Building a canal to move drinking water from Sierra Nevada around the Sacramento delta is the best strategy for balancing costs and environmental needs, according to a Public Policy Institute of California report released today.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta serves as a conduit for Sierra Nevada snowmelt to be pumped to Southern California. Melting snow flows through the delta, a 738,000-acre area bounded by Sacramento, Tracy and Antioch. But pumps at the southern end of the delta have contributed to a sharp decline in the delta’s ecosystem — five fish found there are listed as endangered species.

The nonpartisan report says that building a canal to move water around the delta, a project defeated by statewide voters in 1982, is a cost-effective way to boost environmental protection while still allowing the vital water source to continue providing drinking water for the state.

The report studied four options:

  • Building the canal.
  • Maintaining the status quo.
  • Building a canal while also continuing to pump water through the delta. (An interim solution known as “dual conveyance.”)
  • Stopping water exports from the delta.

Stopping exports altogether offers fish the best chance of surviving, the report says. But that would prove enormously costly for millions who are dependent on the delta as a water supply.

The report says:

A clear tradeoff exists between a peripheral canal or dual conveyance and ending all exports. The canal and dual conveyance are better in terms of costs to the economy. Ending exports is better for fish. Selecting between building a peripheral canal and ending all exports will require a value judgment. The tradeoff may be easier to make if some economic benefits of a canal-based alternative are used to enhance ecosystem investments and improve environmental conditions in the Delta.


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