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California Can't Have it All: There's Not Enough Water to Support Farmers, Cities and the Environment

Nothing can be done in California that will keep its farms and big cities thriving at today's levels and also keep the fish and the Delta alive. So what do we do?

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One of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan's main goals is winning federal and state endorsement that the operation of the Peripheral Canal would not imperil endangered species like the salmon. In the hope of ensuring that an ecologically credible proposal is eventually presented to government regulators, several prominent environmental groups -- including The Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund, Defenders of Wildlife, American Rivers and the Bay Institute -- have been participating in the negotiating process.

The Peripheral Canal's proponents are also trading on the deep-rooted California fear of earthquakes. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there is a 2-out-of-3 chance that the Bay Area will be hit by a magnitude 6.7 or higher earthquake in the next 30 years. "The Big One" would likely collapse many of the levees that give the Delta what little integrity it has as a water-supply source today, swamping the pumps for the San Joaquin Valley farms and Los Angeles and San Diego with brackish, undrinkable water as seawater rushes in. A Peripheral Canal could greatly increase the Delta's resistance to an earthquake, as well as to seawater intrusion from rising ocean levels caused by global warming, which would likewise overwhelm the pumps with salt water.

Critics, though, remain uncertain about the Peripheral Canal's ecological benefits, and many see the Bay Delta Conservation Plan process as merely a smokescreen for an effort to push the new canal through, no matter what. "The (water) exporters wrote the rules for this process," says Jonas Minton, the water policy adviser for the Sacramento-based Planning and Conservation League, which, along with several other groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, has not joined the negotiations. "They loaded the dice. You had to agree (to the concept of a Peripheral Canal) in advance, before any scientific analysis was performed, or even begun."

Indeed, one irrigation district's boss says he was bluntly presented with a choice: Agree that "the most promising approach" to achieving a balance in the Delta for the next 50 years is the Peripheral Canal, or be left outside the negotiating room. Dante John Nomellini Sr. is the general manager and counsel of the Central Delta Water Agency. His agency supplies farmers in the Delta itself, and he is therefore wary of a project that could streamline other water agencies' ability to export water from the region. "This whole thing is just a fig leaf for the water contractors," he says. "They're just trying to use the Bay Delta Conservation Plan as cover to get through the Endangered Species Act requirements."

And though it's crystal clear how a Peripheral Canal would improve life for Southern California's cities and the irrigation districts in the San Joaquin Valley, it's not clear that it would make things better for fish, given the chance that it could be used to take even more river water that would otherwise flow into the Delta. The environmental groups that do have seats at the negotiating table have played an important role in insisting that the water agencies come up with a plan that will pass ecological muster. "They've been trying to find a lot of shortcuts to get there," says Ann Hayden, who represents the Environmental Defense Fund in the negotiations. "But when it comes to permitting, you've got to have a credible, scientifically sound plan."

Ultimately, the negotiations are less about the technical details of a Peripheral Canal than whether it would be operated in good faith. "It all comes down to how it's operated, and who's governing (the operation)," Hayden says.

The environmental groups in the negotiations essentially play only an advisory role; the quarreling government and water agencies have the real power. As the negotiations grind on, it has become increasingly clear that irrigation districts like Westlands, and urban water agencies like the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies water to 19 million people in L.A. and San Diego, are seeking guarantees that they'll be allowed to pump roughly the same amount of water they did in 2005, when pumping hit its historic peak.

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