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Peripheral Canal: Get It Right or Don’t Do It

Author: Victor Gonella
September, 2012 Issue

On June 22, 12 U.S. Congress members, all from Northern California, sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank. They asked the secretaries to withhold their support for Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to build a peripheral canal that could destroy much of the Sacramento Bay Delta and the commercially valuable salmon runs that transit the delta annually. The signing members include those representing salmon fishermen in Bodega Bay, San Francisco, Sausalito, Half Moon Bay and other Bay Area ports.

The peripheral canal’s primary purpose is to interrupt the natural flow of the Sacramento River, reroute it around the environmentally sensitive delta, and deliver it to federal and state pumps that move water south to corporate agricultural operations on the western side of California’s San Joaquin Valley and to Southern California cities.

The state is proposing to build the canal project without first doing basic calculations to determine how much water it needs to leave in the river and delta to keep salmon, other wildlife and the delta alive. Without this calculation, it’s not clear how much water might be safely available for diversion and export. And without that information, the state can’t right-size the canal.

Currently, the state is supporting a canal big enough to drain the entire Sacramento River at most times of year. This mega-canal was dreamed up by the water users at the receiving end of the pipe, waiting to turn water into hard cash. At this size, the canal is a nonstarter for those whose jobs are tied to healthy salmon runs. Salmon industry workers (think commercial fishermen, boat dealerships, seafood processors, chefs, restaurants, tackle shops, marinas and the like), delta farmers and others know an oversized canal will not only kill salmon but will also leave little more than a stagnant sewer in the delta for local farmers to draw from.

The 12 opposing members of Congress say the plan to build the peripheral canal “raises far more questions than it answers and appears to turn the maxim of ‘policy before plumbing’ on its head.”

Huge water diversions in the Sacramento/Bay Delta between 2000 and 2006 were finally stemmed by court order, but only after causing salmon runs to collapse, leading to the first-ever California ocean salmon fishing closures in 2008 and 2009. Those closures brought the $1.4 billion salmon industry to its knees. Recent federal water diversion restrictions are a first step toward a fully restored salmon fishery, which could eventually yield more than $5 billion in annual economic activity, according to a review of state and federal data by the Southwick Economics firm.

The National Academy of Sciences has looked at the peripheral canal proposal and issued a scathing review, saying that, so far, the scientific analysis is wholly inadequate. Officials with the National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and California Department of Fish and Game have all issued red-flag warnings about the biological damage the current project threatens. The Golden Gate Salmon Association supports these findings. Among other things, current plans largely ignore legal requirements to accommodate federally protected species in the delta. Forging ahead on an ill-conceived canal provides a fat target for lawsuits.

Then there’s the issue of who’s going to get stuck with the multibillion dollar bill. A recent analysis by the University of Pacific’s Eberhardt School of Business, Business Forecasting Center says the costs would outweigh benefits by 2.5 times if you consider costs the public will bear. The benefits will accrue mostly to a small group of agricultural operators who will receive publicly subsidized water. The rest of us will pay—one way or another. So far, the state has refused to do a statewide cost benefit analysis for this massive public works project.

More worrisome to average Southern Californians, canal planning documents suggest that western San Joaquin Valley agriculture operations, which are expected to reap 75 percent of the benefits, could pay for only 25 percent of the costs. Might the other 75 percent of the costs be shifted to urban water users in Southern California? Or will it be shared by public users across the state?

Canal proponents currently call for more water in the critical months of August and September, exactly when adult salmon migrate in from the sea to spawn in the Sacramento River. Salmon need cold water to successfully spawn, something canal planners have apparently overlooked. These same planners say they aren’t responsible for the upstream carnage their project might create. If that’s true, then who is?

What’s more, scientists routinely predict that climate disruption will impact California—its coastline, sea level, weather patterns, precipitation rates and a growing list of other conditions. The currently proposed plan indicates climate assumptions will be “forthcoming.”

The 12 members of the California Congressional Delegation who signed the petition requested that Governor Brown not proceed with the canal until his administration answers basic questions. Full disclosure should be provided to all Californians and every taxpayer and Southern California ratepayer. Absent a responsible policy firmly in place, this proposal looms as a giant recipe for disaster, not one for reliable, ecologically appropriate water service.

Victor Gonella is president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association. Contact him at (707) 765-3073 or victor@ggsa.com.


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