Crucial California Delta Faces a Salty Future Rising sea levels from global warming threaten to turn California's Sacramento Delta into a salty marsh. But the delta provides drinking water for millions, and locals fear competing interest groups are blocking solutions.
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Crucial California Delta Faces a Salty Future

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Crucial California Delta Faces a Salty Future

Crucial California Delta Faces a Salty Future

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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.

D: The delta of today is not sustainable even under today's conditions, never mind climate change.

D: Climate change really accelerates the problems that we would have had otherwise.

D: It's going to cause us politically and economically, quite a lot, about 7 billion or possibly more.

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

PALCA: 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.

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

D: That's correct.

D: That's it.

D: It is in a nutshell.

D: Yeah.

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

PALCA: 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.

D: This was a nice June day, on a levee that had been inspected the day before. It collapsed.

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


D: 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.

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

PALCA: One possibility is to build something called the peripheral canal.

D: You mean, the peripheral canal that....

D: 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.

D: 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.

MONTAGNE: My name is Marci Coglianese. I've lived in Rio Vista 40 years.

PALCA: 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.

MONTAGNE: 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.

MONTAGNE: 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.

MONTAGNE: Okay, ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much. This is the meeting of the Deltavision Blue Ribbon Task Force.

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

MONTAGNE: 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.

MONTAGNE: 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.


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

MONTAGNE: Hello, Lester. Everything going, okay?


MONTAGNE: 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.

MONTAGNE: 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."


PALCA: Joe Palca, NPR News.

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

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