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Canal controversy continues; Task force proposes peripheral canal in the Sacramento Delta

By Dan Bacher
November 6, 2008 -- Last month, a special task force appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger released a controversial strategic plan recommending the construction of more dams and an updated version of the peripheral canal to address the co-equal goals of water supply and ecosystem restoration.

"If we don't fix the Delta, we are headed for a water crisis," said Phil Isenberg of Sacramento, the chairman of Schwarzenegger's Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force. "The Delta as we know it today is not sustainable. Our plan is designed to meet the needs of California's growing population, from north to south, east to west."

While water-agency representatives and some environmentalists praised the plan, fishing groups and the Winnemem Wintu tribe blasted the task force for pushing the peripheral canal at a time when they believe the reduction of water exports and the retirement of drainage-impaired lands on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley are what is truly needed to restore collapsing Central Valley chinook salmon and Delta fish populations.

The task force recommends building "dual conveyance", a combination of moving water through the Delta and some form of a peripheral canal outside of the estuary. The task force doesn't recommend a specific form of canal. "The exact configuration of the conveyance is under development by the state. We have indicated no preferred option," said Isenberg.

The dual conveyance facilities would allow for the transfer of more water exports through the canal in wet years and less in dry years, according to proponents. "When we extract more water in times of drought and low flows, there is tremendous damage to the ecosystem," said task-force member Richard Frank. "To take advantage of wet years and high flows, we need to have more storage."

Two weeks before the plan was released, Schwarzenegger used the signing of state Sen. Don Perata's bill directing existing bond funds to fund programs to stabilize the Bay-Delta Estuary as an opportunity to push a $9.3 billion water-bond proposal to finance two new reservoirs and "improved conveyance." Though the bond didn't make it to the November ballot because of strong opposition by fishing groups, environmental-justice organizations and Delta farmers, political insiders expect the governor will try to rally agribusiness and their supporters to place it on the June ballot. It is also expected that the governor will use the conclusions of the task force to back his water bond, which is also supported by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Other elements of the strategic plan include recognizing and enhancing the "unique cultural, recreational and agricultural values" of the Delta; restoring the Delta ecosystem as an integral part of a healthy estuary; promoting statewide water conservation, efficiency and sustainable use; reducing risks to people, property and state interests in the Delta; and establishing a new governance structure with the authority, responsibility and accountability to achieve these goals.

Timothy Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, praised the plan, though he was concerned about the details of the governance recommendations and potential proposals to take water away from water-rights holders without compensation.

"We strongly agree with the co-equal goals of ecosystem health and water-system reliability that the task force has established as the cornerstone of its plan," said Quinn. "We agree with the call for improved Delta conveyance, linked to expanded surface and groundwater storage, to be operated for the co-equal goals."

Doug Obegi, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, commended the task force for developing a, "comprehensive plan that acknowledges the need for dramatic changes to how we manage water and the Delta, including requiring more water for fish."

However, Gary Mulcahy, governmental liaison of the Winnemem Wintu tribe and the only tribal member of the task-force stakeholders group, strongly criticized the inclusion of dual conveyance in the plan.

"The Tribe has opposed, now opposes and will continue to oppose any plan that includes a peripheral canal," he said. "Whether you call the canal a peripheral canal or dual conveyance, any plan that removes water from the system before getting to the Delta is stupid and ridiculous, because it will greatly impact the Delta ecosystem and food chain."

Roger Mammon, recreational angler and board member of Restore the Delta, was also upset that the task force recommended a version of the peripheral canal in its final plan. "The strategic plan does nothing but insure clean water exports south at the expense and ultimate demise of the largest tidal estuary on the West Coast of the Americas," Mammon concluded. "It is a crime against nature."

The two-volume document will be sent to a committee of four state-cabinet members and the president of the California Public Utilities Commission. That committee is expected to make recommendations to Schwarzenegger by December 31, 2008.