Stealing the Sacramento River - California agro-barons' last huge water grab

Sunset over the Sacramenta River - but how much longer will it be there? Photo: Eric Leslie via Flickr.
Sunset over the Sacramenta River - but how much longer will it be there? Photo: Eric Leslie via Flickr.
In California, water no longer runs to the sea - it runs towards money, writes Will Parrish. Most of the state's water is already controlled by agribusiness elites. Now, backed by politicians, they are planning to grab the little that's left, leaving nature and indigenous communities high and dry.
This is salmon territory, and there should be salmon in the trees, in the water and in the land. Without the salmon, there is only so long life will survive.

California's watersheds have been altered more than any other place in the world.

The state first achieved this dubious distinction in the early-mid-20th century. The Hoover Dam (on the Colorado River), which began operation in 1936, was the largest dam in the world at the time of its completion.

With regard to the world's biggest concrete river plugs, Shasta Dam (upper Sacramento River) rated second only behind Hoover when finished in 1945.

More than 60% of the state's water is captured behind dams. The US federal government and California state government jointly allocate who receives the Blue Gold. Were it a country, the Golden State would be the sixth largest agribusiness country in the world.

Food factories in the desert

Yet many of the state's monocrop plantations - unrelenting swaths of sameness - improbably span the desert and semi-desert landscapes of the San Joaquin, Coachella, and Imperial Valleys. Thus, agribusiness commands 80% of the water supply.

California is now in the throes of its worst drought since first developing its gargantuan modern plumbing system. In fact, according to research UC Berkeley paleoclimatologist B. Lynn Ingram conducted using the climactic data stored by old-growth tree rings, this is probably the most parched the state has been since the year 1580.

From the perspective of California's natural ecosystems, the consequences of diverting so much water into "factories in the fields" (to borrow Carey McWilliams' phrase), not to mention suburbs and desert megalopolises (read: Los Angeles and San Diego), have been catastrophic.

With less water to go around, the state's rivers, creeks, streams, birds, protozoa, insects, wetlands, riparian woodlands, cyclops, daphnia, fresh-water shrimp, salmon, trout, indigenous people, rafters, and others detrimentally impacted by the state's network of constipated rivers are now in even more desperate need of relief.

The 'water lords' have a way of getting their way

What they are getting is exactly the opposite. There is scarcely enough water to satiate the water lords who preside over the state's agribusiness empire.

If California political and business leaders have their way, the state will soon answer their demands by embarking on the largest dam - and canal-building binge since the State Water Project of the 1960s and '70s.

This past March, liberal Democrat John Garamendi joined with a Republican counterpart, Doug Le Malfa, to introduce a US House of Representatives bill that would underwrite construction of Sites Reservoir.

At a cost of roughly $3.9 billion, two large dams, each around 310 feet high, would be constructed on the Sacramento River. The water would be ferried through the Tehama-Colusa and Glen-Colusa canals, as well as a third canal that be built specifically for the project and originate north of Colusa.

All of the water would end up in the Antelope Valley, located just east of Mendocino National Forest, about 10 miles west of the small town of Maxwell on Interstate 5.

This is salmon territory, and there should be salmon in the trees, in the water and in the land. Without the salmon, there is only so long life will survive.

67% of the Sacramento river diverted to agribusiness

The 1.8 million acre-foot reservoir would be about five times larger than the last huge reservoir constructed in California, Lake Sonoma, which the Army Corps of Engineers completed in 1982. It would be the seventh largest reservoir in California.

Its initial filling would drown an estimated 14,000 acres of grassland, oak woodland, chaparral, riparian habitat, vernal pools, and wetlands (including 19 acres of rare alkali wetlands), not to mention all of the critters that call these areas home.

"One perfectly legal diversion scenario could take up to 67% of the average flow of the Sacramento River during the month of April", writes the group Friends of the River.

"Further modifying flows in the Sacramento River could affect the river's riparian and aquatic habitats, and the plethora of sensitive, threatened, and endangered fish and wildlife species that depend on those habitats."

The Sacramento River is the largest waterway in California. But Sites Reservoir is far from the largest new water storage and export project on the horizon.

High dams are 'cultural genocide'

There is also Temperance Flat on the Upper San Joaquin River. At 665 feet, Temperance Flat Dam would be the second highest dam in California, and the fifth tallest in the United States (it would be about 63 feet higher than Shasta Dam). Representative Jim Costa (D-Fresno) introduced a bill to authorize construction of the dam in February.

Another proposal would expand San Luis Reservoir, the artificial lake on San Luis Creek in the eastern slopes of the Diablo Range of Merced County that stores water impounded from the beleaguered, thoroughly toxified, and rapidly receding San Francisco Bay Delta.

Another would expand the Los Vaqueros Reservoir near Brentwood, in Contra Costa County, thereby impounding more Old River water near California's reigning nuclear weapons research and development compound in Livermore.

Still another would expand Shasta Reservoir by raising Shasta Dam by 18 feet, thereby flooding thousands of additional acres of the Trinity-Shasta National Forest and an estimated 49 sacred sites of the Winnemem Wintu people.

This act of cultural genocide would, for the Winnemem, "essentially end our ability to practice our culture and religion", according to the tribe's chief and traditional spiritual leader, Caleen Sisk.

'There is no alternative'

California's political leaders, though, are largely united around these projects, as well as around coming up with various of saying they have no other choice.

As Rep. John Garamendi says: "We want to use the moment when people are focused and interested. We've got to move these projects forward."

State Senator Cathleen Galgiani (D-Stockton): "There is no realistic solution to California's diverse and ever-increasing water needs that does not rely heavily on additional storage."

Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno): "You cannot recycle [water] in enough quantities to irrigate half the nation's fruits and vegetables. It's really that simple."

A tragedy of natural wealth

To a significant degree, political and economic power in the American West have always derived from the control of water. One masterful account of this phenomenon was provided by eminent historian Donald Worster in his book Rivers of Empire.

It was on the strength of massive government investments in water infrastructure, Worster contends, that all the cities and farms, money and power of the American West arose from what is primarily an arid desert region.

In casting aridity as the defining trait even of places as ecologically varied as California, Worster overreaches. This state's preeminent position in the world political economy - as of this writing, it has a larger GDP than all but seven countries - has far more to do with abundance than scarcity.

The forests, fishing stocks, minerals, and ores, and other natural riches of the state were initially the foundation of its economic success, paving the way for the aerospace, high-tech, entertainment, real estate, finance, and agribusiness sectors that dominate the state today.

Where water flows uphill - to money

Of all the water infrastructure projects so far undertaken in the American West, the California State Water Project approved by Jerry Brown's father, Pat, in the 1960s was by far the most consequential.

This single bond-funded project comprises an overwhelming portion of California's aforementioned enormous water transfer and storage infrastructure, including six power plants, 22 dams and reservoirs, six major aqueduct systems, and 23 pumping plants.

At the Edmonston pumping plant next to the Tehachapi Mountains, a greater volume of water is lifted higher than anywhere in the world.

As a result, the State Water Project is the largest single user of electricity in California. In the process of delivering water from the San Francisco Bay-Delta to Southern California, it uses a whopping 2-3% of all electricity consumed in the state.

In keeping with Worster's thesis, the State Water Project has had an impact even beyond the immediately impacted areas of the Central Valley and Southern California's vast desert regions. One of its outcomes was to create virtually free water for a group of landed agribusiness elites in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Here in the North Coast, the dry-farmed Gravensteins, Jonathans, and Delicious apples of Western Sonoma County, and in places like the Anderson Valley, could no longer compete with irrigated plantations set up on the fringes of the Central Valley.

It was about this time that Washington State built its irrigation infrastructure around the Yakima Valley and Wenatchee River.

With the long, steady process whereby this region's fruit farms have been priced out of existence thus underway, the premium wine industry began to reemerge here. Today, if you factor in the marijuana industry, about 1% of Mendocino County's crop land is dedicated to food production.

Diverting the Sacramento River south

One of the remnants of the State Water Project is a proposal to build a pair of massive underground canals capable of diverting the entire Sacramento River. The idea was rejected by California voters via a ballot initiative in 1982.

But the Brown and Obama administrations are both pressing for the Delta Twin Tunnels under a difference guise, that being the Francisco Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), better known as the 'Delta Twin Tunnels'.

BDCP's name is a euphemism akin to calling a freeway-lined strip mall a "downtown restoration plan". The plan would utterly devastate the Sacramento River and the San Francisco Bay Delta.

The idea is to export more of Northern California's water to Southern California's agribusinesses and water agencies. This would keep the agribusinesses viable well into the future - presuming there remains much of a future for industrial capitalism, if it continues its brutal eradication of the planet's life support system.

It would furthermore accommodate a projected five million new residents of primarily suburban housing developments in the southern part of the state in the next ten years.

An ecological treasure, degraded

A bit about the ecology and geography of the San Francisco Bay Delta. Roughly two-thirds of Californians (some 22 million people) rely on the Delta and its tributaries as their primary water source.

According to polling data, three out of four Californians do not know where the Delta is, nor are they aware of its role in providing for the state's water supplies.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Bay Delta watershed covers more than 75,000 square miles. It includes the largest estuary on the west coasts of North and South America. This vast ecological treasure also contains the only inland delta in the world.

The Delta is where the California's two largest rivers (the Sacramento and San Joaquin) end. It is also where one of the world's greatest water engineering projects begin.

The Sacramento and San Joaquin join at at the western end of the Delta near the town of Pittsburg, at the head of Suisun Bay. They transport nearly half of the state's total water run-off.

More than 70% of the water exported from the Delta goes to the San Joaquin Valley, coastal Central, and Southern California, feeding agribusiness and suburbia.

The Twin Tunnels

The Twin Tunnels would be a pair of 40-foot diameter water pipelines that would tap into the Sacramento River south of the Shasta Dam, but upstream of the Delta.

They would have a capacity to siphon 75,000 gallons of water per second, which is enough to drain, in theory, every single drop of the Sacramento River, California's largest waterway and formerly the most productive salmon fishery in the United States.

The tunnels would convey water 45 miles to the massive export pumps located in the town of Tracy, at the south end of the SF Bay Delta.

Operated by the federal government, these pumps sit at the head of the 117-mile-long Delta-Mendota Canal, which sends water gushing through the Inner Coast Ranges down to the western San Joaquin Valley, home of the powerful Westlands Water District, on which more below.

Beyond that lies Kern County, home of the oil industry (including water-intensive fracking wells), more agribusiness, and prospective urban development.

The Bay Delta Plan would also create new political impetus behind raising existing dams and building new ones on northern California rivers to store and feed more fresh water into the tunnels. The plan to raise Shasta Dam and enlarge its reservoir is one.

Brown water planning

Winnem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk refers to the twin tunnels plan and associated scheme under the catch-all term "Brown Water Planning", in reference to California's reigning governor.

"This water plan is one big toilet", Sisk explains. "Shasta Dam is the tank. The San Francisco Bay Estuary is the bowl. And the tunnels are the exit pipes, one of which goes right to Westlands Water District to provide for their selenium-laden, poisoned crops.

"Another is designed to go off into two fracking mines. And five pipes are designed to go off into the desert for new communities that would be homes for five million new people who are moving to California."

According to the Bay Delta Conservation Plan's Environmental Impact Statement, the operation of the twin tunnels, coupled with the impacts of climate change, would greatly drain many of northern California's greatest rivers - which feed into the Sacramento River either naturally or, in the case of the Trinity River, due to a human-constructed diversion.

These include the Trinity Reservoir (which would experience a reduction of 19%, according to the EIS), Folsom Reservoir (31%), and Oroville Reservoir (32%). The result may be even lower flows, particularly in the fall, in the Trinity, Sacramento, American, and Feather Rivers.

Restoring aquatic ecosystems, while draining them ...

Touted by Jerry Brown as a solution to the state's intractable water conflicts, the BDCP seeks "co-equal" goals: restoring the Delta's aquatic ecosystems, while also enhancing the state's water supplies.

The idea of restoring an ecosystem degraded by fresh water diversions by building new infrastructure to divert even more fresh water largely speaks for itself.

Once supporting 345,000 acres of salt marshes, the Delta has been reduced to 8,000 marsh acres, with Delta pumps decimating the fisheries.

Historic flows from the Delta to the Bay have already been reduced by half, increasing saltwater intrusion into the freshwater system. Normally freshwater flows from the snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas create a hydraulic barrier holding back intruding salt water.

Whither the salmon?

With regard to the impacts on ecosystems, salmon are the proverbial canary in the coal mine. About two-thirds of California's salmon pass through the Bay Delta on their way upstream to spawn. But only 10% of the suitable spawning sites for salmon remain in the Bay Delta watershed.

Earlier this year, a range of scientists began predicting that the drought may very well be the last straw, driving Central Coast Coho salmon to extinction.

In the last two decades, California fishery officials have adopted all manner of elaborate schemes to keep the salmon on life support. In a typical year, for instance, the fishery folks give between eight and 14 million young salmon to the ocean in tanker trucks on Highway 80. This year, they have trucked roughly 30 million.

This year marked another turning point in this salmon life support system. The Department of Fish & Wildlife captured 100,000 young Sacramento River salmon on a dowdy fishing vessel called the Merva W in April, then hauled them down the river to the San Francisco Bay Delta, releasing them there into nets.

The baby salmon spend a few hours recovering from the ride and adjusting to their new surroundings. After the nets are removed, the fish ride out on the outgoing tide.

But fewer than 1% of the smolts survive the experience

The only problem is that the salmon, when clustered together in such numbers, are easy prey for birds. Of the 12 million salmon raised by the Fish and Wildlife Service, an estimated 100,000 ever grow to become adults.

Trucking baby salmon to the bay is widely recognized to be the key life-support effort that maintains the commercial and recreational salmon fishing industries of California, although its actual ecological benefits are perhaps marginal.

The system does get the small fish safely past the Delta, where the aforementioned water pumps have killed millions of small salmon and smelt over the years.

Another view, however, is that these officials have concocted out a brand-new way of using an artificial, industrial process to circumvent a formerly self-willed ecological process on which this area's natural communities and human cultures have been based for thousands of years, which only forestalls a real political solution to the problem.

The New York Times' April 18th story on the subject, entitled 'Swim to Sea? These Salmon Are Catching a Lift', described "agricultural advocates" as being "delighted that California fishery officials have blessed [using boats to transport salmon to the ocean", being that it "keeps water flowing their way."

Who needs environmental regulation?

Throughout this year, California's Big Ag-sponsored senator, Dianne Feinstein has been pressuring state and federal water agencies to provide maximum pumping of the season's rains to provide relief to San Joaquin Valley farms.

Feinstein calls this pumping "the maximum amount allowed by environmental law." Going perhaps a bit further are Republicans in the US House of Representatives, who passed a bill in February that would suspend environmental protections in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta entirely, enabling all the water to be pumped south.

Between February 1st and April 15th, nearly two-thirds of the natural flow in the San Francisco Bay Delta watershed was captured in upstream storage or exported.

The one-third left over was needed just to prevent salinity intrusion in order to protect water quality for the export pumps and other water users. In other words, the fish are an afterthought.

$15 billion a year means political power

In the San Joaquin Valley, a cornucopia of more than 200 crops generates $15 billion a year in gross farm income. The biggest agricultural irrigation district in North America, the Westlands Water District, principally resides here.

Irrigation districts like Westlands are local-government entities that hold long-term contracts for water supplied by two massive water projects: the Central Valley Project, which is operated by the federal government, and the State Water Project. The districts, in turn, sell water to individual farmers within their boundaries.

The Westlands district encompasses nearly 1,000 square miles of Fresno and King counties on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. The district is dominated - notoriously so - by a relative handful of large growers.

These include the ultra-influential Boswell cotton dynasty (the late J G Boswell was often referred to as "The King of California"), which controls 150,000 acres in the San Joaquin Valley town of Corcoran.

Also Paramount Farms, perhaps the largest agricultural company in the United States in terms of revenue, which is operated by the infamously well-connected Bevery Hills billionaires Stuart and Lynda Resnick. The Resnicks are great friends of California Senator Dianne Feinstein, for instance.

The battle is for life

The vision implicit in Feinstein's efforts to, in large part, suspend environmental regulations, in the efforts to build new reservoirs, to capture and export even more water, is one of endless subdivisions, of endless rows of monocrop agribusiness plantations enduring in areas that receive an average of 10 inches of rainfall per year, well into the future.

That vision also, of course, entails increasing air, soil, and water pollution, depleted fisheries, constipated rivers, ocean dead zones, deforestation, erosion, overgrazing, wildlife extinction, toxic dumps, nuclear waste, and yes, global warming.

How is it possible to stop the juggernaut that cuts through people and countryside alike, while still enjoying the benefits of plentitude from the land?

There are no easy answers, but those that do exist remain alive in the visions of renewal carrief on by people like Chief Caleen Sisk, whose Winnemem Wintu have been so detrimentally impacted by the Shasta Dam.

"When we held a salmon ceremony in the Sacramento Delta this summer", she wrote in 2011, "we handed out a pine nut to all who were gathered there. The nut represented the alpine forest, the far reaches of where the nutrients in salmon are carried by wolves, eagles and bears.

"This is salmon territory, and there should be salmon in the trees, in the water and in the land. Without the salmon, there is only so long life will survive.

"Saving our salmon shouldn't be a political battle, or a regulatory battle between ranchers and government biologists. It is a battle for life, and we hope the ranchers and all of you will join us."



Will Parrish writes about environmental politics in northern California. Contact Will Parrish at wparrish[at]

This article first appeared on CounterPunch.

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