The Panama Canal North

People concerned with a canal proposal for the California Delta hold signs voicing their opposition. James Swan

On July 7, about 300 passionate conservationists sportsmen; representatives of numerous conservation, fishing, farming organizations, Indian tribes and business and tourism groups assembled on the steps of the California State Capitol Building to express their outrage about the declining state of the Sacramento Delta, and a proposed water diversion canal as long as the Panama Canal.

As if pollution and water shortage problems in the Delta weren't bad enough, the rally came together to also protest a "secret bill" quietly moving through the Legislature that would result in a $20-$40 billion bond issue to build a Peripheral Canal, as long as the Panama Canal and 500 to 700 feet wide with a 1,300 feet right of way.

It would draw water from the Sacramento River upstream from the Delta and channel it to farming communities in the Central Valley south of the Delta, and water-starved southern California cities. (For details see: Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP).

The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in California's Central Valley encompasses 1,300 square miles, including 700 miles of waterways, 400,000 acres of tidal marsh, 1,100 sloughs and around 60 reclaimed islands offering incredibly rich agricultural soil. Approximately 500,000 people reside in the Delta.

From a fish and wildlife point of view, the Delta should be paradise, but on the 2009 list of America's most endangered rivers, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River System comes in as No. 1.

From a fisherman's standpoint, the Delta is, or was, heaven. It's the place where "flippin" began as a way to get your lure into the tules. And it's still one of the nation's top bass fishing sites, where stripers, largemouth and smallmouths co-exist. Aside from regular pro bass tournaments, it's also the site of a flyfishing-only bass tournament that gets bigger every year, and a haven where catfish abound and the white sturgeon get up to 9 feet long.

As the emcee for the rally, Sen. Lois Woik said that the rally's purpose was to "Give the Delta a voice. And many voices were heard, beginning with Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, who has lived and farmed the Delta for 32 years.

"Thirty-two years ago the river was full of fishing boats alternating between the salmon runs and the stripped bass runs," Garamendi said. "It was once a rich aquatic habitat. It still is the largest and most important estuary on the West Coast of the Western Hemisphere; but today it is a very sick estuary.

"I have watched the decline over the years. The fishing boats are mostly gone. The great thirst of a growing state's population, industry and agricultural enterprises has drained the life out of our Delta. The ecosystem is collapsing and the reverberations will be felt along the entire Pacific coast as the marine environment declines. The fishing industry is in full retreat with economic losses of over $200 million last year. The problem has grown to even threaten those that drain the water from the Delta."

A number of things are causing this dramatic decline: 2,000-3,000 largely unscreened and unregulated water diversions take freshwater from the Delta for agriculture; federal and state regulated pumps that deliver water to 25 million Californians and thousands of farms and export up to 11,000 cubic feet per second; runoff from farms and urban areas carrying herbicides, pesticides and other toxins.

The state already has given out permits to draw more water than the river can provide. Withdrawals mean increasing salinity in the Delta, which compounds other water quality and quantity problems. In addition, two major power plants dump cooling water into the Delta; exotic plants like the water hyacinth are proliferating, choking out native plants and wildlife, and over one billion gallons of municipal wastewaters are discharged daily into the Delta system.

Steve Evans, Conservation Director of Friends of the River, said that the Canal "will be used to suck most of the fresh water out of the Sacramento River for export to southern Central Valley agribusiness and southern California developers. It was a bad idea in 1982 (when it was defeated), and it's an even worse idea today."

Bill Jennings of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance declared that the Delta is " ... on the road to the worst environmental disaster in American history Arnold's folly."

Jennings said that if the proposed canal and associated dams went through, it would send fisheries into extinction, turn the estuary into a cesspool, wreck havoc on the Delta economy, deliver less water than presently exported, and lead to increased litigation because of legal flaws and bad science.

Delta farmer Rudy Mussi farmer told stories of the good old days, 50 years ago, when he saw so many fish in irrigation ditches he was afraid that if he fell in they would eat him. He says over the last several years he does not see any fish in the same ditches. Mussi said that he now has to treat water to remove salts to use it for irrigation.

Kent Brown, host of Ultimate Bass radio show in Sacramento, pointed out that alternatives recycling, conservation, ground water treatment can provide up to 10 million acre feet of water a year, more than what the Peripheral Canal will draw away.

Representing commercial fishermen was Zeke Grader, the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. He declared, "The Delta is an ecosystem, not a reservoir," and added a voice of the ocean, saying: "The Coast is in solidarity with the Delta. The lifeblood of the living ecosystem is being drained out of it."

"The Delta is on the brink of environmental collapse as the result of a failed water system that does nothing more than move water from north to south," said Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, campaign director for Restore the Delta. "We want real solutions programs and project that will capture, recycle and treat water programs that are cost effective and environmentally sound."

The rally ended with teams of five people going inside to meet with their legislators, to let them hear the voices of the delta and to give them the rally signs as a reminder.

The Opposition

The participants in the July 7 rally were spirited, but they're in for a real battle. On July 1, in Fresno, which is located in the heart of the water-thirsty Central Valley, as many as 4,000 pro-diversion and canal advocates marched. They chanted, "People, not fish," and carried signs declaring "Fish Don't Vote," and "Turn Up the Pumps."

Mostly representing the farming community, the pro-canal group challenged the recent court decisions to curb water diversions from the Delta to save the endangered Delta smelt and green sturgeon. The rally coincided with the visit of Interior Secretary Salazar.

Some anti-diversion people maintain that many of the marchers were paid farm workers.

In addition to supporting the canal, which many Central Valley farmers believe will bring more water to the eastern Central Valley (one of the most productive farming areas of North America), they also support a bill currently in the assembly that calls for removing all protections for striped bass as a game fish. This would allow people to fish for stripers as a trash fish, reducing numbers drastically.

The 1980s canal proposal pitted north vs. south. The north won with a rallying cry "Policy Before Plumbing." Today the situation is even more confusing as there are three potential routes for a peripheral canal: western, eastern and through the Delta none that the Delta supporters like.


I think even the fish are, which is why the Delta needs a voice, and public hearings to let it be heard.

If you want to understand the logic of those supporting the canal, check out a study by the Public Policy of California.

James Swan who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.