Thursday, October 1, 2009

$54 Billion to fix the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta—Is This the Price of Suburban Sprawl or has California Development Finally Reached its Environmental Limits?

Actually, its not a question of what it costs to fix the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, it’s a question of what can we afford to spend to send vast new quantities of water to southern California and the Central Valley. The latest estimates for “fixing” the delta have reached monumental proportions. But why do we assume that new development is a given, especially development that is not water-friendly—new tracts of suburban development with yards to water and swimming pools to fill? Why also do we assume that certain crops, like water-thirsty cotton, must be grown in the Central Valley? These and similar questions are apparently not being asked with enough volume to reach the ears of our legislators. Or is it that the California legislature is dominated by the votes of those whose constituents will most benefit by future water exports south?

The purpose of this discussion is not to dredge up the decades-old water wars between northern and southern California—the population increase in the south during the past 40 years pretty much made northern control over its water resources a distant memory. Nor is the purpose to renew the ancient call to split California into two states—again, a hopeless attempt to protect the fragile northern environment from exploitation by the south. There are, simply, not the votes to do it, and even if it could be done, it could only happen if the water in the north were somehow divided up as it is today anyway. No, the purpose of today’s lesson is to raise the question of whether California has finally reached the limit of the number of people and its environment can accommodate.

It’s too late to restore the delta to it’s prehistoric state—only a rising sea level will accomplish that, but not for hundreds of years. Until nature makes that repair permanent and wipes out all of man’s pretentions, the easiest “fix” has been to maintain the status quo and continue to repair the miles of levees constructed a century ago. The delta levees were built to create islands from the former marshlands so the land could be farmed. These levees are built of peat mud dredged from the delta bottom and sometimes lined with rock to protect them from wind and tides. But such efforts over the years have not been sufficient to keep nature at bay. Levees erode, and when they deteriorate far enough to collapse and allow the islands to flood, the natural salt-water intrusion that is always waiting to fill any void, will dilute more of the fresh water flowing downstream.

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that the peat island floors—millennia of rotted plant life—continue to sink. This is the effect wrought by decades of plowing the dry peat, which literally blows away in the wind. The result is that the levees have to be built higher, wider and stronger to maintain the same clearance from the tides.  Man’s efforts have been a mixed bag so far. Many of the islands and channels created so long ago continue to funnel fresh water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers around the ancient salt marshes to the huge pumps that send the fresh water south. But those islands and channels are ever more expensive to maintain. Rising sea levels in the years to come will make that job even more difficult. When man’s effort finally fails and the levees collapse, the fresh water flow will spread across the marshes and lose the ability to retard the salt water intrusion from San Francisco Bay. This will make the river water unsuitable for agricultural or residential use.

The fragility of these levees and the damage to wildlife has led to proposals of even larger structures to get northern California water south—everything from a peripheral canal to bypass the delta to a massive tunnel underneath it. The cost of these proposals is mind-boggling, especially when considered in the light of the huge budget crisis that California is now facing. Even if southern California voted to fund construction of these projects with it’s tax dollars, it would not solve the problem of the environmental damage that would continue to occur. Beside the alteration of the delta itself with bigger and more intrusive levees, there is the continuing question of fish population collapse and other environmental catastrophes that result when man plays God with the environment.

Isn’t it about time to ask ourselves how much longer we can continue to spend our environmental capital to enrich the agricultural and development interests in the various parts of California that are completely dependent on the import of water? Yes, those interests contribute mightily to the state’s economy, but at what price? We have the technology to pave over the entire state if we choose to do it, but should we? Isn’t there a limit to the number of suburbs that can be built on arid land and sustained by the natural resources that we have? Surely we must begin to consider whether more water-efficient crops and housing should be a pre-condition to any further manipulation of the delta’s water resources.

Or maybe we should just let natural selection take over and quit creating artificial environments watered by technology and allow more sensible rationing of the existing resources. Nature created the ancient delta, and if left alone, would create it again. And if there wasn’t enough water to irrigate water-intensive crops like cotton, perhaps farmers would find things to grow that could thrive with the existing water available. Subsidizing agriculture, or development, has its place, but where resources are scarce or endangered, we can find better uses for the land.

This is also where we consider whether higher density housing in established urban areas is preferable to suburbs, built far away from city centers and jobs, with large yards and open spaces which cannot really be sustained with the natural water sources available. If we build the suburbs first and then try to find water for them, the crisis will continue. But if we only approve those new developments that can also obtain proven, existing sources of water, then you will see a move toward higher density projects with less open space built closer to presently available resources. Developers understandably will build wherever they can make the greatest profit, and raw, undeveloped suburban land is usually where the greatest profit lies. But why do we have to subsidize irresponsible development, not only with the tax dollars necessary to provide water, but with the destruction of our natural environment in the bargain? Those same developers could build housing where it makes sense--in existing cities and towns. If it doesn’t make sense to build in a desert environment, then ask yourself, is the growth worth the price?

The California economy cannot afford the enormous cost of increasing the supply of delta water exported to new developments in the arid, southern parts of the state. California has a budget deficit of $40+ billion dollars this year that the Legislature covered temporarily with accounting tricks and major cutbacks to education and other social programs. But more important, the fragile delta environment cannot take yet another body blow without further collapse. We can’t wait for nature to restore the problem through global warming, nor should we. We have to call out future development without adequate available fresh water for what it is—naked aggression against the environment. Water exports from the delta should be limited to existing, drought-resistant landscaping for residential use and for crops that can be grown efficiently on a given supply of water.

To pretend that the Emperor isn’t naked is to deny the sorry state of our economy, but worse, to close our eyes to the destruction of a very unique and fragile environment. New suburban development should not be assumed. With a little consideration and ingenuity we should be able to continue to supply existing residential water needs in southern California. It might take a new dam or two to do it, but that would be better than re-plumbing or bypassing the entire delta and likely destroying what’s left of it. Have we reached the limit? Is the water emperor naked?

It’s time to speak up.