Capitol Corridor
University of California
Capitol Corridor

Posts Tagged: Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

California’s delta: On the front lines of the state’s water issues

Stephanie Carlson researches native California fish populations in "intermittent streams" in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Photo: Edward Caldwell.
On June 3, 2004, a small trickle of water started to flow through a levee on the Jones Tract, a patch of farmland west of Stockton that sits below sea level. Of California's 27 million acres of irrigated croplands, the tract's 12,000 acres weren't exactly at the forefront of anyone's mind. But within a few hours the rivulet had become a deluge, opening a 350-foot-long gash in the wall that was built to hold back the waters of the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta. The land quickly became a lake, submerging asparagus fields, corn silos, and dozens of homes beneath 60 million gallons of water. Repairing the break required six months of constant pumping and cost approximately $100 million; farmers throughout the Central Valley, who depend on the delta's 1,100-mile-long network of levees, had a new reason to lose sleep at night. The cause of the initial rupture was a beaver, working to expand its home.

California water: Few natural resources are as impressive, or as imperiled. Whether it's supplying 40 million domestic users, cooling the server farms of Silicon Valley, or irrigating the actual farms that supply half of the nation's produce, the importance of the state's aquifers and headwaters cannot be overstated. (Lake Tahoe, Yosemite Falls, and white-water rafting on the Kern and American Rivers feel like an embarrassment of riches.) While the potential for a multi-decade drought has grabbed headlines, however, California's water supply faces assault from a host of lesser-known factors including infrastructure failure, pollution, habitat loss, and plain old political chaos. This issue is strongly interdisciplinary, so it's only natural that UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources professors and students have been at the forefront of analyzing the problems and beginning the search for solutions. Several Berkeley professors have even served on the Delta Independent Science Board (DISB), a group of experts appointed by the state to oversee the quality of scientific research on California's contentious delta water issues.

Supply vs. demand

Professors and Delta Independent Science Board members Vincent Resh (right) and Richard Norgaard stand on a levee on Sherman Island along the Sacramento River. (Photo: Edward Caldwell)
When asked to name the three greatest threats to California's water, Richard Norgaard, Berkeley professor of energy and resources (and the DISB's first chair, who still serves on the board), couldn't be more clear.

“Issue number one, one, and one is that a substantial portion of the acreage in agriculture is supported through groundwater overdraft, even in normal-rainfall years,” he says.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, California's cities, factories, and farms soak up about 38 billion gallons every day. And while most people think of water in terms of rivers, lakes, and rain, over a third of the state's supply comes from aquifers deep underground. Only one in six Californians relies on groundwater alone to supply their domestic needs.

“We've been mining water to expand use beyond surface-water allocations,” says Norgaard. “Groundwater is close to gone, and agriculture is saying, ‘Where's our water, where's our water, where's our water?'”

Given that much of California is a desert — and that decades-long droughts are not impossible — intelligently managing California's limited supply is crucial. Gov. Jerry Brown recently ordered municipalities to cut home water usage by a whopping 25 percent, and California residents gave themselves a well-deserved pat on the back when usage for July 2015 surpassed that target by 6 percent. But there's one problem: Domestic use accounts for only 10 percent of California's total water consumption. Agricultural use, on the other hand, accounts for closer to 40 percent.

At first glance, that doesn't seem entirely inappropriate. Fruits, vegetables, and nuts, not to mention Northern California's incomparable wine and cheese — why shouldn't the farmers who feed half of the nation take half of the water that the state has to offer?

“Do you know what percent of the state's economy is agriculture?” asks Vincent Resh, a professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM) and another DISB member. “Less than 2 percent.” It's a very vocal 2 percent, though, and there are volumes of case law — and a good amount of political muscle — dedicated to maintaining the status quo. “I'm very sympathetic toward the plight of farmers in the delta,” Resh continues. And farmworkers are the poorest of California's poor, with seasonal unemployment rates reaching upwards of 60 percent. “It's the human side of the story that I've become extremely sensitive about.”

Nonetheless, Resh recalls being on a delta tour that was packed with people who identified themselves as delta farmers.

“They were all talking about how this has been their family heritage for generations, but they were working as lawyers and bankers," Resh said. "They were really talking about a way of life that was long gone for them personally, but a memory that they were holding on to. Actually, this ‘way of life' idea is true of many of the contentious water issues in California. The controversies over who gets the water in the Klamath River in Northern California and Oregon are as much about way of life as they are about water for agriculture and salmon.” 

A fragile water system

Nobody is suggesting an outright end to farming in California, but it's becoming increasingly clear that change is coming. One looming problem is the fragility of the levee system. Drive around Sacramento's rural environs and you'll realize that a lot of farmers actually do their work below sea level, with nothing but a hodgepodge system of peat dams and concrete rubble to restrain the brackish delta waters. Overactive beavers, like the one on the Jones Tract, are the least of the problem.

Like everyone else in California, the engineers who watch over the delta's levee system are at the mercy of probability, breathing a sigh of relief every day that goes by without the catastrophic shaking of the Big One.

“In any given year, there's not a large chance of a huge earthquake,” says David Sunding, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension specialist and chair of the UC Berkeley Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. “But those risks accumulate over time. And by the time you look two decades into the future, there's a two-thirds chance of a very large quake that will affect the delta's water system.”

Even an apparent bounty — consecutive years of high rainfall — poses risks. River flows would rise along with reservoir levels, placing added stress on levees so that even a minor structural failure could set off a chain reaction, flooding fields and devastating crops.

“The current proposals for achieving reliable water supply and ecosystem health may be controversial, but it's clear that something has to be done — we can't have the status quo.”
— Vincent Resh

Inherent in either of these scenarios is the threat to drinking water. The delta houses the State Water Project, two massive pumps that send water to Southern California. If the levees are overtopped, the salt water of the bay will infiltrate the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, rendering the supply undrinkable.

“The worst-case scenario is three months without water,” Resh said. “And that's from Fremont down. Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, everything.”

Not just a human problem

Of course, farmers and thirsty urbanites aren't the only ones who need water. According to Berkeley Environmental Science, Policy, and Management associate professor Stephanie Carlson, “many of California's native fishes are declining, and the causes are rooted in habitat loss and the introduction of non-native fishes into California's waterways.” She emphasizes that our current multiyear drought may be the “nail in the coffin” for those populations already facing extinction.

Carlson's research focuses on understanding where and why fish populations are persisting. She found that several native fish, including commercially harvested salmon, live in “intermittent streams” — waterways that flow continuously in the wintertime but break into isolated pools during periods of low rainfall. As drought or human usage reduces stream flow, water quality deteriorates, resulting in higher temperatures and less oxygen. In pools that dry up completely, all fish die, of course, but some “refuge” pools persist through the summer — and these habitats do support fish.

Carlson's team has found that “the survival of imperiled salmon and trout varies among summers, but is highest after wet winters.” Following wet winters, streams flow longer into the summer, more pools persist, and water quality is improved. But, interestingly, “almost regardless of winter rainfall, most fish mortality is concentrated in late summer,” meaning that early, abundant fall rains may be as important as the previous winter's storms.

Carlson believes that these findings should guide management. Urban development in the Bay Area is spreading from flatlands to the hills.

“We need to focus our conservation efforts in those upper headwater streams — many of which are intermittent,” she says. Carlson also stresses that native fish have adapted to the seasonal shift from flowing streams to standing pools, while non-native fish have not — thus intermittent headwater streams may be important refuges for native fishes.

While diverting less water from streams during summer might help juvenile salmon, managing outcomes in the ocean is far more difficult. In 2007 and 2008, the West Coast Chinook salmon population collapsed, with the Sacramento River fall run reduced by 90 percent. Fisheries closed at a cost of millions of dollars, and the federal government declared a disaster. While the crisis was attributed to low ocean productivity beyond human control, human degradation of freshwater salmon habitats worsened the impact of poor ocean conditions.

Most salmon-breeding habitats in the Central Valley lie upstream of dams. Today, most Central Valley salmon are born in hatcheries; many circumnavigate the delta in trucks and are released into the San Francisco Bay. Because these fish don't swim through their natal rivers and the delta, they have no way to retrace their paths as adults. So they go everywhere, mingling with the broader gene pool. This “straying” erodes genetic differences among populations and increases the risk of collapse. It's possible that a more vibrant, genetically diverse salmon population could have better resisted the environmental disturbances of the mid-2000s.

“It's like having a broad portfolio of financial investments, as we've been taught with our 401(k)s,” Carlson says. “Maintaining multiple distinct populations with diverse traits and dynamics provides insurance against environmental change.”

—Excerpted from an article in the winter 2016 issue of Breakthroughs MagazineRead the complete article.

Posted on Friday, February 26, 2016 at 9:05 AM

Farmers invite visitors with new farm trail maps

The Sacramento River Delta Grown Agritourism Association map brochure invites, “Drive along winding rivers and sloughs in the heart of the California Delta; Visit quaint historic towns, shop at rustic farm stands or pick your own fresh fruit and vegetables; Taste Delta wines, picnic by the river, and enjoy the peaceful pace among generational family farms.”

The Capay Valley Farm Trail Map lists more than 40 farms in the Cache Creek watershed, and explains, “Capay Valley is a remarkable stretch of fertile land and rolling hills, home to a host of small and mid-size farms, natural wonders, and outstanding events…”

The North Yuba Grown Farm Trail Map brochure encourages visitors to “Enjoy the Flavors of North Yuba … Some olive trees in the area are more than 100 years old, and are still producing excellent olive oils. The vines cultivated for wine are forced to dig deep for water and nutrients, resulting in smaller yields but expressing intense flavors.”

As Californians' interest in local food and farming increases, farmers in many parts of the state are finding ways to invite their urban and suburban neighbors out to the farms to taste, tour, play and learn. Three groups of growers, Capay Valley Grown in Yolo County, North Yuba Grown in Yuba and Butte, and Sacramento River Delta Grown in Sacramento County, have just published new farm trail maps that promote agritourism in their unique farming regions. The maps are part of a UC Small Farm Program project, funded by a CDFA Specialty Crop Block grant, called, “Building a Farm Trail: Developing effective agritourism associations to enhance rural tourism and promote specialty crops.”

Each of the map brochures is a product of collaboration among the region's farmers and vintners, coordinated by the Small Farm Program and supported by a team of marketing, tourism and economic development professionals. The goals of the project include creation of maps, but also, more importantly, training and support for each group of growers in building sustainable and effective collaborative marketing associations that connect with the larger rural tourism community in their regions. Each group is now distributing their new maps, and is also working with a website designer to redesign their websites for clarity and customer appeal.

The Sacramento River Delta group put on their Wine and Produce Passport Weekend in early August to debut their maps. North Yuba Grown is sponsoring the North Yuba Harvest Festival, to be held on September 27 and 28, and Capay Valley Grown is planning an Open Farm Day on October 5 this year. The groups of growers will have a chance to share their experiences with each other at a regional workshop in November, and with other California agritourism operators at a statewide agritourism summit to be held in April 2015.

The California Statewide Agritourism Summit, organized by the UC Small Farm Program as part of the same project, will bring together agritourism associations and others involved in California agritourism from throughout the state to learn from each other. The summit will include planning sessions for the continuation of statewide farm trail and agritourism association networking and skill-sharing. For more information, please click here or contact UC Small Farm Program Agritourism Coordinator Penny Leff, (530) 752-7779.

 

Visitors tour a farm in the Sacramento Delta region during pear harvest season.
Posted on Monday, September 8, 2014 at 2:17 PM

UC hosts water discussion in San Ramon

A group of Contra Costa County citizens brought together yesterday by UC Cooperative Extension agreed that the state needs to improve water infrastructure to store more water, improve water conservation efforts and improve water management to mitigate problems in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region.

Thursday's discussion was one in a series being held by the UCCE Community Water Conversations Project, which aims to provide California citizens with an opportunity to discuss and learn about water policy options in a facilitated, non-threatening and positive environment.

Many participants in Thursday's conversation believe the Delta water issue will reach a crisis point if efforts aren't made to strengthen infrastructure and promote conservation, according to an article in the San Ramon Patch. Political disillusionment is also a common feeling expressed by many forum participants, according to Jodi Cassell, natural resources advisor for the Contra Costa County Cooperative Extension.

"I think in this country, especially now, people are looking for ways on their own to know as much as they can about very complex issues because they don't feel they can go to governmental agencies to get what they need," Cassell was quoted in the newspaper article. "These conversations will hopefully guide them through a part of public policy as multi-faceted as this state's water usage and make them more engaged in the political process that drives it."

Craig Paterson, project manager and moderator of Thursday's forum, said the organizers wish to gather a range of opinions to share with policy makers that will inform decisions in which everybody wins. In January, project staff will finalize video and written reports on the forum's participants and their views.

In a UC Green Blog post, director of UC Cooperative Extension in Solano County Carole Paterson shared common themes that have emerged from a preliminary review of 10 water conversations that took place this year. The themes, she said, are:

  • Frustration. People believe the public policy process is flawed.
  • Education. People do not understand what is happening to their water. The issues are extremely complex and over the years, layer upon layer of legislation, lawsuits, court decisions and media reports have muddied the water.
  • Science. People are concerned that science is being manipulated by various stakeholders to support a particular point of view.

Farmland in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Farmland in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Posted on Friday, October 15, 2010 at 10:05 AM

Farm revenues down just 3 percent due to water losses

The most recent estimates of job losses due to cuts in water allocations from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are far lower than was first predicted, according to an article published last week in the Contra Costa Times.

In early 2009, UC Davis economist Richard Howitt predicted the drought and new restrictions on Delta pumping would cost 95,000 jobs, but he revised the figure downward a number of times. Even though, the old number is still sometimes used, recently by Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and Republican U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, the article said.

"Yes, it's a problem when candidates don't use the most recent and accurate figures," Howitt said in an e-mail to reporter Mike Taugher. "I have tried to correct this, but this combined report should help put some of the outdated values to rest."

Current estimates of lost farm revenue in agriculture because of water shortages are $340 million (by Jeffrey Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of Pacific) and $370 million (by Howitt). In both cases, that represents a less than 3 percent decline in San Joaquin Valley farm revenues. Job losses are estimated to be between 5,500 and 7,500 jobs.

Posted on Monday, October 4, 2010 at 10:48 AM

Talking about water

At a recent public meeting held in Contra Costa County by UC Cooperative Extension, a female cattle rancher representing a family that has owned land in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for generations dumped out a grocery bag with dozens of envelopes onto the table in front of her.

“This is the amount of mail I get in one week from agency people," she said, her voice trembling with anger. "They want to come onto my land and look at where they want to put big tubes to carry water down south. My family has been on this property for a long time. It’s my family’s land.”

For this woman and many others, UCCE directors in the five Delta counties opened the flood gates when they invited the public to share their feelings about water. Ten meetings were hosted to give ordinary citizens a chance to speak.

“There is a lot of frustration in the Delta region,” said Carole Paterson, director of UC Cooperative Extension in Solano County. “People felt their voices weren’t being heard.”

Paterson and county directors in Yolo, Sacramento, San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties held community conversations in local libraries and invited the public to have their say. The participants’ thoughts will be synthesized in a written report and some of their comments - videotaped during the sessions - will be part of an audio-visual presentation.

A few common themes emerged from a preliminary review of the 10 conversations, Paterson said.

Frustration. People believe the public policy process is flawed.

Education. People do not understand what is happening to their water. The issues are extremely complex and over the years, layer upon layer of legislation, lawsuits, court decisions and media reports have muddied the water.

Science. People are concerned that science is being manipulated by various stakeholders to support a particular point of view.

The reports on the water conversations will be shared with county boards of supervisors, farm bureaus, legislators, agencies and individuals involved in the state’s water policy.

The Delta faces a host of problems, including invasive species, water degradation due to urban and agricultural runoff, aging infrastructure and the threat of flooding should the sea level rise due to climate change.

“We weren’t looking for solutions,” Paterson said. “We just wanted to give citizens a chance to share their experiences."

Farmland in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. (Photo by Roy Tennant, freelargephotos.com)
Farmland in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. (Photo by Roy Tennant, freelargephotos.com)

Posted on Tuesday, September 7, 2010 at 1:32 PM

Next 5 stories | Last story

 
E-mail
 
Webmaster Email: kmchurchill@ucanr.edu