By Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla is executive director of Restore the Delta, She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

The confluence of California’s two great rivers, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, creates the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas. Those of us who live here call it, simply, the Delta. 

It is part of my very fiber, and it is essential to California’s future. That’s why we must save it.

In the early 1800s this estuary teemed with salmon migrating to and from the rivers of the Sierra Nevada. Salmon were, as documented in photographs, so plentiful that you could harvest them from the river with a pitchfork.

The Delta ecosystem was so rich in fish and wildlife an estimated 300,000 Native Americans lived in the Delta. Tule elk, antelope, and migratory waterfowl depended on the estuary. Some that survive still do.

The Delta ebbed and flowed leaving layers of sediment that would later be drained for farming, creating the fruit bowl for the San Francisco Bay Area. With the invention of the refrigerated boxcar, Delta fruit and produce fed the nation.

Even 40 years ago, families from the Bay Area, Stockton, and Sacramento would spend their summers in the Delta, fishing, swimming,water skiing, or taking a houseboat weekend tours. The ecosystem was alive. 

Today, the Delta ecosystem is in collapse. 

Children growing up in Stockton don’t swim in the river. They know it is too polluted. During the drought, massive algal blooms, some of them toxic, emitted putrid smells.

The Delta smelt, a native species, has likely just gone extinct in the wild. It’s an indicator species that tells us the entire ecosystem is endangered.

What Californians do over the next decade will make or break the Delta. Gov. Gavin Newsom is in a unique position to save and restore California’s beloved estuary.

On their way out of their respective offices, Gov. Jerry Brown and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced what they saw as a grand bargain for the future of California water. It is no bargain for the Delta. 

This bargain, which did not include environmental and Delta community groups, will harm the ecosystem by allowing less fresh water to flow in, and more water to be taken for exports to the south.

After thorough analysis by my organization and others, the last-minute Brown-Zinke deal looks like an attempt to satiate the thirst of large, industrial agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley at the expense of the Delta and Southern California water ratepayers.

State and federal agencies and the National Academy of Sciences have found that the Bay-Delta estuary needs more freshwater flows for fish recovery. Habitat improvements with less flow won’t work. Water is habitat for fisheries. With climate change, adequate freshwater flow is essential for reducing toxins that threaten public health. 

Delta communities, fisheries and wildlife, and Southern California ratepayers will make environmental and economic sacrifices to subsidize unsustainable desert agriculture in a warming climate.

We encourage Gov. Newsom to find a new way forward for California water management. Bringing together all interested parties is the place to start.

The State Water Board is responsible for balancing environmental and water user needs. 

After ending the bad ideas from the Brown Administration, here is what we envision for California’s sustainable water future:

  • Pull the plug on the $19.8 billion California WaterFix tunnels that would irreversibly destroy the Delta. Massive twin tunnels are not the 21st century solution. Alternative through-Delta conveyance plans have never been evaluated with the same robustness as the state’s preferred twin tunnels plan. Maybe this is where we can evaluate California WaterFix with fresh eyes?
  • Upgrade our existing water infrastructure to protect water storage supplies and public safety. This includes seismic repairs for existing dams, and re-engineering the existing Delta pumping system, as promised decades ago by water exporters.
  • Implement alternatives including more stormwater capture projects, recycling & reuse projects, urban and agricultural conservation programs, and water-saving technology that increase efficiency and provide good paying jobs throughout California. 

The modern state of California would not have been possible without all the ecological resources and water the Delta has supplied for so long. When we restore the Delta, we protect the San Francisco Bay-Delta and ensure that the economic and ecologic heart of California is still beating, as it always has. 

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