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Friday, Sept. 21, 2007 | ON THE SACRAMENTO-SAN JOAQUIN RIVER DELTA — They were right.

In the 1950s, biologists studying the massive system that now delivers water from here to Southern California made a prediction. Allowing trillions of gallons of snowmelt to flow through the delta and sucking it out on the other side would have serious impacts on fisheries.

Today, the delta smelt, a tiny endangered fish, hovers on the brink of extinction. The endangered Chinook salmon has dodged extinction and is now recovering. And a third fish, the longfin smelt, is being considered for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The water project’s Eisenhower-era designers offered a suggestion: Build a canal to catch snowmelt before it entered the delta and its sensitive ecosystem. The canal would have curved around the delta’s eastern fringes. It was never constructed and was eventually voted down in 1982 after a divisive campaign that pitted Northern California against Southern California.

The decision to pump water out of the delta was one in a string of decisions that indelibly altered the region’s landscape. From above, the delta’s complexity comes into focus. Some sixty islands — farms that often sit below sea level — are walled off from the rivers that course through the delta, an area the size of Yosemite National Park. While the rivers are natural phenomenon, fueled by melting winter snows, their paths are not. Since the 1850s, generations of settlers have turned the delta’s wetlands into farmland, converting natural rivers into channeled paths.

In the early 1960s, the state stuck pumps into the delta’s southern fringes. The massive pumps pull billions of gallons of water through the delta each day, sending it to 23 million Californians and 2 million acres of agriculture.

But as the depth of the delta’s problems has received increasing attention this year from lawmakers, water supply managers, environmentalists and academics, questions have been raised about the efficiency of those pumps. They’ve contributed to the decline of the delta smelt, a three-inch long fish listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

With attention on the pumps, a controversial concept called the peripheral canal has reappeared. Instead of pulling water from the southern delta — think of it as the bottom of the bucket — the canal would divert some water from going into the bucket at all.

But to many familiar with the delta and California’s water history, those two words are anathema.

“The Peripheral Canal was a specific proposal that’s no longer viable. That’s a pejorative word,” says Dennis Cushman, assistant general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority. “People associate it with something that somehow was a boogeyman.”

Part of the problem with the 1982 proposal was its massive size, says Gary Bobker, program director at the Bay Institute, a Bay Area-based environmental group. The canal was large enough to capture the entire flow of the Sacramento River. Northern California communities were concerned that the canal would cause the delta to dry up, while Southern California continued growing.

“The whole thing back in ’82, it was all about the environment, it was about saving the delta by not building the canal,” says Steve Erie, a University of California, San Diego political science professor. “In 25 years, the argument has shifted 180 degrees.”

Today, some of the same environmental concerns that helped kill the canal in 1982 are fueling its revival. Although no specific proposals or designs have been offered, a smaller peripheral canal has been conceived to divert water from the delta’s eastern edge. Supporters say that would reduce pressure on fish such as the delta smelt, because pumps wouldn’t be drawing water through their habitat.

The environmental impacts of such a canal are not known. It could restore the east-west flow of the delta’s water, which is currently pulled south by state pumps. While it could improve the delta smelt’s chances of dodging extinction, the canal could also complicate migration patterns for salmon. It would likely cost billions and take years to build.

As the proposal has been revived, so have concerns that the delta’s environment will be stripped bare as Southern California continues drawing massive amounts of water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. Environmentalists worry that spending billions on a peripheral canal will encourage state water users to maintain their reliance on the delta for water.

“The concern is that if you’re going to build a facility, you’re going to want to use it and keep it filled as much as you can,” says Bobker, of the Bay Institute.

Bobker says before a peripheral canal is proposed, a key question must be answered: How much water can be exported from the delta, while allowing its ecosystem to flourish?

U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger has ordered a reduction in the amount of water pulled out of the delta next year, a move that could cut exports as much as 37 percent. It’s a sign that the delta will not continue supplying as much water as it has in the past.

Bobker says the water agencies dependent on the area must increase their self-sufficiency, not continue relying on the delta and its struggling ecosystem.

“However much water we pull out, it’s probably going to be less than today,” Bobker says. “If that’s the case, do you want to build a [a canal] if it doesn’t increase your water supply?”

David Fullerton, a resource specialist with the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District, says the canal is needed, though he acknowledges the challenges it faces.

“Part of the concern,” he says, “is that once the canal is built, Southern California will lose interest in the delta and it’ll dry up. … I’d like to think that times have changed quite a bit. I think a lot of the north-south buttons would be pushed again, but there’s a higher understanding of the benefits.”

Leaving the delta alone and letting nature take its course — allowing levees to collapse, potentially flooding hundreds of thousands of acres — is not an option, says Bruce Herbold, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency biologist.

“There’s a perception that if this all goes to hell, it’ll be good for fish,” Herbold says. “That’s totally, totally, totally wrong. It will be a catastrophe. Disaster is not good for anybody.”

Southern California water suppliers point to the last 25 years as evidence that drawing water through the delta cannot work.

“Fish and wildlife, they’re in peril. Our water supply is in peril. The levees are in peril,” Cushman says. “The bottom line is that the bay delta isn’t serving any purpose very well right now.”

But the canal is not offered as a complete solution. It would not address the seismic instability of the delta’s 1,100 miles of levees. Many see the canal as an idea worth considering — if only part of a larger solution. A task force is currently weighing the delta’s broader future; it is expected to offer recommendations for specific remedies by year’s end.

Bill Bennett, a UC Davis research ecologist, says the group has major questions to answer.

“On the delta, you get the feeling of a bayou kind of existence: laid-back, up close to water and nature, birds everywhere,” he says. “It’s a very natural place, even though we’ve obviously changed it substantially. It’ll never be what it was, but we’ve proven that we have the power to make it anything we want it to be. It’s time we started being proactive about that rather than reactionary. How does society want it? Do we want it to be a pipe to San Diego? Or a system for supporting fisheries?”

Or can it be both?

“Only now are people trying to grapple with just what that would mean,” he says. “Putting a peripheral canal on the table is not a dumb suggestion in that vein.”

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

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