Water Crisis: The Delta and Us

By DeDe Audet

Living, working, and playing here in Venice gives us environmentalists more in common with the California Delta than it is comfortable to think about. I am no exception. It gives me great pleasure to respond to criticism by saying “I have been saving water, power, and nonrenewable fuel by taking  two-minute showers, heating my household water on the roof by the sun, driving a Prius, and covering the whole front yard with bricks set in sand to let rain water percolate through.

But learning about the rising seas and California’s water crisis  makes me uneasy. Maybe it is time to face up to the problem.  Venice CA was a swamp before canal lots first sold for $5 down and $5 a month.  The California Delta was also a swamp.

Disappointed goldseekers turned to farming and began building levees to reclaim Delta swampland in the 1850’s.  Today it brings in an average $2 billion in crops per year and provides 12 million visitors with 290 shoreline recreation areas, 300 marinas for launching sportfishing, and 500,000 boaters.

But the Delta rests on shaky ground:  a bad earthquake will shake loose more than one of the hastily thrown together levees.  No one knows when that quake will occur.

On the other hand we do know the sea rises a bit more each year.  Even a little rise will affect the California Delta and our community of Venice.  What are we doing about that?  Has anyone come up with suggestions to build dikes against the oceans about to engulf us?  Of course not.

No one wants to believe it.

Sea rise is too big and too costly to think about.  (Consider please, if you still think global warming can be averted, on how to shut down the coal mines of China in time.) So, instead of planning for sea rise, Californians argue about the environment of a little fish called the Delta Smelt.         One bunch of Delta farmers hired lawyers to shut down the pumps bringing water to the farmers in the southern regions of the Delta and Southern California.  They were successful in showing a Federal judge in 2008 that changes in the Delta water flow caused endangerment of the Delta Smelt.  So the judge closed the pumps during breeding season.

Then the deprived group of Delta farmers contested the closure by bringing new information to the court.  In December 2010, the judge reopened the case saying “The 2008 (biological opinion findings) are arbitrary, capricious, and unlawful, and are remanded to Fish & Wildlife for further consideration in accordance with this decision and the requirements of law. . .”


Now, in February 2010 comes this.  “The U.S. Department of Interior (boss of U.S. Fish and Wildlife) today announced a new policy aimed at ensuring the integrity of scientific and scholarly activities it uses, and appointed a Scientific Integrity Officer to coordinate the new policy’s implementation.”

Could this be a response to criticism of the techniques of determining risk to environmentally challenged species?  I addressed the use of risk techniques in 2008 when LADWP commissioned a study that “Used state-of-the-art analytical techniques (Stochastic modeling) to calculate the expected cost of LADWP owned solar projects (Measure B).”

Stochastic analysis modeling was originally called the Monte Carlo system, useful in predicting risk. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife findings in the first Delta Smelt case predicted 0 to 40% risk of extinction might be found for the Delta Smelt. (Now you know why the judge found the biological opinion findings capricious.)

But who needs a model to tell us the sea is rising? Every  year someone measures it and tells us the sea measures higher than where it was the year before.  Yet, like arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, Californians persist in spending time and money arguing suitable environment for a little fish that is sure to get lost when saltwater flowing through the Golden Gate engulfs the Delta.

Right beside my computer is a map produced by the California Institute.  It shows what will be covered by saltwater in our area when the sea rises 1.4 meter (55inches).  Most of Venice and all of Playa Vista will be under.  Whether it will occur in forty, fifty, or 100 years from now is unknown.  But we can predict it will happen.

As long as Southern California depends on the Delta for water to drink, there is little comfort knowing the Delta will probably go under saltwater before we do.


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