Monday, June 20, 2011

California State Water Project Inspection Trip Revealing

Though I have been teaching California Water to Cal Poly/Pomona students for the past three years, I had not had the opportunity to visit the 'Holy Grail' of the California State Water Project until this past week. 

Thanks to an invitation from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California through Pasadena Board Director Tim Brick, I was invited to join 36 others in a behind the scenes 'inspection tour' of the State Water Project (SWP).

The two day trip was a whirlwind visit to the Oroville Dam, the Feather River Fish Hatchery, the Oroville Dam Visitor Center, the Delta and levees, the Banks Pumping Plant and the Skinner Fish Facility, with a briefing on current Bay-Delta issues at MWD's Sacramento office.

Our inspection group included a dynamic mix of water agency, water contractor, environmental, governmental, and education representatitves, which facilitated lively discussions both on the bus and during group lunch and dinner sessions.

Highlighting our first day was a trek up to Oroville Dam on the mighty Feather River. The photo above was taken from below the Fish Hatchery and gives a pretty panoramic view of the watershed, dam and hatchery, where salmon and steelhead are raised, then released into the River or San Francisco Bay.

The water release from the Dam that day was an amazing 8,000 cubic feet per second (CFS), the fastest June flow on record in the 40+ year history of SWP.

The second day of the trip focused on visits to the southern delta of islands and levees with terrific commentary by Curt Schmatte on the complex environmental issues facing the region.

The State Water Project, initially conceived by State Engineer Edward Hyatt (the Oroville Pumping Station is named after him) in 1931, was approved by the voters for bond funding in the Burns-Porter Act of 1960, with the construction of the first phase completed in 1971. The second authorized phase, the Peripheral Canal was never built, since the bond measure to fund it, Proposition 8, was defeated in 1982.

The largest American publically financed water works project, SWP's main purpose is to provide reliable water supply to 80% of Californians: urban and agricultural users in the Bay Area, Central Valley, and Southern California. The Project is also operated to improve water quality in the Delta, control Feather River flood waters, provide recreation, and enhance fish and wildlife.  The diversion gates at the Skinner Fish Facility (above photo) facilitate capture and relocation of fish downriver to prevent fish predation (death by predator, whether biological or human).

The key focus of this trip was on sustainability issues that will both ensure water reliability and ecological function, particularly relative to fish health. A half century of water pumping has taken its toll on the land along the delta levees, where subsidence has resulted in fields and groundwater storage areas now up to 30 feet below sea level. In addition, extensive pumping has negatively impacted fish spawning, especially the Delta smelt, resulting in court orders limiting pumping to protect fish habitat.

The 'Bay-Delta' portion of SWP covers over 700 miles of open canals and pipelines. The 'Bay' refers to San Francisco Bay while the 'Delta' refers to the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. An interesting fact is that the Delta itself is actually inland from the Bay, connected by the Suisun Marsh, where the ocean salt water meets river fresh water.

The MWD briefing included mapping of the Bay-Delta affected areas, an overview of the challenges in meeting water supply due to ecological damage and pumping restrictions, and a discussion of the 2009 water bond act approved by the state legislature scheduled to be placed on the November 2012 ballot seeking voter-approved funding. The site visits, like the one in the photo above of our group taken on the bridge at the Skinner Fish Facility offered dramatic evidence of these challenges.

The size and scope of the SWP in the Bay-Delta area was mind-boggling and our group covered a lot of territory in two short days: Pasadena-Burbank-Sacramento-Oroville-Sacramento-Southern Delta Cross Channel-Twitchell Island-Sherman Island-Franks Tract-Oakland-Burbank-Pasadena.

Clearly, there is still no consensus among water contractors, agricultural users and environmentalists over the properr CALFED solution for the Bay-Delta area. Nonetheless, the tour dramatically showed how vulnerable all Californians are if an 8.1 or greater earthquake strikes the area, which would result in a total collapse of the levee system and significant damage to pumping and diversion infrastructure.

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