SACRAMENTO (AP) - A quarter century ago, Californians overwhelmingly rejected the state's ambitious plan to pipe water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to provide clean, plentiful
supplies to a booming Southern California.
A report released Thursday by the Public Policy Institute of California argues that much has changed since then. Californians should give the idea another look if they want to keep water flowing to some 25 million people and save the delta's fragile ecosystem, the report says.
"Building a peripheral canal is not without controversy, but it appears to be the best way to maintain a reliable water supply," said Ellen Hanak, the institute's associate director.
Today two-thirds of Californians rely on the delta, a maze of levees, canals and sinking islands that channel snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada to state and federal pumping stations.
But that system appears to have a short lifespan. Fragile levees that could crumble in an earthquake or flood, rising oceans caused by global climate change and court-mandated pumping limits to protect fish are forcing Californians to rethink their water-delivery system.
The PPIC report recommends California build a canal to pipe fresh water from the Sacramento River around the delta instead of continuing to send it through a changing and unstable estuary.
By rerouting one of the state's key water supplies, a canal could help native fish that are now being killed when they are sucked into the delta's massive water pumps.
The study says continuing to channel water through the delta's maze of levees is risky and costly. It also concludes that fortifying all 74 of the delta's islands - most of which are surrounded by narrow channels of water - would be a waste of taxpayer money.
Projected sea level rise of up to 3 feet, increased runoff from early spring snowmelt in the Sierra Nevada and a 90 percent chance that more than half the delta's islands could flood by mid-century would cost Californians much more than building and operating a canal, the study says.
"Ultimately there are two choices: no exports or a peripheral canal. Keeping the delta as it is, is not one of them," said co-author Jay Lund, an engineering professor at the University of California, Davis.
Leaving the delta alone is just what California voters decided in 1982 when they defeated a ballot initiative to build a so-called peripheral canal.
The measure was rejected soundly, largely on the strength of Northern California voters who feared the proposal was nothing more than a water grab by Southern California agencies.
Since then, the Public Policy Institute said the delta's health has declined rapidly and global climate change is raising alarm about California's long-term water supply.
The latest proposals for a canal are much smaller in size than the 1982 proposal. They would set aside water for fish and do not attempt to increase the amount of water diverted from Northern California.
"Now the focus is on restoring reliability to the existing system, not on expanding exports," said Hanak, of the institute. "The environmental issues in the delta have become more acute, and I think people realize the way we move water is not good for the fish."
Water agencies and irrigation districts throughout California are increasingly receptive to the idea of a peripheral canal. But those who draw their water directly out of the delta fear the potential consequences.
They say diverting a portion of fresh Sacramento River water before it flows into the delta will leave the water saltier, overwhelmed by tidal action from San Francisco Bay.
"I think they came to the wrong solution. You can't abandon the delta," said Greg Gartrell, assistant general manager at the Contra Costa Water District, which serves 500,000 people with delta water. "They basically assume away the entire delta community."
Additionally, some environmentalists say the canal might trap migrating salmon and other fish that swim in the Sacramento River.
The Public Policy Institute proposed two routes for a canal, both starting a few miles south of Sacramento. One proposal places a canal on the west side of the delta roughly following the deepwater shipping channel, while the other runs down the eastern side.
Democrat Lois Wolk, chairwoman of the Assembly's water policy committee, said it was premature to support a canal that might not improve the health of the delta.
"No evidence in this theoretical study takes into account the rough-and-tumble of real life, present-day water politics," Wolk said in a statement. "If all of the state's attention and resources are devoted to the construction of a pipe to keep pumping all that water out of the region, then the Delta will surely die."
Separately, a panel created by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to examine delta solutions is considering several possible routes for a canal. The options are projected to cost between $4 billion and $17 billion to build.
Although building a canal carries a high price tag, the report estimates it would cost Californians much less in the long-run than relying on a vulnerable delta. Costs to fortify levees, treat increasingly salty water to make it suitable for drinking and repair broken levees could run between $550 million to $1.9 billion a year by 2050.
Schwarzenegger and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein also are urging the state Legislature to approve a $9.3 billion bond to build new reservoirs and fund statewide conservation projects. While the governor supports building a canal, his bond does not set aside construction money because water agencies have said they would pay for it.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)