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18th May 2022
Continued from PART1 ...

The wind blew hard during our boat ride, as it often does in the Delta—one of California’s largest assemblages of wind turbines was just to our west, in the Montezuma Hills—so we spent most of the trip inside the boat’s enclosed bridge, snacking on grapes that Lund had brought and on chocolate cookies that Fleenor’s wife had made. The bridge’s windows were high enough that I could look over the levee of Sherman Island and see the difference in elevation between its subsided fields and the level of the river. Fleenor said that the truly unnerving view is the one you get when you stand in a subsided field and watch a ship like the Atlantis Discovery going by above your head.

Soil in the Delta has a high peat content. That’s a result of the steady accumulation, throughout thousands of years, of dead wetland vegetation—largely bulrushes called tules, which once flourished throughout the area. As the Pacific rose with the melting of the northern ice sheet, the tule marshes rose with it, and the underlying layer of submerged dead plant material thickened, creating a stratum of what is really a juvenile fossil fuel. (Peat in the Delta sometimes catches fire and burns underground.) Plowing exposes the peat to air, causing it to oxidize, and as it oxidizes, the land shrinks. Peat also compacts easily, and, when it dries, the Delta winds can blow it away. Some island fields have been sinking at an average rate of more than an inch and a half a year since the eighteen-hundreds.

Almost all the islands in the Delta have flooded at one time or another. A few are still submerged, making the Delta jigsaw puzzle appear, from above, to be missing several pieces: Big Break, which was an asparagus farm until 1928; Franks Tract, which flooded in 1937 and 1938; Mildred Island, which flooded in 1983; most of Liberty Island, which flooded in 1998. There have been many close calls. In 1980, workers on Jones Tract, a twelve-thousand acre island in the southeastern Delta, were enlarging a levee by dredging sediment from the adjacent waterway and piling it on top. “The extra weight crushed the peat foundation, and it slowly sank and failed,” Greg Gartrell, a hydraulic engineer and an adjunct fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, told me in an e-mail. Water rushing through the breach threatened the Mokelumne Aqueduct, which carries drinking water across the Delta to one and a half million residents of San Francisco’s East Bay. The torrent would have swept away piers supporting the aqueduct had a passing train on the island railroad not gone off its tracks and partly plugged the gap.

A different levee failure on Jones Tract drenched the entire island in 2004. Dealing with that break was complicated by the kinds of conflicts that, for decades, have derailed efforts to address climate change and other environmental threats. Because the Jones Tract levee was “non-project”—meaning that it wasn’t part of a federal flood-control program and hadn’t been built under federal supervision—the Army Corps of Engineers could not help until they had received a formal request. By then, the fields were underwater. The Corps eventually did help to rebuild part of the levee, citing the need to protect State Route 4, which skirts the island, but the repair was done with dredged material that turned out to be contaminated by toxic metals. At the time, California’s Department of Water Resources believed the flooding might have been confined to just half of the island, but the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad refused its request to block an opening under a trestle. Drying out Jones Tract took months and cost an estimated ninety million dollars, lawsuits not included.

That Jones Tract failure occurred not during an earthquake or a torrential rainstorm but on an otherwise ordinary day in early June—an unsettling thought. Rising seas will cause the Delta’s waterways to press harder against the levees, and the continued sinking of the fields will make them more vulnerable. A number of levees have been raised or reinforced in recent years, but many haven’t, and no single regulatory body is responsible for all of them. A perennial challenge to effective planning in California is that water management is divided among hundreds of jurisdictions, from the federal government down. There are so many agencies, overlapping constituencies, interest groups, and simmering historical antagonisms that implementing comprehensive remedies to the biggest problems has, so far, proved to be impossible, even as those same problems have grown more dire. Farmers in the Delta sometimes worry that farmers in the San Joaquin Valley and homeowners in Los Angeles are out to screw them, and vice versa. Politicians act as though they hope disaster will hold off until the day after they’ve left office. In 2011, a report published by the Public Policy Institute offered a grim diagnosis: “The result is often a game of ‘chicken,’ where the management of a declining resource becomes deadlocked.” Lund, who co-wrote that report, told me, “Everybody is watching this thing decay, but nobody wants to be the first to offer a compromise, because that weakens their negotiating position.” The ocean, meanwhile, continues to rise, and the fields continue to sink.

The Delta’s main defense against saltwater intrusion has always been the Sacramento River. Throughout the decades, waterways among the islands have been channelized, diverted, and, on occasion, partially blocked, in order to make them more effective both as salt impediments and as freshwater conveyances. During our boat ride, we saw a temporary salt barrier, which the state’s Department of Water Resources had placed across the West False River, an eight-hundred-foot-wide channel. The barrier was a small dam, made of stone, whose purpose was to impede the flow of ocean water into canals that carry water to the south, for irrigation and domestic use. The greatest danger had passed, and the D.W.R. had recently removed the center of the barrier. I also visited the Delta Cross Channel, a mile-long diversion canal on the east side of the Delta, built in 1951. A dam-like structure at its mouth has gates that can be closed during floods, to reduce the likelihood that salty water will reach the pumping stations.

Many other defenses have been tried or proposed. In 1929, John Reber, an actor, screenwriter, and theatre producer, suggested building two immense dams across San Francisco Bay, roughly where the Bay Bridge and the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge are today, to disconnect the Sacramento almost entirely from the Pacific Ocean. Reber wasn’t an engineer; in fact, he hadn’t gone to college. But he was an avid amateur hydrologist and an effective promoter. In 1950, Congress appropriated two and a half million dollars to study his and other ideas, and the Army Corps of Engineers built a functioning scale model of the entire region. The model, which was completed in 1957, still exists. I went to see it, at the Bay Model Visitor Center, in Sausalito. It consists of two hundred and eighty-six concrete sections weighing five tons each, and it covers about two acres, inside a warehouse in which liberty ships were outfitted during the Second World War. It still has working tides, which turn more than a dozen times an hour. Linda Holm, the park ranger who showed me the model, said that tests conducted by the corps of engineers in the early sixties proved that the Reber Plan, if implemented, would have caused “flooding of Biblical proportions” and doomed the Delta’s salmon, among other species, by blocking their migration to and from the ocean.

A different approach to the salt threat was championed by Jerry Brown, who was the governor from 1975 to 1983, and again from 2011 to 2019. In his first stint, the state legislature approved a plan to build the Peripheral Canal, a longer and bigger version of the Delta Cross Channel, to divert some Sacramento River water around the outside of the Delta’s eastern edge. In 1982, voters killed the plan in a veto referendum, and the canal was never constructed. In his final term, Brown proposed a similar idea—to move water not around the Delta but under it, through a pair of earthquake-resistant concrete tunnels. (Pat Mulroy told me that a tunnel was essential, when I spoke with her in 2014.) The two-tunnel idea attracted strong opposition, from environmentalists, from Delta farmers, from taxpayers, from others. A scaled-down, one-tunnel idea hasn’t gone much further.

One of many arguments made by environmentalists against tunnels in the Delta is that building and operating them would harm endemic species. The best known is the Delta smelt—a tiny, slender, iridescent fish that lives there and nowhere else—which was abundant until the early eighties. In 1993, based on data that Moyle had compiled, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Delta smelt as threatened, and since then extraordinary amounts of money have been spent to preserve it, and equally extraordinary amounts have been spent on campaigns devoted to publicizing its preservation. Those campaigns have been created not just by environmental groups but also by the enemies of environmental groups—which, in a perverse way, are also heavily invested in its continued survival, because efforts to save it have been such an easy target for derision. (In 2009, at a hearing, the Republican Congressman George Radanovich referred to it as a “worthless little worm.”) All of that may change soon, since growing evidence suggests that the Delta smelt is now effectively extinct in thewild.

Every Delta-related water issue has been complicated by the ongoing Western drought. (Tree-ring analysis shows the past two decades were the driest in more than a thousand years.) Under ideal circumstances, surface water and groundwater are complementary resources: in dry years, increased groundwater pumping makes up for the lower surface flows, while in wet years heavy precipitation allows subterranean aquifers to recharge. But the drought has changed all that, by stressing all resources at once. It has also hugely increased the challenge of maintaining water quality in the Delta hub. As less water flows down the Sacramento from the north, controlling salinity inevitably requires reducing exports to farmers in the south. Those farmers, who are the biggest users of Delta water, feel forced, in turn, to pump more groundwater, which is rapidly becoming as scarce as snowpack in the mountains. (Parts of the San Joaquin Valley have sunk more than islands in the Delta.) Every problem makes every other problem worse.

People who don’t know much about water tend to suggest the same handful of remedies for California’s difficulties. One is to build a big pipeline from Oregon or Washington. (“Wouldn’t have to be that big,” Donald Trump told me during a telephone conversation, in 2015. “A lot of water would come down, I can tell you that. They have nothing but water.”) Another is desalination. (During the same conversation, Trump said, “Or you could do something with the sea, with the—what do they call it?”) Another is to prevent the Sacramento and other rivers from reaching the ocean. (In a speech to farmers in Fresno in 2016, Trump ridiculed environmentalists for “taking the water and shoving it out to sea.”) Another is to build new reservoirs or enlarge existing ones. (In a speech in 2020, Trump promised “a lot of water, a lot of dam, a lot of everything,” in part via a proposal to raise Shasta Dam, at the top of the Sacramento’s watershed, by eighteen and a half feet.

Continued in PART 3