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As a result, salinity levels in the Delta have increased more than sevenfold since the early 1900s. Some water channels even flow backwards now because of the lack of freshwater coming from rivers. "The fish have been in a continuous decline for the past thirty to forty years," noted Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that has fought to protect fish in the Delta and opposes BDCP. "In some cases, we've gone from tens of millions of fish to tens of thousands of fish."
In recent years, tens of millions of fish — most notably the pinky-sized Delta smelt, whose population numbers are an indicator of the well-being of the entire estuary — have also been sucked into the Tracy water pumps and shredded to death. In 2008, a federal judge ordered a 35 percent reduction in water diversions from the Delta to protect the fish. The decision sparked years of fierce litigation, with politically influential water districts pushing for weaker fish protections and environmentalists pushing back.
For the past several years, state officials, several water districts, and some environmental groups have been working on a solution to the Delta's environmental and water reliability problems, and last month the state released a preliminary draft of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. The massive public works project includes two main components: The first is building two 40-foot-wide, 35-mile-long water tunnels that would connect to the Sacramento River before it reaches the northern section of the Delta and would extend south to Tracy, where the existing pumps would push the water to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California via the canals and aqueducts the state already uses.
The ratepayers of six major water districts — including the politically powerful Westlands Water District, which supplies water to Big Agribusiness in the San Joaquin Valley, and the Metropolitan Water District, which provides water to 19 million customers in Southern California — would pay for most of the construction costs. The entry point of the giant tunnels would be equipped with state-of-the-art fish screens, which would partially solve the problem of fish kills at the pumps in Tracy, and thereby make water deliveries more dependable.
The second portion of BDCP is a 120,000-acre wetlands restoration project, which would be completed during the next fifty years. The goal of this project is to create an abundance of shallow tidal wetlands that would increase the amount of natural habitat for endangered fish. According to California Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham, the restoration project would be so big that it will potentially be "observable from space." Unlike the water tunnels, this portion of the plan would be financed by $4 billion in general obligation bonds paid by California taxpayers.
While both components of the proposal look appealing on paper, numerous environmental groups and small farmers in the Delta contend that BDCP is shortsighted and deceptive. The habitat restoration project, for example, would forcefully retire thousands of acres of farmland in the Delta and could eventually devastate the region's agricultural economy. The twin tunnels would be able to divert significantly more water away from the estuary than is currently possible and thus could deteriorate water quality. And there is no solid evidence that increasing the amount of tidal wetlands would benefit certain threatened fish.
In fact, at least one top official in the Brown administration has admitted that the BDCP plan will not save the Delta. "BDCP is not about, and has never been about, saving the Delta," Jerry Meral, deputy secretary at the California Natural Resources Agency, told Tom Stokely, a longtime water advocate, earlier this year, according to several news reports. "The Delta cannot be saved."
Meral's comments confirmed what many critics of BDCP have contended for years — that the plan is really only about making sure that Big Ag in the San Joaquin Valley and residents of Southern California get plenty of freshwater.
"The Delta is the target of this plan," argued Russell Van Loben-Sels, whose family has farmed the Delta for more than a century. "Other areas will benefit from water reliability, but we stand to lose, both in the extent of our agricultural industry, and in water quality and quantity."
Crossing the Paintersville Bridge, which connects the city of Sacramento to the northern Delta, is like crossing into a different time period. "We really haven't changed all that much since I was a kid," said Loben-Sels. "Our towns are pretty much the same. Our bridges are the same. Most of the houses are still the same."
Loben-Sels' family was among a wave of European farmers who came to the Delta during the late 1800s. "The first order of business was building levees, and that's what they did for 20 or 25 years," he said. Farmers drained what was in essence a lake within the northern Delta's Pearson District, and planted row after row of pears, barley, and wheat. Nearly a century and a half later, Loben-Sels continues to operate a 2,500-acre farm on the very same land his great-grandfather once plowed. "At the higher grounds, up against the levee, we grow wine grapes, pears, some apples, kiwis, and cherries," he explained. "In the lower lands we grow a lot of corn, wheat, and safflower."