METROPOLITAN WATER DISTRICT
OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
BY JOEL SCHWARZ
COMMEMORATING 50 YEARS OF WATER DELIVERY
TO SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
THE DELTA QUANDARY
The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The state depends on it for 40 percent
of its drinking water and almost half of its agricultural water. Yet it is a frag-
ile dependency because the delta itself is a fragile entity. Faced on all sides by
a multitude of competing interests, it has become all things to all people.
Its waters irrigate and drain millions of acres of farmland, repel ceaseless
incoming saltwater tides from San Francisco Bay, nurture a rich fishery,
aid in manufacturing a broad variety of products ranging from cardboard
to chemicals, provide a highway for cargo ships, furnish drinking water to
the overwhelming majority of Californians, harbor a sanctuary for wildlife
Sand endow the state with an expansive recreational playground. Each of
these is a beneficial use; some are in conflict with others.
For the past quarter of a century, Californians have debated the future of
the delta. Questions concerning its environment and preserving its water
quality have been central to often bitter debates; and somewhere in these
cacophonous exchanges, one essential fact most often goes overlooked.
Above all, the modern delta has been shaped by man and is vastly different
than when first glimpsed by Europeans who looked, as Keats might well
have characterized the feeling, with "wild surmise" upon its natural state.
While Native Americans hunted in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta as
long as 4,000 years ago, the first recorded description of the region is little
more than 200 years old. Spanish soldiers, under the command of
Captain Pedro Fages, exploring eastward from San Francisco in 1772 in
search of new mission sites, found their way obstructed. Fages found "a
sea of reeds" extending to the horizon, so inpenetrable it discouraged fur-
ther exploration. The Spanish made only two more probes of the area by
sea in 1775 and 1776 before losing interest: during one, Don Juan Ayala
captained the San Carlos up San Francisco Bay to a point west of Chipps
Island, today considered to be the entryway to the delta.
I(I j I
One day, miners; the next, farmers
and levee builders
Fages and Ayala looked upon a landscape that was perhaps 11,000 years
in the making. It was born at the end of the last Ice Age when sea levels
rose around the world, flooding shallow areas such as the delta. The
region became one vast marsh of about 750,000 acres watered by the in-
coming ocean tides and the runoff from innumerable mountain streams.
Then, as now, the overwhelming majority of freshwater was provided by
the Sacramento River which, along with its tributaries, drains the north-
ern Sierra Nevada, Coast and Cascade ranges. From the east and south,
Dry Creek and the Calaveras, Consumnes, Mokelumne and San Joaquin
rivers, along with tributaries of the San Joaquin including the Stanislaus,
the Tuolumne, the Merced, the Chowchilla and the Fresno, contributed
lesser but still significant amounts of water. Marsh grasses and reeds even-
tually took root in the thin soil deposited by these rivers. For thousands
of years they flourished, only to be buried under flooding waters, covered
with silt and then flourish again. Layer upon layer of this organic material
accumulated and was gradually transformed into the peat soils of the
delta. The soil was incredibly fertile, but disguised under its mantle of
water and reeds.
Gold was the indirect agent of change in the delta, as it was for so many
locales in California. San Francisco Bay, the delta and the rivers feeding it
offered the easiest and most direct route to the Mother Lode country for
thousands of gold-crazed fortune hunters. But prospecting, with its adver-
sity and hardship, wasn't for everyone. Miners began drifting back out of
the foothills. Some who had sown the soil elsewhere discovered the rich
peat underlying the delta and began farming. This touched off an eighty-
year effort to claim the region for agriculture.
The transformation of the delta began in the 1850s, initially by hand with
the sweat of cheap labor provided mostly by Chinese workmen. Settlers
and coolies hacked blocks of peat from high spots with tule knives and
then piled them atop each other to form levees to hold back the waters.
Miles and miles of levees were raised and the land was left to dry out.
Later, emboldened by the success hydraulic miners had in tearing down
the hillsides of the Sierra Nevada with their technology, Californians
turned to machines to build more miles of levees to create delta islands.
This time the earth-forming was achieved with dredges. Starting in 1863,
existing delta waterways were deepened and pushed in different directions
as the dredges sucked vast amounts of channel debris and peat in what has
become the never-ending job of levee building and repair.
By the time this massive reclamation effort was completed in 1930, the
landscape of the delta had been thoroughly altered. More than half a mil-
lion acres had been enveloped by 1,100 miles of levees. Fages' sea of reeds
had been changed into an inland archipelago of some 70 islands encircled
by more than 700 miles of rivers, sloughs and channels. Much of this land
has been devoted to farming and has produced generous amounts of corn,
the deltas most important crop, along with safflower, sugar beets, alfalfa, Dredge Thor is at work near
vegetables, wheat, grapes, pears, walnuts and other crops. Stockton as 1893 pleasure seekers
But delta farming is a precarious enterprise, sowing the seeds of its own
destruction. As much as 150,000 acres of the cultivated land in the delta
are below sea level. Relentlessly, the saltwater of San Francisco Bay seeks
an opportunity to rush in from the west, as it has done in dry periods his-
torically. Only freshwater entering the delta and miles of levees can halt
this constant saline encroachment. However, time is on the side of the in-
coming seaborne tides because of the intrinsic weakness of the peat back-
bone of the delta.
A poor building material, peat is the basis of modem delta levees, which
along with the farmland, are slowly sinking. The very act of heaping up
piles of peat to create levees caused problems. The weight of the levee
pushes down on the unstable soil beneath, causing the levee to subside.
As more soil is added on top, the process continues. Meanwhile, the levees
are being attacked in other ways. Peat is porous and absorbs copious
amounts of water, therefore softening them. The material crumbles easily
I ." "" '. "i"''~ Y"". i -,,- I 1
IS AS CONVOLUTED
AS SOME OF THE
and the wave action in delta channels readily erodes and undercuts levee
banks. Burrowing animals are another concern; more than once, sections
of levees have collapsed after an animal dug a tiny tunnel that then was
widened by inrushing water. Portions of delta farmland are steadily sink-
ing at the rate of two to three inches every year. Problems are compounded
by heavy farming equipment which compacts the pliant soil. And, finally,
digging up peat for cultivation allows the soil to dry out, oxidize and then,
in its lightweight state, become a victim of wind erosion, simply blowing
Subsidence has been occurring for decades, leaving such small delta towns
as Isleton and the Chinese-founded community of Locke entirely below
sea level. Of the delta's 70 islands, close to 50 sit a minimum of two feet
below. Only the fragile levees protect these islands and their towns from
flooding, and levees have failed well over 100 times in the 20th century.
The problem of delta water quality is as convoluted as some of the chan-
nels that meander through the region. That quality is largely, but not to-
tally, the result of the daily tug of war between the freshwater in the delta
and the incoming tidal surges of saltwater. Because the deltas waterways
lie at sea level, saltwater constantly seeks entrance into its channels; at the
same time, freshwater pours into the delta from the Sacramento and other
rivers, repelling the incoming tide. At times, there is not enough freshwa-
ter available and saltwater intrudes into the western delta and beyond.
Before such dams as Oroville and Shasta were built to control winter
flooding and provide summer releases of water, saltwater intrusion in the
delta was a persistent problem. In fact, in the first three decades of the
20th century, saltwater at different times reached all the way to
Sacramento and Stockton.
Saltwater intrusion is a fact of life in the delta because the flows of fresh-
water are highly variable. Those flows change from season to season and
from year to year as a result of the rainfall and snowpack in the watersheds
Another fragile levee succumbs.
upstream of the delta. Moreover, powerful Pacific storms can pelt the state
in the winter, propelling as much as 2 million acre-feet of flood waters
through the delta in that time period. The Department of Water
Resources has charted some striking variations in annual flows. In 1969,
a wet year, 43.3 million acre-feet of freshwater poured into the delta. Just
eight years later, in 1977, less than a seventh of that, just 5.9 million acre-
feet trickled into the delta during the second and last year of a severe
drought. A long-term study of delta water resources, covering 1922 to
1954, marked the annual delta inflow at 19.8 million acre-feet, consider-
ably more water than the Colorado River carries each year.
In the natural scheme of things, more water would be available in the
winter during the rainy season and spring when snowmelt pours off the
mountains, and, conversely, less in the dry summer and autumn. But the
delta no longer is a natural system. It has been altered by water resources
development, both within and outside its boundaries. Local, state and
--- ~.~- I rr-
federal agencies have built 42 dams to collect and store water on rivers
feeding the delta and their tributaries. These dams provide vital flood con-
trol facilities, allow water to be stored so the seasonal flows into the delta
can be equalized and provide water for export.
Such exports have benefitted both urban and agricultural areas statewide.
Though California has been drawing water directly from the delta for
export only since 1940, indirect exports began earlier with the completion
in 1929 of the East Bay Municipal Utility District's Mokelumne Aqueduct.
By damming and tapping into the Mokelumne River, East Bay MUD was
siphoning water that would have spilled into the delta. Five years later this
process was duplicated on the Tuolumne River when San Francisco fin-
ished its Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct, a project for which the sale of bonds had
been approved by the voters of the city by the bay in 1910. Direct delta
export began with the completion in 1940 of the Contra Costa Canal, the
initial unit of the federal government's Central Valley Project. Then in
1951, the CVP's Tracy Pumping Plant also began taking water out of the
south delta for the San Joaquin Valley, and in 1968 the State Water
Project's delta pumping plant went into operation in the same area.
Pumping in the south delta complicates the water quality situation.
Existing delta channels carved by nature, lined with levees by man -
do not have adequate capacity to carry freshwater to all parts of the delta.
Export pumps are powerful enough to create reverse flows in some chan-
nels, at times drawing brackish water into the delta interior, replacing the
freshwater that is being exported. In addition to degrading water quality,
the reverse flows also have a negative effect on migrating fish which
become confused as they attempt to traverse delta waterways.
Two more elements must be considered to complete the delta water qual-
ity equation agricultural wastes and the possibility of levee failures.
Agricultural wastes end up in the water in three primary ways: they filter
out of irrigated farmland into streams which carry them into the delta;
Mending a levee break
only once a decade, particularly in light of more stringent state and federal
health regulations governing household water quality. In fact, the latest
round of bay-delta hearings has been under way since July of 1987 and, like
most things concerning the delta, has provoked heated controversy.
A draft plan released late in 1988, after drawing broad-based criticism,
was withdrawn; a subsequent plan is the subject of criticism by the
Environmental Protection Agency; and the State Water Resources Control
Board continues to wrestle with the process of establishing new standards
for the 1990s. These standards are vital to the health and protection of the
delta and they must balance the beneficial but sometimes competing uses
Throughout the state, there is little argument about two things: the delta
has to be protected and it has problems. Many view the Sacramento-San
Joaquin Delta of the late 20th century, shaped and molded by a myriad of
human hands, as a very inefficient system for transferring water. California
has no choice but to repair the damages caused by past activities. It does
have a choice, however, as to how. It is a decision that can't be postponed in-
definitely, for too many people, too much of California's wildlife resources,
too many businesses and too much industry rely on the delta for water.
Agricultural runoffflows into
they are transported by drains which empty directly into the estuary; and
they enter the waters from local farming activity. The precarious stability
of delta levees is like a time bomb to delta water quality Ambitious state
and federal programs costing hundreds of millions of dollars repeatedly
have been proposed to prop up and rehabilitate hundreds of miles of
levees. If something comprehensive isn't done soon, they inevitably will
fail, saltwater will rush in to fill the exposed islands and water quality will
be the victim.
Almost from the time Californians first began tinkering with the delta,
plans have been proposed for curing its problems. As far back as 1860,
there was discussion of erecting barriers that would prevent saltwater from
entering, transforming the delta into a freshwater lake. The most sweeping
barrier proposition conceived was the Reber Plan of the late 1940s which
called for constructing a series of giant barriers across San Francisco Bay.
The brainchild of one-time actor and drama teacher John Reber, the plan
would have converted both bay and delta into one expansive freshwater
reservoir. Reber promoted his plan with the zeal of a missionary and, at
one point, had the support of several federal agencies. His proposal was
creative and well-engineered, but in the early 1950s, it began to unravel
under close examination. The huge reservoir he envisioned would actually
have lost more water through evaporation than it would have saved and
the barriers would have proved an ecological disaster. Yet, elements of the
Reber Plan have reappeared over the years in the constant search for a
In the late 1950s, the state hired Dutch engineer Cornelius Biemond as a
consultant to examine flood control problems. Biemond, who had been
involved in Holland's epic efforts to reclaim farmland in the Zuider Zee
from the North Sea, advocated a major physical reshaping of the delta. He
didn't think it was economically possible to protect all of the existing islands
from flooding and suggested consolidating them into four or five very large
islands. Calling for blocking many channels and building new ones to
improve water quality and to divert water to the south delta for exportation,
Biemond's plan was doomed by its high cost and voices raised in opposition
to blocking delta channels. But like the Reber Plan, certain elements of
Biemond's work live on in new proposals that would change delta water
flows either by building new cross-delta channels or blocking others.
More recently, efforts to solve delta problems have centered on operating
regulations and procedures. Local, state and federal agencies which take
water from the delta today function under a set of 1978 standards estab-
lished by the State Water Resources Control Board in its Decision 1485, or
D-1485 for short. These standards were designed to protect the three basic
(r beneficial uses in the delta municipal and industrial, agricultural, and
fish and wildlife. The State Water Resources Control Board determined to
review water quality standards for the delta and San Francisco Bay every 10
years. But as a practical matter, this review is evolving into a continuous pro-
cess. Delta water quality and operations are too important to be considered
BOTH BAY AND
DELTA INTO ONE
Well-traveled dike separate the Netherland' Lake Ijssel (formerly the Zuidr Zee)
from the North Sea.