Is The Peripheral Canal Imminent?

While the water bond may come off the ballot, the peripheral canal still has many supporters of its own

by Brian Leubitz

California has always been fractuous, coastal versus inland, north versus south. But many of the issues tend to be about water. Where it is (NorCal), where it isn't (SoCal), who has a guaranteed supply(SF and its Hetch Hetchy reserve, etc) and who is chronically looking for more (LA and agrobusiness). Yet nothing really draws ire (and desire) like the Peripheral Canal.

In 1982, the California voters strongly rejected Prop 9, which would have secured the Canal by a vote of nearly 63%. The vote was, unsurprisingly, heavily tilted towards a NorCal v SoCal dispute. However, moving water out of Northern California for human and agricultural use and moving toward the more arid Southern California was just one reason.

It is just as true today that the consequences of moving the vast quantities of water south that the Canal designers envision would create unknown and possibly disastrous environmental consequences. Beyond the possible (if not likely) extinction of the Delta smelt, other fish and fisheries would be severely impacted. Given the likelihood that the Sierra snowpack will be in continual decline as we continue to see the signs of climate change, the health of the estuary would be even more threatened by a massive Canal today than it would have been 30 years ago.

But in reality, this is all about lobbying and the power of the diffuse interest of the many in the environment, and the power of the few moneyed interests of Southern California's agrobusiness. In reality, Southern California was never a very good place to grow crops. Historically it has been very dry, with a small exception over a particularly wet 20th century. But that will not continue (and has not recently) and more and more irrigation is required in what is essentially semi-arid desert. That is not to say that agriculture is completely impossible there, but to continue to farm like water is abundant is short-sighted at best.

The Canal is frequently portrayed as something that will help the entire Southern California population, but as Restore the Delta's Bill Jennings points out, the Canal is first and foremost a tool for the Westlands Water Districts and their powerful allies:

[The Canal] serves few. Two-thirds of delta exports serve corporate agriculture on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, which accounts for less than 0.5 percent of California's economy and population. Only a third goes to urban areas that make up half the state's population and economy. The water will be too expensive for farmers. And urban ratepayers will revolt if asked to subsidize corporate farmers.

Yesterday, a coalition of environmentalists, sportsmen, fishermen and other assorted organizations came together to write a letter to the Dept. of Interior to delay any green light for a Canal plan:

Twelve Members of the California Congressional Delegation requested that you not proceed at this time.  They are right.  Californians deserve a more forthcoming Department of the Interior and Department of Commerce.   Full disclosure - and "policy before plumbing" should be provided to all Californians and every taxpayer.  Absent responsible policy firmly in place, this proposal looms as a giant unfunded Federal mandate and a recipe for a boondoggle, not one for reliable water service. (Joint letter)

Those twelve members, well perhaps as is to be expected, consist mainly of the Bay Area's delegation, but their words are nonetheless powerful:

The twelve California Democrats warned that the plan - as described in a recent briefing in Washington and public meeting in Sacramento - "raises far more questions than it answers, and appears to turn the maxim of 'policy before plumbing' on its head." The Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) proposal recently developed by state and federal officials would allow for the construction of massive tunnels - capable of draining the Sacramento River at a rate of 15,000 cubic feet per second - but delay any decisions about the uses of the project for as many as fifteen years. The members of Congress wrote that a poorly designed plan for the Bay Delta "could increase water exports from the Bay-Delta estuary - while failing to restore the Bay-Delta ecosystem and rebuild salmon and other California fisheries as required by law." (Press Release)

The Canal wasn't ready in 1982, and it isn't ready now. It is a poorly considered and underfunded project that threatens one of America's greatest natural resources, the San Francisco Bay.

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