigh herons, and yellow-billed magpies, they now depend almost entirely on levees for their continued existence in our region.  Now that these species are thus dependent on the scant riparian forest along the Delta’s levees, the US Army Corps of Engineers plans to remove this forest as a means to protect the structural integrity of the levees.  The Army Corps’ plans will be catastrophic to local wildlife and would further degrade habitat conditions for salmon due to the loss of shade.

Further confounding possible solutions to the Delta’s problems, a race appears to be underway over who will control the flood control basins.  Los Angeles interests are buying up thousands of acres of the Delta’s flood control basins to secure water rights, and local government agencies are similarly attempting to secure water rights.  The City of Davis and UC Davis want rights to Sacramento River water as a future source of potable water because they know our groundwater cannot be tapped forever and other interests are currently grabbing up water rights. Partly to secure water rights, the County of Yolo wants to purchase Conway Ranch.  However, unable to come up with the asking price, the County missed a favored-buyer deadline set by Conway Ranch’s owners, so the Ranch is on the open market.  As various interests vie for control of flood control basins to secure water rights, I wonder what their water rights will mean to strategic options to repair the Bay-Delta system.

Control of flood basins is also sought by real estate developers, who need land on which to buy conservation easements as compensatory mitigation for their projects.  As I discovered while working on the Yolo County Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) during the mid-1990s, developers prefer to buy easements on land within flood control basins because that land is cheap and out of the way of future development plans.  However, conserving flood control basins cannot offset project impacts on upland grasslands because most of Yolo County’s rare and threatened species are adapted to upland conditions or to the juxtaposition of upland and wetland environments.  Buying conservation easements in flood control basins not only mismatches mitigation and impacts, but also imposes management conditions on the flood control basins that could thwart future decisions needed to repair the Bay-Delta.

Management restrictions for securing water rights and for buying misplaced conservation easements in flood control basins will further limit the available options for repairing the Bay-Delta.  They will prevent the option of re-engineering the levee system, which currently endangers people as well as the riparian forest-adapted species clinging to existence along narrow margins.  Preventing the re-engineering option will further the unfortunate perception that flood conditions are problematic rather than ecologically beneficial to our region.


In the face of collapsing salmon runs, species extinctions, exotic species invasions, chemical pollution, and contests over remaining water supply, policy-makers lately have been vocal about the need for Bay-Delta solutions.  There’s been a flurry of opinions and letters appearing in local newspapers.  California Senate Bill 458 is being considered in the State Legislature, though authors Lois Wolk and Mariko Yamada withdrew their support for it, alleging that south state water interests took over the process.

We need proposed solutions.  So far, however, announced solutions have been premature at best and misguided at worst. In one type of solution, the same mind set that brought us the disaster of the Delta’s flood control system threatens to set Californians back further yet.  The Governor wants more dams on rivers, a peripheral canal, and he wants the Sites Reservoir in Colusa County.  Advocates for the Sites Reservoir defend this project by claiming it is not a traditional dam, as the water would be pumped from the Sacramento River to Sites Valley for storage until it is needed by consumers during drought or when the Delta is in need of flushing.  Note, however, that the project’s advocates act like they know when it is best to extract water from the Sacramento River and when to give the water back to the Bay-Delta.  This is the same flood control thinking that has nearly completely destroyed the Bay-Delta.

Another proposed solution is to include Delta residents in strategy formulation.  Certainly Delta residents should be included, but they are not the experts whose involvement will be paramount to finding solutions.  They also are not the only Californians who depend heavily on the health and integrity of the Bay-Delta.  Neither would the inclusion of any other particular stakeholder group provide the solution.  We’re all stakeholders here, so we should all be involved at some level.  However, we need guidance from environmental experts more than from anybody else, and we need the political will to act on the guidance to the extent feasible.

As serious ecosystem assessment is needed of the Bay-Delta.  Goals and objectives must be agreed upon, such as which ecosystem services we wish provided by the Bay-Delta.  These services can include water deliveries, support of fisheries, wildlife and vegetation, flood protection, endangered species recovery, recreation, and many others.  Experts are needed to describe the physical and political conditions of the system, including barriers to resource flows, levels of pollution, distributions of native and exotic species, land ownership patterns and locations and types of easements.  Pressures (stressors) on the system need identification, such as existing, planned and future residential development and the water demands and pollution rates they bring.  New development projects and zoning adjustments are being made without much thought to what these decisions mean for the Delta.  Additional pressures might include increased water demand for all the natural gas-fired power plants recently permitted by the California Energy Commission, the thermal pollution and hundreds of thousands of fishes killed each year in the cooling-water intakes of power plants lined up along the Bay’s shores, and stream flow reductions caused by gravel mining operations.  If adequately conducted, an ecosystem assessment would likely surprise many people about why serious problems have emerged in the Delta.

With goals in mind, the ecosystem assessment must identify the pressures on the system, its current state, and ongoing and likely responses (e.g., consequences).  It then must formulate feasible measures to change the trajectories of the system toward those more consistent with our goals.  This effort requires leading roles of many scientists from multiple disciplines, sufficient funding, and open minds to measures that could bring a much brighter future to California.

SB 458 is insufficiently ambitious.  Instead of setting the stage for a serious ecosystem assessment, it proposes a Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy composed of 5 members from local government, 3 from public water agencies, 3 from federal and state entities, and 3 from environmental and environmental justice communities.  This Conservancy is to conduct pilot studies, environmental reviews, and acquire water and water rights.  SB 458 makes passing reference to the use of adaptive management.  However, what’s needed is a large team of environmental scientists charged with conducting an ecosystem assessment and formulating a comprehensive adaptive management plan.  To qualify as adaptive management, stakeholders must be involved from the outset, but the scientific team must be central and not peripheral to the process.  We need something bigger than the proposed Conservancy – a much larger team of scientists who can help show the way toward restoring more of the Bay-Delta’s ecosystem services before the way is completely blocked.

Shawn Smallwood is a self-employed ecologist who consults, performs research, and provides expert testimony for a variety of clients on endangered species issues and issues involving wildlife interactions with energy and transportation infrastructure, hazardous waste management, and agriculture.  He earned his Ph.D. at UC Davis in 1990.


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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3 thoughts on “Who’s Serious about Delta Solutions?”

  1. Anon

    Well written article, and on the surface it sounds great. But if a group of ecological experts were put in charge of any study about the Delta, I’m afraid the results of any study would be heavily weighted in favor of endangered species and the like. “Ecological experts” have often shot themselves in the foot by being too radical in their approach, so that now there is an erosion of trust in their decisionmaking abilities. They are probably too biased in favor of the environment at all costs – and hence the need to pull in people with differing agendas.

    However, there is no question the entire process is being highjacked politically by Darryl Steinberg, which is a shame. I thought better of him.

  2. DonShor

    Excellent article, Shawn. This kind of thing doesn’t get a lot of comments here, but I really wish more people locally would pay attention to Delta issues. I have watched over the years as governments at various levels, and vested interest groups, have taken steps toward Delta governance systems and management, starting with CalFed and now with the Delta Conservancy. No structure is going to make everyone happy, but it’s important to get everyone at the table and have at least some level of representation for each interest group. That is why the recent developments are so disturbing, and it is really distressing that a local leader of Darryl Steinberg’s caliber is responsible for them.
    I happen to support the development of Sites Reservoir, but I agree it is only a part of the puzzle and that how it is managed is really going to be key. It could be a useful asset, but it isn’t a panacea.
    Thanks for taking the time to post on this topic.

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