As California endures an increasingly brutal second year of drought, state water regulators are considering an emergency order that would bar thousands of Central Valley farmers from using stream and river water to irrigate their crops.
In a new symbol of California’s worsening drought, construction crews are putting the finishing touches on a $10 million emergency project to build a massive rock barrier through part of the Delta in Contra Costa County to preserve water supplies for millions of people across the state.
The 800-foot long barrier — the size of San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid laid on its side — is essentially a rock wall, 120 feet wide, built in water 35 feet deep.
Its purpose: To block salt water from the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay from flowing too far east and contaminating the huge state and federal pumps near Tracy that send fresh water south to 27 million people — from San Jose to Los Angeles — and to millions of acres of farmland in the Central Valley and beyond.
Normally the cargo moving through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta contains expensive commodities meant for ports all around the world, but in drought-riddled California the most indispensable freight is currently destined for the river bottom.
Tugboats pushing and pulling barges loaded with boulders have suddenly become key performers in the state’s battle with a rapidly expanding drought, delivering supplies needed to reinforce California’s buckling water system. Around the clock crews dump the expensive cargo into the river strategically, racing to block salty tidal flows from the water pumps that sustain billions of dollars worth of crops hundreds of miles away.
Construction of a temporary salinity barrier on the False River is underway after an emergency request by the Department of Water Resources was approved by the State Water Resources Control Board.
The barrier, necessitated by worsening drought conditions, is intended to help preserve water quality in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by reducing saltwater intrusion. The declaration of a drought emergency made by Gov. Gavin Newsom on May 10 suspended the requirement that a project of this nature complete a California Environmental Quality Act assessment.
In the latest chapter of California’s unfolding drought, state officials are planning to build a giant rock wall across a river in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to save the vital freshwater estuary from San Francisco Bay’s saltwater.
The Metropolitan Water District’s board of directors voted Tuesday to spend another $58 million to support the study and design of an underground tunnel in the North Delta that would divert large amounts of fresh water and send it to municipalities and agribusinesses in southern California.
On a warm, sunny afternoon in late November, Roger Cornwell stopped his pickup near the edge of a harvested rice field to avoid spooking a great blue heron standing still as a statute, alert for prey. He pointed to a dozen or so great egrets at the opposite end of the field as a chorus of killdeer sang a high lonesome tune in the distance.
In spring and summer, when the skies are warm and the shadows thin, California’s snowy Sierra Nevada and southern Cascades unleash billions of gallons of fresh water each day, a melted bounty that nourishes the state’s mightiest rivers before converging slowly on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt calls for “a ‘Grand Bargain’ in which all the parties achieve a consensus, confirmed in legislation, to apportion Delta water between exports and an adequate ecological flow to San Francisco Bay.” We agree. Let’s start with a statewide water audit. Leadership now asks, “How much was promised?” That question ignores the reality of how much water actually exists and leads to endless litigation, as Babbitt explained.
At the end of July, Gov. Gavin Newsom released his revised plan for bringing long-term water security to all Californians. But his announcement was overshadowed by San Joaquin County and several Delta communities scrambling to confront the worst cases of toxic algae blooms ever seen on local sloughs and rivers.
These green, floating slicks brought a new level of criticism to Newsom’s agribusiness-friendly water proposal. That’s because the governor’s strategy relies in large part on the controversial Sites Reservoir proposal and the even more contentious Delta tunnel proposal. Conservation groups say both projects—particularly the tunnel—could worsen the problem of dangerous algae contamination in regional waterways.
Meanwhile, the state continues to spend large sums of money on both multibillion-dollar projects with little clarity on who will ultimately foot the bill as the COVID-19 pandemic drains evermore revenue from public agencies.