Delta death

California has spent more than $10 billion on water projects that are contributing to the death of San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento Delta -- a special report


By Patrick Porgans and Lloyd Carter

While Californians were held captive waiting for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature to agree on spending cuts and adopt a budget, state officials were throwing hundreds of millions of dollars down the drain and compounding California's water crisis.

Water officials have wasted more than $10 billion and 35 years in extended delays in their failed attempt to carry out their legal mandates to protect the waters of the state and restore the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary. The result: water quality in the estuary is rapidly declining; fisheries are in crisis; and the proposed solution, an $11 billion bond act set for the ballot in 2012, will only make things worse.

The primary source of the water-quality crisis is a toxic mix of salt and chemicals discharged from lands irrigated by subsidized water delivered by the federal Central Valley Project to contractors farming on the arid west side of the San Joaquin Valley.

The salt comes from several sources. Irrigation water — particularly from the delta, where the water is somewhat brackish — contains salt. There also is salt and traces of much more toxic selenium in the soil. Industrial fertilizers add more dangerous chemicals to the mix. And since crops grown in the Central Valley don't absorb much salt and the constant flushing with irrigation water leaches the selenium out of the soil, a nasty stew starts to build up.

This U.S. Geological Survey map shows a plan by federal and state regulators to divert toxic water more directly into the Sacramento Delta. All these diversion plans ignore the fact that poorly drained land isn't suitable for farming.

If the irrigation water isn't drained off, the salt buildup in the groundwater renders the land unusable to farming. In essence, farmers have been dumping the runoff water — laden with salt and selenium, along with mercury and boron — into the San Joaquin River, which carries it back into the delta and the bay.

All this is being done as the government declares its intent to save the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary.

How much salt are we talking about? According to a 2006 U.S. Geological Survey report, it amounts to about 17 railroad cars a day, each capable of carrying 100 tons of salt, as well as selenium and mercury. That's 3.4 million pounds of salt a day being dumped in the lower San Joaquin River.

Of course, the river is a freshwater habitat, so all that salt damages plant and fish life.

Some experts say that part of the toxic stew is ultimately flushed out to sea, and the rest perhaps enters the aquatic food chain or at least degrades cleaner delta water.

As far back as the 1998, the state Water Board staff reported that salt loads in the valley were doubling every five years. Toxic salt-loading is not only taking its toll on the river and Bay-Delta Estuary, it's draining the state treasury since myriad publicly funded programs for drainage, water quality improvement, fisheries restoration, and others continue to be financed with borrowed money from the deficit-ridden General Fund.

The water quality problem was identified as a potential crisis in the 1950s and has contributed to the pollution of a significant length of the 330-mile San Joaquin River. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 215.4 miles of the river are on the list of waterways so polluted they're unfit to swim in. And some species of fish from the river aren't safe to eat.

On a 1999 EPA map, the valley is the single largest "more serious water quality problem — high vulnerability" area in the nation.