Return of the Peripheral Canal

Thursday, June 14, 2012

California water wars are legendary—some retold in movies like Chinatown—and none is more memorable than the fight over a Peripheral Canal in the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta that voters decided at the ballot box in 1982. Now, the proposed canal’s sequel may be about to debut.

The state’s Delta Stewardship Council staff has released its final draft plan that recommends the council support diversion of water from the Sacramento River around the Delta to facilitate its transport from Northern California to the state’s southern regions where fresh water is in short supply. It’s a divisive proposition that pits North versus South; enrages some environmentalists; scares some fiscal conservatives; entices water agencies, agribusiness and thirsty Californians; and confuses many.

Voters rejected the Peripheral Canal in 1982. Critics argue the canal would ruin water quality in the already fragile Delta, threaten already endangered species, make for unsustainable agricultural practices near the Delta, violate the Clean Air Act, kill recreation around the Delta and get rid of incentives to fix levees. Supporters contend the water is needed for agriculture and drinking water, and may actually enhance the Delta ecosystem and protect the water supply from a catastrophic earthquake or rising tides from global warming.

Proceeds from an $11.1 billion bond issue scheduled for the November ballot would be used for the project. The bond was originally headed for the ballot in 2010, but was pulled when polling indicated it would probably go down to defeat.

As the seven-member council ponders its next move, its very existence as an independent body is also in question. The Brown administration has recommended that the council, created in 2009 when the joint federal-state CalFed Bay-Delta program sputtered to a halt after a decade of ineffectiveness, be folded into the Natural Resources Agency. The state’s Little Hoover Commission, which reviews all government reorganizations, unanimously endorsed the plan on May 22. The final decision rests with the Legislature.

–Ken Broder 


To Learn More:

Delta Stewardship Council Releases Plan Recommending Canal (by Dan Bacher, California Progress Report)

Restore the Delta Responds to Delta Stewardship Council’s Release of Plan (by Executive Director Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Restore the Delta)

Little Hoover Blesses Brown’s Government Reorganization Plan (by Sarah Langford, Association of California Water Agencies)

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