Report Calls Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta 'A California Disaster-In-Waiting'

California's critically important Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is on a dangerously unsustainable path, according to a study released on Feb. 7 by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

A vital natural resource and major supplier of the state's urban and agricultural water, the delta could become an environmental and economic disaster due to changing conditions, deterioration and increasing vulnerabilities to its system of levees.

The 300-page report explores and compares long-term delta solutions. The authors consider nine alternatives for delta management and evaluate the performance of each in three key areas: water supply, environmental effects and economic costs.

In an eight-page summary of the new report, PPIC senior research fellow and program director Ellen Hanak wrote: "Today, the delta is changing -- because of a variety of natural and human pressures. It is now up to Californians to figure out how to manage those changes, for the health of the delta and the state as a whole."

Californians rely on the delta for a host of essential services, including drinking water, agricultural needs, goods shipped over its highways and railways, and gas and electricity carried in its pipes and transmission lines.

Yet the delta is increasingly threatened by floods, earthquakes, sinking land, rising sea level, regional climate change, invasive species and urbanization. And CALFED, the government agency charged with solving the delta's problems, is itself challenged by problems of underfunding and internal dissent, the report finds.

"After Hurricane Katrina, people realized that catastrophic collapse of these levee and water systems is a very real possibility," said Richard Howitt, a water economist and a professor in the University of California, Davis, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. "This not only can happen but almost certainly will happen. There's a 64 percent probability of something like this happening in the next 50 years. That's too high for public infrastructure."

The study finds that the cost of a single episode of delta failure could reach $40 billion and would cause severe disruptions to California's water supply. That would affect drinking water for millions of people and agricultural animals, such as the state's huge dairy herd, as well as irrigation water for food crops and water supplies for industry.

The authors challenge the long-held perception -- and public-policy cornerstone since 1930 -- that the delta is a naturally stable freshwater system and should be maintained as such. The delta in its natural state was subject to strong tidal cycles and other fluctuations in water quality, the authors state. Only parts of the delta were mostly fresh year-round; others were naturally brackish (salty) either seasonally or during dry years.

"The belief has been that we're defending the environment by maintaining the freshwater system, but that is actually incompatible with giving the delta's native species and ecosystem a fighting chance to survive and prosper," Hanak said.

Key findings and recommendations in the report include:

  • Although changes will result in some significant costs and dislocations, most users of delta services can adapt economically.
  • Strong political and institutional leadership is needed to address the delta crisis. Since mid-2006, the body responsible for coordinating CALFED, the delta's joint federal and state program, has been operating without independent authority or budget.
  • Scientific work in the delta needs to be refocused. Levee replacement, experiments in adapting the ecosystem, flood control and island land management should be key components of a new problem-solving framework.
  • Direct beneficiaries of the delta should be primarily responsible for financing solutions and should make up-front commitments. Public funds should be reserved for the truly public components of any investment. Moreover, in the wake of a natural catastrophe, an effective funding mechanism will be essential to avert financial disaster for state and local interests.

Officials with the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) said the study reinforces the urgent need for a high-level effort to address mounting threats to the delta ecosystem.

"This is an excellent report based on the most recent findings and thinking, and it further bolsters the fact that the delta in its existing configuration is broken," ACWA Executive Director Steve Hall said. "It identifies and analyzes a number of alternatives that are worthy of consideration."

The full report is available at

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