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More than 20 million Californians get their drinking water from the Sacramento Delta. It's a small triangle of land just inland from the San Francisco Bay area. It's where freshwater from California's major rivers and salt water from the Pacific Ocean meet. But rising sea levels threaten to turn the delta into a salty marsh, contaminating the freshwater and flooding the homes and farms of delta residents.

As part of our series Climate Connections with National Geographic, NPR's Joe Palca visited the delta and reports on why this will be a hard problem to solve.

JOE PALCA: For the past two and a half years, there's a group of researchers at the University of California-Davis who've been meeting every Wednesday to try to figure out what to do about the delta. And the only thing they've been able to conclude for sure is it's not going to be easy.

Dr. JEFFREY MOUNT (Professor of Geology, University of California Davis): The delta of today is not sustainable even under today's conditions, never mind climate change.

Dr. JAY LUND (Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of California Davis): Climate change really accelerates the problems that we would have had otherwise.

Dr. RICHARD HOWITT (Professor and Department Chair of Agricultural & Resource Economics, University of California Davis): It's going to cause us politically and economically, quite a lot, about 7 billion or possibly more.

Dr. MOUNT: It's pretty much guaranteed that whatever choice we make will be a mistake.

PALCA: That was geologist Jeffery Mount, engineer Jay Lund and economist Richard Howitt.

So, look, here's the problem. On the one side of the delta you've got saltwater coming in from the ocean. And on the other side, you've got freshwater coming down from California's mountains. And in the middle you've got the low-lying delta land; much of it's below sea level. There's a system of 1,100 miles of these dirt mounds called levees that are keeping the land dry and keeping the saltwater from mixing with the freshwater.

But the situation is shaky now, and it's only going to get worse. With climate change, sea level will rise, there will be more rain and less snow in the mountains, meaning more water in the rivers. Lund says something has to be done because he's certain what will happen if nothing is done.

Dr. LUND: The levees will fall down, saltwater will come in, and you will not be able to pump water from the delta.

Dr. HOWITT: That's correct.

Dr. MOUNT: That's it.

Dr. HOWITT: It is in a nutshell.

Dr. LUND: Yeah.

Dr. MOUNT: It's Jeff Mount. That the forces arrayed against those levees are inexorable. They will inevitably go.

PALCA: And that means the freshwater Californians depend on could be lost.

And even now, there are signs of trouble. Peter Moyle is the ecologist in the group. He says there are constant reminders about how fragile the levees are, including one in the spring of 2004.

Dr. PETER MOYLE (Professor of Fish Biology, Department of Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology, University of California, Davis): This was a nice June day, on a levee that had been inspected the day before. It collapsed.

Dr. MOUNT: It's a beaver. Probably a beaver did it. I mean, how are you going to fix that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. HOWITT: I'm sorry, and then the state spent between $75 and $100 million to restore about $22 million worth of real estate.

PALCA: And it's partly economics that makes raising the levees impractical.

Dr. MOUNT: Just to raise the levees one inch in this delta costs you more than a hundred million dollars in just materials.

PALCA: But you've got to do something to keep up with climate change. There are options, but every solution has its opponents. And any solution is going to be expensive.

One possibility is to build something called the peripheral canal.

Dr. MOUNT: You mean, the peripheral canal that….

Dr. HOWITT: The dreaded peripheral canal, yep.

PALCA: Right now, freshwater flows through the delta. But you can capture most of that freshwater before it even enters the delta. And if you move that around the delta, then you wouldn't have to worry if the levees failed. They'd no longer be part of the water supply equation.

Dr. MOUNT: That was political poison for more than 20 years. You just simply did not talk about that as an option.

PALCA: California voters killed the peripheral canal in 1982, largely because northern Californians saw it as an attempt by southern Californians to rip off their water. But if the peripheral canal solves the water-supply problem, it doesn't solve the flooding problem for the delta itself. And delta residents worry that once people get their water, they won't care what happens to the delta levees.

Ms. MARCI COGLIANESE (Former Mayor, Rio Vista): My name is Marci Coglianese. I've lived in Rio Vista 40 years.

PALCA: Rio Vista is on the Sacramento River. It's one of many small towns that are scattered through the farmland of the delta, Coglianese is the former mayor.

Only about 4,500 people live in Rio Vista, and Coglianese says getting the state to pay attention to the levees that keep her town dry isn't easy.

Ms. COGLIANESE: I understand that we are outgunned completely by powerful economic and political forces. And the reason we're terrified of the peripheral canal is that if we feel we're not counting for much now, we're absolutely certain we won't count for anything if that canal is built.

PALCA: Coglianese says you can't use accounting tools to judge the value of a community like Rio Vista.

Ms. COGLIANESE: We don't have movie theaters. We don't have malls. We have each other, basically, and it isn't fancy, it's plain, but it's a unique part of American life that is gone from almost everywhere. When you travel across the country, everything looks the same until you get to the small towns, and they have an intrinsic value and need to be preserved and honored.

PALCA: There is a process under way in California to come up with a plan for the delta.

Mr. PHIL ISENBERG (Chair, Deltavision Blue Ribbon Task Force): Okay, ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much. This is the meeting of the Deltavision Blue Ribbon Task Force.

PALCA: The Deltavision Blue Ribbon Task Force is Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's idea. He's hoping it'll help him find a way forward in the delta.

Phil Isenberg chairs the panel, and Isenberg is a veteran of these California water wars.

Mr. ISENBERG: When voters are unhappy, they put measures on the ballot themselves, or interest groups do, and they just pile them on top of each other and have since 1911, and God, at the end of the road you look at it and it's not a wonder nothing happens rapidly, it's a wonder anything happens at all.

PALCA: Isenberg says California's competing water interests are known as the water buffalos. You've got the farm industry, the urban water districts, the land developers, the environmentalists. Their biggest concern is that this giant earthquake that everybody's been worried about hitting Northern California is going to come, and that's going to turn the delta into a disaster area. They aren't really focused yet on climate change.

Mr. ISENBERG: Global warming is a new kid on the block. And the really funny side effect is to watch all of these water buffalos acknowledge that global warming's there, and then explain that's why their prior positions are now even more necessary than they were before.

(Soundbite of car engine)

PALCA: For the time being, life in the delta rolls along.

Mr. STEVE MELLO (Farmer): Hello, Lester. Everything going, okay?

LESTER: Yeah.

Mr. MELLO: Doing good. Doing good.

PALCA: That's Steve Mello. He's a farmer in the delta. Lester is clearing away some brush along the side of a levee protecting some of Mello's pear fields. Mello hates the idea of a peripheral canal. But he predicts it won't be built. Because even if Governor Schwarzenegger decides a canal is what he wants, he won't be around long enough to see the project through.

Mr. MELLO: When he is out of office, the next governor will come in, and what will happen? It depends upon the political winds that are blowing then. But it's all about money, and water is money. John Wayne's got a very, very good quote: "The whiskey's for drinking and water's for fighting over."

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: Actually, some attribute that line to Mark Twain. But you get the idea.

Joe Palca, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: On the more general subject of why global warming will raise sea levels around the world, got to npr.org/climateconnections. While you're there, you can also find the latest Climate Change features from National Geographic magazine.

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