Thursday, March 19, 2009

Canal wins few converts in Delta

Peripheral waterway plan gets harsh reception in S.J.

March 19, 2009

STOCKTON - Where's the water?

County water leaders peppered peripheral canal proponents with questions and a few pointed comments Wednesday, saying there's not enough water to maintain high exports to two-thirds of California while also saving the Delta.

That's precisely what the roughly $10 billion Bay-Delta Conservation Plan proposes to do: find a balance between water supply and ecosystem, in part by building a canal, plan spokeswoman Karla Nemeth told a feisty group of water commissioners.

"This is tough," Nemeth said.

"It's not tough, it's impossible," responded Commissioner John Herrick, an attorney who represents south Delta farmers.

The peripheral canal would be big enough to match the current capacity of the state and federal export pumps near Tracy; opponents fear it will siphon so much water around the Delta that farms will wither and the estuary will degrade into an inland sea.

Wednesday's meeting, while lively, was informational only; on Tuesday, the public will have a chance to make formal comments and suggest alternatives to the plan, which would give water users authority to continue taking Delta water.

"I understand there's a lot of questions and concerns, and that's probably putting it mildly," Nemeth told water commissioners.

Few new facts about the plan were revealed Wednesday. Nemeth estimated the cost at $10 billion to $11 billion; those who benefit from exported water would pay for the canal and some habitat restoration in the Delta, she said, although the government is paying a share of the current planning process.

The canal would be built within 15 years, she said. While the exact route is undetermined, it would skirt the east side of the Delta.

The heart of opponents' argument is that the State Water Project, which delivers Delta water to cities from the Bay Area to San Diego, was supposed to be supplemented with 5 million acre-feet of water diverted from North Coast rivers.

Those streams were later designated wild and scenic, and the water never came.

Nevertheless, pumping from the Delta increased over the past decade, peaking at more than 6 million acre-feet.

"The reality is likely to be that there is very little water available for exports" while also protecting the Delta, said Dante Nomellini, representing central Delta farmers.

Commissioner John Holbrook of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District asked Nemeth if the plan included returning Southern California to a desert landscape.

"Since we're restoring (the Delta), are we going to restore everything?" he asked.

No, Nemeth said, though she noted that the conservation plan does fit into a larger strategy that includes, for example, per capita water conservation of 20 percent.

The exact amount of water that can be sent south while protecting fish is yet to be determined, Nemeth said. But cutting exports to zero, she said, "would not be in keeping with the goals of the plan."

Contact reporter Alex Breitler at (209) 546-8295 or

Coming up

Public comments on the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan, including a peripheral canal, will be accepted at a meeting from

6 to 10 p.m. Tuesday at the Stockton Memorial Civic Auditorium. To learn more, visit

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