Policy before plumbing
In the glory days of dam building, engineers were kings and rivers were conduits – tamed, regulated and managed for the control and delivery of water.
There was an intoxicating enthusiasm and a staggering naiveté about the wonders of engineering and the potential for shaping nature as we saw fit.
As a result, vast quantities of water were captured and transported great distances, entire landscapes were transformed, agriculture exploded and cities – including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix and San Diego – bloomed where Nature, left to her own devices, never would have allowed it.
We enjoyed several decades of blissful fantasy before we discovered the dark backside of the engineering dream: you can only build so many dams, you can only straighten so many rivers, you can only export so much water before the natural capital is spent and the interest comes due.
What we discovered was the wholesale destruction of aquatic ecosystems supporting some of the most important biological diversity on earth, including complex food chains leading upward to iconic species such as salmon.
And so, on the West Coast and in New England salmon were driven to the edge of extinction. Only a remnant stock of Atlantic salmon exist now in Maine, but West Coast salmon have yo-yoed back and forth between being critically endangered and moderately healthy, all the while surviving in numbers less than 10 percent of their historic runs.
How we manage the next decade of water engineering will tell us a lot about the viability of West Coast salmon and whether we can ever hope to have reliably stable stocks again.
Which leads us to the reincarnation of the peripheral canal and the resurrection of the term, “policy before plumbing,” a catch phrase used in water circles in the 1980s and 1990s to argue that sound water policy must precede the construction of more plumbing, that you should first adopt best practices for the efficient use and conservation of water before relying on engineered solutions.
At the heart of California’s water dilemma is the fact that most of the people and most of the farms are far from most of the fresh water, and most of the fresh water converges in a virtual bathtub drain called the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
To move fresh water from the rivers that drain into the Delta, engineers devised a plan to channel it through a canal skirting the estuary. Variations have been dubbed the peripheral canal, Duke’s Ditch and various unprintable terms. Now the plan has been revived and last week state officials announced that a revised plan could be ready by the end of July.
There are some attractive benefits to an isolated diversion project and some dangerous potential consequences. But a group of 12 Northern California Congress members – including our own Mike Thompson – have written to Interior Secretary Mike Salazar and the Acting Secretary of the Department of Commerce to insist that better studies be conducted – and better policy be developed – before any more plumbing is engineered and constructed.
We wholeheartedly agree. You can’t save the Delta by draining it.