Delta's ecological decline is breathing new life into bypass proposals
A drilling rig bit into the bed of California's biggest river, hauling up sage-green tubes of clay and sand the consistency of uncooked fudge.
The rig workers rolled the muck into strips, dried it in sugar-sized cubes and crushed them under their palms. They packed slices into carefully labeled canning jars for testing at an engineering lab.
They were taking the river bottom samples for a $13-billion project that would shunt water around — or under — the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the big aqueducts that ferry supplies south.
Nearly three decades after a proposed delta bypass was killed by voters in a divisive initiative battle, the idea is back in vogue.
Pumping water from the delta's southern edge has helped shove the West Coast's largest estuary into ecological free-fall, devastating its native fish populations and triggering endangered species protections that have tightened the spigot to San Joaquin Valley farms and Southern California cities.
The mounting delta problems, along with the potential threats of a rise in sea level and a major earthquake, have turned the attention of state and federal agencies to an "alternative conveyance": either a canal or, more likely, a 40-mile water tunnel system that would be the nation's longest, some 150 feet beneath the delta.
But the plans, still in draft stage, follow years of failed attempts to stem the delta's collapse while quenching California's thirst —- leaving open the question of whether it is possible to do both.
Photo: Debris surrounds a rusty pipe draining water from Ryer Island into the Sacramento River. The delta's look, seasonal rhythms, fish and wildlife all bear little resemblance to the “swampland” roamed by elk and grizzlies that Gold Rush settlers were eager to drain and turn into farms to feed booming San Francisco. (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles Times / November 25, 2010)