Delta Blues

California lawmakers can't deliver long-promised money for the Bay Delta.


DRY FARMING: Mike Robinson’s family has been growing on the Delta for over 120 years.

Story and photos by Curtis Cartier

Dawn on the Delta. As the sun peeks out from behind the John A. Nejedly Bridge near Antioch, a small flock of terns flap up to the concrete trusses and rest on a set of nooks in the construction.

Below, on the San Joaquin River, the low buzzing of an outboard motor mixes with the calls of the terns and thethud-thud-thud of wheels rolling over the bridge’s ribbed surface. The smell of wet marsh air mostly overpowers the occasional hit of fertilizer, carried east on the winds from some nearby farm, while slowly the water world comes to life under the yawning gaze of a new day’s sun.

This is morning on the new San Francisco Bay-Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. True, the birds have been around for eons, the bridges are fairly old and most of the farms have been here for a hundred years or more. But the Delta seen on this March morning is different from the one seen last year or the year before. It’s an environment which, through erosion, damming, dredging and river redirection, has changed so dramatically that maps more than 20 years old are nearly useless.

It’s also an environment on the brink. More than two-thirds of California residents get their drinking water from the Delta, and more than 3 million acres of the state’s crops are fed from it. Hundreds of species—more than 20 of them endangered—live or travel through its countless tributaries, streams and bays.

While nearly everybody agrees that more change is coming, whether that change will be for better or worse for California’s ecology, economy and health and welfare is still up in the air. All that’s certain is that with aging levees, dying species and the slow intrusion of seawater into the overpumped soil, things can’t go on the way they are now.

Scientists & Shepherds

Phil Sandstrom counts fish. To be precise, the approximately 50 underwater receivers at the bottom of the Delta’s many rivers count the fish, and only those that have been pretagged with ultrasonic sensors embedded in their body cavities. Sandstrom putters around the Delta in a 27-foot UC Davis fishing boat, yanking receivers out of the muck and downloading their data into a matrix used by countless environmental groups, universities and military analysts. This morning, he, along with volunteer Gabe Singer, is harvesting four-month-old data from receivers at Decker Island and Three Mile Slough.

“We’ve seen some high mortality rates in certain species,” Sandstrom says, while the data from the pipe-bomb-shaped monitor downloads into his laptop. “But it takes a lot of work to keep track of it, and we’re just not getting the money we need.”

Sandstrom is a doctoral student whose dissertation is based on salmonid research. He and his fellow researchers use data from the monitors to track how dozens of species of fish move through the Delta and how they respond to the changing environment. Though his funding has been cut completely this year due to California’s financial lockdown, he’s still on the water at least twice a week because, as he puts it, “the work still has to be done.”

Sandstrom has firsthand knowledge of disappearing fish like the Chinook salmon, Delta smelt and longfin smelt. These species have been pushed to the edge of extinction due to habitat destruction, competition from invasive species and massive water pumps that change currents and confuse the salmon’s reproductive instincts, or, in the smelt’s case, suck them up outright.

As the boat nears Frank’s Tract, a “sunken island” reduced by years of erosion and now a breeding ground for the invasive Brazilian egeria weed, Sandstrom’s obvious distaste for the destructive invader begins to show.

A notorious agent of erosion, the plant is damaging to the Delta’s critical levee system because it displaces native plants that strengthen the soil locked in the aging dikes.

“The levees protecting this entire area are more than a hundred years old, and they’re going to fail soon,” Sandstrom says as he pulls the boat away and heads back to the dock at Rio Vista. “And when they do, this whole area could be underwater.”

Sandstrom may be worried about the century-old levees, but local farmer Mike Robinson thinks they’ll be just fine. “These are ancient levees. They’re settled levees and they’re sturdy,” says the third-generation Delta farmer, looking out at crusty dirt rows that will soon be alive with tomato plants. “We farmers are the best shepherds of the land there are. I never understood why people don’t realize that.”

Robinson’s tomato, alfalfa and hay fields are in the heart of the wetlands and get all the water they need. Thus, he is one of the few people content to keep the Delta as it is, although he admits that will require changes of its own. He believes the Gov. Schwarzenegger–sponsored plan to create a peripheral canal that diverts Sacramento River water around the Delta would be a “disaster,” and says his family’s 123-year-old water rights trump any other public or private needs for the water.

Robinson views the battle over Delta resources as another clash between Northern and Southern California interests, and he’s certain that once cities like Los Angeles and San Diego get the extra water they’re demanding, any interest in saving the region’s agriculture and animal species will vanish.

“Everyone’s attention is on the Delta right now because people need the water,” he says. “But what happens once they get it? And they will, somehow. We’ll still be here, taking care of the land. But will anyone care?”

WATERY:GRAVE The effects of the Sacramento Delta’s fragile ecosystem are felt all over the Golden State.

A Common Well

Even though not a single drop of Delta water makes its way into the faucets, sprinklers and irrigation pipes of the North Bay, the two regions’ fates are inextricably linked.

“Besides the environmental obligations, we should be concerned [about the Delta] from an economic point of view,” says Ron Duncan, field manager of the Soquel Creek Water District. “What’s bad for farmers anywhere in the state is bad for us here. There is an interdependency and a relationship that connects us on the state level.”

This statewide connection resides in the water policies that are continually shaped by the Delta’s ability to support both its own ecosystem and the millions of thirsty people and plants throughout the state that depend on it. If less water is flowing to farms in the San Joaquin Valley, less produce is being exported around the country and world, and less money is coming into the state’s economy. And if more cities like San Diego and Los Angeles are forced to look elsewhere for water, it may be the reservoirs of the North Coast where they turn next with their enormous demands.

U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger knows perhaps better than anyone the power that the Delta wields over the state. It was he who, in 2007, ruled that increased pumping by the Department of Water Resources had led to the near extinction of the Delta smelt, and ordered water exports out of the Delta slashed by 14 to 30 percent. His decision shook California’s agricultural and environmental communities to the core, forcing farms to grow crops with less water and cities to tap additional local watersheds and rivers.

Wanger has spent more than 20 years of his judicial career presiding over cases involving the Delta.

“I’ve been on these cases for 20 years, but they go back even further than that,” says Wanger, who comes across as only slightly jaded from his decades-long tenure dealing with this single subject. “You’ve got 20 million people in water districts with contracts for huge amounts of water. You’ve also got animals like the smelt that need to be preserved. All these parties can’t agree, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

“Even throwing money at the problem doesn’t help, because no one can agree on how to spend it. Eventually, I think it may come down to fish versus humans.”

River to Redemption

None of the Delta’s problems happened overnight. It took more than 41 years of annually increased pumping by the Department of Water Resources, Central Valley Project and others before salt water began seeping into the soils around Antioch and Pittsburgh. It took mismanagement by the Department of Fish and Game which, in 2005, played down any problem with local fisheries, claiming it was impossible to know if species like the Delta smelt were in danger. And it took decades of shortsighted planning by California cities, both northern and southern, which never invested in water conservation strategies like storm-water recharge and water recycling, instead demanding more and more exported water to support their booming populations.

Blame, it seems, is the most abundant resource coming out of the Delta these days. But blame won’t repair the decrepit levees or restock the depleted fisheries. Instead constructive solutions are needed that provide for farmers, wildlife and residents alike.

The peripheral canal vilified by Robinson and other Delta farmers is the most popular single solution on the lips of lawmakers today. If built, this 42-mile canal would divert billions of gallons of Sacramento River water around the Delta. Robinson and some others who live in the heart of the wetlands say any decrease in water flowing through the region could turn it into a stagnant swamp. But Schwarzenegger and several other powerful lawmakers argue it would eliminate the need for the fish-killing, current-changing pumps and, overall, would be an improvement for the ecosystem while at the same time making more water available for the rest of the state.

But such a canal was shot down once before in 1982. And with a price tag that could reach $17 billion, and construction times measuring several years by every account, any harm or benefit from the canal may come too late.

Groups like the Sierra Club contend that a host of steps are needed throughout both the Delta and the state if any hope exists in saving the fragile ecosystem.


“First, we need to reduce the exports of water coming out of the Delta,” says Jim Metropulos, a senior advocate with the Sierra Club. “We need efforts to reduce pollution runoff. We need programs to help species like salmon and the smelt. We need to be restoring habitat and planting trees at the river’s edge. And we need cities to step up and do their part in recycling water and conserving water.”

Yet even if every one of Metropulos’ solutions is enacted, and even if the peripheral canal is installed in record time and is everything it’s hyped to be, at the end of the day there is no way to change the Delta back into what it was before California demanded its resources.

In today’s new Delta, the people’s right to live, farm and drink is not separate from the environment’s ability to sustain itself, but instead dependent on it. The only certainty is that when the sun rises tomorrow it will be shining on a changed Delta.