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Thursday, June 14, 2007 | In the 1950s, a man named Harvey O. Banks led efforts to build a massive system of dams, reservoirs and pumps that would help bring Northern California’s snowmelt to Southern California’s faucets.

The multibillion dollar plan known as the State Water Project has since become a vital water source for San Diego, in some years providing up to 70 percent of the water delivered to Southern California.

Smelted

  • The Issue: The delta smelt, a fish species close to extinction, has prompted the closure of a vital pumping station that delivers water from Northern California to Southern California.
  • What It Means: The nine-day closure of a pumping facility, which is now operating at reduced levels, highlights one of many concerns about the viability of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which provides water to an estimated 25 million people, including San Diegans.
  • The Bigger Picture: With the Colorado River mired in a prolonged drought, water agencies have been relying on the delta for their supplies. But a dry winter in the Sierra Nevada range and the pumping shutdown have those agencies questioning how the delta can be made more reliable.

Banks, the first director of the state Department of Water Resources, frequently leaned on a one-liner when touting the need for the expensive water project. “We must build now,” he would say, “and ask questions later.”

Today, academics, politicians and water managers are doing just that after a vital pumping station — named in Banks’ honor — shut down June 1 to protect the delta smelt, a tiny endangered fish considered a bellwether of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta’s ecological health. The shutdown has renewed calls for more investment in the delta, while raising questions about its long-term sustainability as a water source.

The Harvey O. Banks Delta Pumping Plant is an important cog in San Diego’s water supply. It draws water about 225 feet up into an aqueduct that winds 444 miles before feeding the San Luis Reservoir, which then delivers water south to Los Angeles and San Diego.

Right now, the water supply to Southern California has been cut off. The state Department of Water Resources says that without the normal supply, the reservoir contains enough water to provide normal deliveries to Southern California for the next four to five days. Though the pumps began operating again Sunday after a nine-day shutdown, they’re providing about 2 percent of their typical supply. As a result, the reservoir is less than half full.

While department officials are confident that the pumps will be turned back on, they’re also hesitant to say what would happen if they aren’t. If the shutdown continues longer than expected, water agencies may have to institute tough water-use restrictions — though officials say those are unlikely this year.

In another year, the pumping shutdown might go unnoticed in Southern California. But the region is already feeling the pinch from tightened water supplies. The Colorado River is in its eighth year of drought. The Sierra Nevada range, the region’s other major water source, had one of its driest winters on record.

The drought on the Colorado River “puts a lot of strain on a weak part of the water supply system,” said Ken Weinberg, director of water resources at the San Diego County Water Authority. “If we’re in a prolonged drought, we know we’re at the mercy of the Sierra watershed.”

If the pumps continue their reduced operation, the Metropolitan Water District, the agency that provides water to the San Diego County Water Authority, says it will have to tap into its surface and groundwater storage reserves, which contain more than 800 billion gallons, enough to last Metropolitan’s customers about a year. The district says the reserves will be an invaluable water source if the Sierras and Colorado River continue running low.

“If they continue pump restrictions, that does raise some concerns,” said Bob Muir, a district spokesman. “As this draws out through the end of the month, it will call into question whether we have supply impacts.”

The State Water Project draws from the Sierra snowmelt that flows into the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a fan-like series of tributaries that cover 1,250 square miles from Sacramento south to Tracy and ultimately converge at San Francisco Bay. The shutdown is just the latest in a series of threats highlighting the delta’s weaknesses.

The state estimates a 6.5-magnitude earthquake — about the same strength as the 1989 temblor that struck San Francisco — could destroy many of the earthen levees that direct water through the delta. A quake could cause $30 billion to $40 billion in destruction, the state estimates, and seriously damage the water conveyance system. Invasive species and toxic pesticide runoff from agriculture have further jeopardized the delta’s ecological health.

“The delta as it is now cannot continue to work for much longer,” said Jay Lund, a civil and environmental engineering professor at University of California, Davis. “The delta smelt are only one of many threats to continued pumping from the delta.”

The delta smelt, listed as threatened under the Federal Endangered Species Act, is a small fish that typically lives a year and grows no bigger than six inches. In six surveying trawls this year, state biologists found just 31 smelt at 51 checkpoints throughout the massive delta. At this point last year, surveyors had found 690. Those precipitous drops prompted state Department of Fish and Game officials to request the pumps’ shutdown to prevent the fish from being sucked in and ground up.

The results were so dire that state officials asked researchers in the delta to stop sampling for fish, fearing that even a small impact to the smelt’s population would push it closer to extinction.

“Right now we have to save every smelt we can,” said Chuck Armor, acting regional manager for the Department of Fish and Game’s Bay-Delta region. “We are extremely concerned.”

The pumps aren’t solely to blame, Armor said. State biologists are studying the impacts of invasive Asian clams and other non-native species in the delta, as well as toxic runoff from pesticides.

The pumping shutdown and dry Sierra Nevada winter highlights the precariousness of that mountain range’s water supply. But the stresses on San Diego’s water supply are also part of a broader lesson, a retelling of the West’s settlement. Manifest Destiny drove people west. They soon discovered their water supply wasn’t robust enough to sustain population growth and agriculture, and government spent billions of dollars to make things right.

Today, more people are again moving west. The renewed threat of water shortages is revealing that the water supply isn’t as robust as everyone thinks it is. And government is proposing to spend billions of dollars to make things right.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has touted a $6 billion bond package that would build two new reservoirs in Northern California. Schwarzenegger has called them a way to ensure the reliability of Southern California’s water supply.

The state Department of Water Resources has supported the bond measure, as has the San Diego County Water Authority — with caveats. The water authority wants more money spent on aqueducts that would ensure that a lone pumping facility won’t stop all water deliveries to Southern California.

“Storage, I think, is going to help,” said Gordon Hess, the water authority’s director of imported water. “But you do need to have conveyance facilities,” which would allow water to bypass the pump station that’s currently closed.

Critics of the infrastructure projects say the state would be better served by investing in conservation and water efficiency measures. The bond package contains $4.5 billion for the two reservoirs’ construction — boosting the supply side — and just $200 million for conservation, trimming the demand side.

“Reservoirs are a 20th century solution for a 21st century problem,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, a water resources think tank. “We have to stop looking to the delta for the solution. We have to pump less water out of the delta, because that’s one of the things that’s killing it.”

Steve Erie, director of the urban studies and planning program at University of California, San Diego, said the current political debate hearkens to a bygone age when the government financed massive infrastructure projects to address water needs.

“You’re beginning to see the drumbeat for a return to the old ways of reservoirs and aqueducts as a solution to a whole host of meteorological and environmental issues,” Erie said. “The problem of water is not going to go away for Southern California. This is just the start of a long, long debate.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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