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The Town Los Angeles Drank

A $25 billion plan, a small town, and a half century of wrangling over the most important resource in the biggest state.

| Wed Feb. 26, 2014 1:00 PM EST

Banks Pumping Plant near Tracy, California, is not a solution to California's water riddle, or a monument to the Brown family. It's the biggest pump in the Delta: Turned all the way up, it's like 2,300 fire hoses all blasting away at once. It's also one of the pump systems that has drawn ferocious protests from environmentalists for chewing up fish, despite the state's efforts to keep them out of the massive machines. The plant can exert such force on the Delta's waters that the US Fish and Wildlife Service now regulates how and when pumping can be done to protect endangered species.

Banks Pumping Plant map

Jim Odom, who runs the Banks Plant, is a humble guardian of the status quo. I visited him there on the day the Department of Water Resources announced that, for the first time ever, the State Water Project would not be delivering any water to the cities or farms that pay for its survival. Scientists and analysts determined that there just wasn't enough snow in the Sierras or water in the reservoirs, the state explained, to keep the fisheries alive while sending water out of the Delta. Some water that their customers had banked would still move, but zero percent of the water they'd be allocated in a good, wet year would be sent southward. In effect, Californians were told that more than a million fewer acre-feet of water for farmers and cities would be on the move.

We stood in the charmingly old-school tour reception room, underneath foam picture boards showing the construction of the State Water Project, and contemplated that for the first time ever, the enormous system wasn't doing what it had been built to do.

"Nobody wants to shut off any water who works for the State Water Project. We want to deliver you water. That's what we're here to do," Odom told me. "And it's not like I don't want to get up and do my job. I really like my job."

This is not the most interesting job that Odom has had. He's been a movie stuntman. He's a champion flat-track motorcycle racer, the king of Altamont Speedway (yes, that one) out when this area used to be the stomping grounds of the Hell's Angels.

Odom is in the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. I found him in a 1971 advertisement for Suzuki sitting on a TM-400 Cyclone, with a trophy in one arm and a bikinied blonde woman in the other. Empty desert opens out behind them. The tagline reads, "Built to take on the country."

In 2004, well into his middle age, Odom rode a motorcycle called the Ack-Attack more than 300 miles an hour over the Bonneville Salt Flats. As he neared the end of his ride, in the spot where his speed would be measured for world-record purposes, a crosswind kicked up and the conditions on the track deteriorated. A writer on the scene says Odom slammed on the throttle and tried to "muscle his way through the wind and soft, slippery, rutted salt." It didn't work. His front wheel left the ground. The bike started to roll, its canopy popping off. His emergency parachute stopped the roll, and he got out of the Ack-Attack unharmed.

Now, at the State Water Project, he controls the throttle of a far more powerful machine.

water channel
The channel leading from the Clifton Court Forebay into the Banks Pumping Plant can send more than 10,000 cubic feet of water per second flowing into the California Aqueduct. Alexis Madrigal

Nominally, his work is mechanical, but most of what increases or decreases his plant's pumping has nothing to do with horsepower. As a whole, the State Water Project tries to generate electricity when energy prices are high and draw power to pump when prices are low. That makes keeping the pumping plants going that much more difficult. Plus, federal court orders relating to the Endangered Species Act can call pumping completely to a halt.

"Way above us, they're mitigating and doing all the regulatory things and try to comply and do what we can do. But nobody thought about that. This was a feat in itself when we made it happen," Odom said. "It was supposed to last for 50 years, and it has lasted for 50 years."

Orders come down from the Sacramento Project Operations Center, where engineers and forecasters stare at a huge map and all kinds of models to try to figure out where and how much water to release and pump and store—based on variables like reservoir levels, the Sierra snowpack, and long-range weather models. Nothing's instantaneous in a water grid: Remember, it takes 10 days for water released from Oroville Dam in the Sierra foothills to reach Lake Perris in Riverside County, and all along the way, people are pulling water out. There are dozens of reservoirs, dozens of contractors who wholesale the water, and dozens of legal agreements that govern what can be done.

The last several decades have seen failed attempt after failed attempt to find some kind of a balance that protects the environment, farmers, and the people with the most money to pay for water, who turn out to be living in the cities.

The tunnels won't solve all of Odom's problems down here at Banks. (The only opinion he offers on the project as a whole is that "there are some pros and cons.") But they would give him and the rest of the Department of Water Resources operators more flexibility in how they run the system. They could have a more consistent water supply that was cleaner and contained far fewer fish, thanks to the fancy new screens on the intakes near Hood.

According to the logic of half a century ago, water in a wet place does humans no good. Water in a dry place? Well, that’s Los Angeles.

We drive up on top of the pumps. Massive gates can open and close to let water in and out. They're paired with another set on the other end of the canal, at Clifton Court Forebay, the giant holding tank for the water that enters the system. The current plan would bring two kinds of water into the Forebay: water from the tunnels and water that sloshes in overland through the Delta. The tunnel water would, in theory, have no fish and less organic material, which would reduce costs for people treating the "raw" water.

In the hills behind us, old wind turbines, installed with tax credits dreamt up by Jerry Brown in his first turn as governor, have mostly stopped spinning. The hills are brown for miles around. The squat pump house doesn't look like anything special, certainly not a force disrupting the whole Delta ecosystem. Odom points out where the tunnels would terminate, pouring fresh water into the reservoir that feeds the pumps. He says to look for a small grove of eucalyptus trees.

State Water Project facilities like Banks were not designed with the needs of fish hatchlings in mind. The Project's goal, explicitly, was to dominate nature, not nurture it. Now that the ecological problems are so large that they can't be ignored, the state has extended—not changed—its logic. To the squishy challenges of working with biology, it responds with the world's largest tunnel boring machines. The goal remains: deliver as much water south as possible.

The original State Water Project contained a crucial omission: It did not codify how the water would be split up between the north and the south, leaving that crucial detail up for future squabbling, which, essentially, has never ended.

My Hood tour guide Mario Moreno introduces me to Brian Whitney, a bear of a man in coveralls who wears a resolute white fu manchu mustache. Whitney's grandfather bought the land he farms in 1945. His father, Galen Whitney, fought the original State Water Project plan. When the bond measure passed by a thin margin, Brown wrote in his diary, "Water wins." Galen Whitney lost.

Later, in the 1980s, Galen Whitney battled Jerry Brown's effort to complete his father's vision with a so-called "peripheral canal," which would have sent water around the Delta, knocking out 6,600 acres of agricultural land along the way. "When I was a little kid, the peripheral canal was gonna come through," Brian Whitney tells me. "It was gonna be one big ditch right along that levee all the way back. And my dad has been pushing—well, he's passed away now, but for his whole life he was pushing against that."

That time, Whitney and his allies won. And that battle set up the way a lot of people around the area think about the tunnels. If they won once, they can win again, they figure.

Newer people in town are rushing off to meetings to listen to the authorities. But Whitney isn't hearing any of it. "Him, he heard so many stories. He died pretty early. But man, I could tell he just got sick and tired of holding it back, trying to push them back, just keep pushing them back. You look up Galen Whitney in this stuff. He's been gone for 10 years, but man there's a lot of people knew him. A lot of people didn't like him. He did what he thought was necessary for his area. He kept pushing and shoving and kicking and scratching."

This area has a complicated history, and it has always been about water and money.

Of course, everyone learned from the failure of the peripheral canal. Backers of the Bay Delta Conservation plan have tried to distance it from the old peripheral canal model. They distribute a whole pamphlet showing how different the tunnels are from the old canal. The new plan has less than half the water capacity, which means it will divert much less water from the area. Its above-ground footprint is much smaller. There are more fish protections. And a half-dozen other arrangements are probably better for the Delta than they were in the proposal that failed 30 years ago. But the Delta political forces refuse to see it as anything but an inglorious return of the peripheral canal.

What, I ask Whitney, do you want the state to do in the Delta?

"Leave it alone. It works just fine. Let them do a little cleaning, a little maintenance, on the levees," he said. "It's been working fine for 150 years."

Working fine since this land was created in the middle of the 19th century. The process began in 1850, when Congress passed the Swamp Lands Act—a piece of legislation that made federal "swamp and overflowed" land available for sale to private citizens.

Meanwhile, up in the Sierras, where the water came from, miners were mowing down mountains with hydraulic cannons, then snatching the gold out of the rubble, and letting the rest pass downstream. The sediment piled up in the rivers, making them shallower, and more prone to flooding. This area has a complicated history, and it has always been about water and money.

The year Congress passed the Swamp Lands Act, William Johnston carved out his Rancho Rosebud, across the field from Moreno's mother's house, in 1850. As he and other Delta residents were building levees and beginning to reclaim the great backswamp, floods caused by the mining sediment swept through time and again.

Then, through crooked legislative dealings, most of the swampland in the state ended up being sold to just 200 wealthy people. They used Chinese immigrant labor to make a fortune building up the Delta as we know it today. "I do not think we could get the white men to do the work," declared George Roberts, the biggest property owner in the Delta. "It is a class of work that white men do not like." Rural Chinatowns cropped up in towns all over the region. The workers toiling in this New World delta sent money to the Pearl River Delta back home and tried to get by. With all that cheap labor, the farms in this part of California began to resemble the plantations of the south. When a newspaperman visited Rancho Rosebud, he found that Johnston had "so many cows, he is able to make butter all the year round."

Chinese laborers
Chinese laborers in California, circa 1880 Library of Congress

Not bad for a guy who arrived with a horse and a dog at the edge of a seasonal inland sea so wild and difficult that the Spaniards had declined to build a mission there. For thousands of years before European colonization, in the winter, one would have stood in a vast, flooded field of reeds that stretched for miles, a home to migratory birds, elk, and grizzly bears.

But in the span of one man's life, the Delta became 57 islands and tracts, crisscrossed by plumbing masquerading as river, barricaded in by 1,100 miles of levees. The land and water became levers in a money-making machine that dispensed most of its profits into the hands of a few lucky white men. In that, the Delta is a lot like Los Angeles, and not a bit more natural.

Yet a nostalgic narrative continues to animate the debate about the Delta. It focuses on returning the Delta to its rightful agrarian condition, the one that existed before the State Water Project and the decline of the fisheries and the constant threat of bad water. The idea that this was the natural state of things—the way the area once was, or the way it should be—is a powerful political fiction now butting up against physical and economic realities.

Many of the islands are sinking. The sea level is rising, creeping up the Delta. The levees are holding the water for now, but suburbs are approaching from all angles. Even if the tunnels never materialize, human development will continue to transform the region, just as they did back in Johnston's day. Towns that feel rural are now a 15-minute drive from tanning salons and Subway sandwiches.

It is, by all accounts, an ominous time for the Delta and California's water system. There are bad outcomes in all directions.

The most acute problem is the drought. "It's bad. It's dismal," Carl Torgersen, deputy director of the State Water Project, told me before the big rains of the last few weeks. "The way things are right now," he said, "it is the worst ever, at least since we've been keeping records."

Even with recent rains, California's on its way to another arid year, right after two other drought years. In the language of the United States Drought Monitor, 99 percent of California is "abnormally dry." Ninety-five percent is in some kind of drought. Sixty percent is experiencing "extreme" drought conditions. And 10 percent is in the midst of an "exceptional drought." Then-and-now satellite photos of the Sierras have circulated on the Internet because they vividly depict the scale of the problem. The west is missing its snowpack, which has long served as the ecosystem's natural water storage for the dry summer months.

Could this unseasonably warm, dry weather be a casual occasion for a February picnic? Or is it a omen of doom?

Water people have begun whispering the years of other bad droughts, almost like incantations. '91-'92. That one was bad. '76-'77. Oh. That one was terrible. Average precipitation is 50 inches for California; that year it was 17. And, Lord, '23-'24, you don't even want to know. There was so little river flow that the San Francisco Bay swept far, far into the Delta. During the dry season, sugar refiners at the C&H factory at the mouth of the Bay, in Crockett, California, had to send their barges 40 miles inland looking for fresh water. Eventually, they gave up, and started sucking in fresh water from across the Bay in Marin.

These recollections are soothing because the specter of climate change hangs over California. Could this unseasonably warm, dry weather be a casual occasion for a February picnic? Or is it a omen of doom? Will melting ice sheets lead to sea level rise that drives salty Bay water deep into the Delta?

Climate models have a hard enough time peering into the long future—and now we want them to provide us with the kind of fine-grained analysis that would let a decision-maker in Riverside, California, know how to invest water infrastructure dollars?

But if drought is not your preferred apocalyptic scenario, there is always the flood. The ur-text here, which has spawned many different variations, comes from the Department of Water Resource–commissioned Delta Seismic Risk Report, prepared by two consulting companies in 2005. The more comprehensive Delta Risk Management Strategy report from 2009 found that "a seismic event is the single greatest risk to levee integrity in the Delta Region. If a major earthquake occurs, levees would fail and as many as 20 islands could be flooded simultaneously. This would result in economic costs and impacts of $15 billion or more."

More recent investigations by the US Geological Survey of individual points in the Delta have found that earthquake risks are higher than this report indicated. The reclaimed Delta islands are not less prone to earthquake damage than other types of land, as some Delta residents have contended, but actually will shake more.

People sometimes call this scenario "California's Katrina," because that is the most recent time in American memory when levees failed. It's a terrifying prospect because the saltwater pulled in from earthquake-triggered floods could ruin the export water supply for months or even years.

But for people in the Delta, this scenario is unimaginable. Not a single resident has been alive for a major earthquake in the region. The fault lines nearby seem as mythical as devils or elves.

Water policy people have even named this tendency towards amnesia: "flood memory half-life." The last major levee failure was in 2004, when the Jones tract in the southern Delta flooded in a "sunny day" event. It cost $50 million to patch things up. But that was 10 years ago. And in the intervening time, the levees have held. Each year that passes, the image of that blue water flooding onto the island fades.

The truth is that in any given year, the chance of a major, levee-destroying earthquake is very low. The chance that such an earthquake would occur in the dry time of a dry year, which is how a major water export disruption would occur, is even lower. "Multiple island failures caused by high water would likely be less severe than failures from a major earthquake," the Delta Risk Management report maintained, "but could still be extensive and could cause approximately $8 billion or more in economic costs and impacts." But it's hard to take the proclamations of the risk planners seriously that, if they continue with business-as-usual, the Delta should expect 140 levee failures in the next 100 years, when the frequency of levee failures has gone down in recent decades.

Not a single Delta resident has been alive for a major earthquake in the region. The fault lines nearby seem as mythical as devils or elves.

And besides: 100 years? Most people in the Delta are looking ahead a hundred days. Financial precarity is a perpetual crisis in places like Hood. And the state wants them to pay for more flood insurance and back a $15 billion plan to build tunnels? This is not wealthy coastal California; the per-capita income of Hood is $18,455. Sea level rise and once-a-century earthquake risks can wait. There's food to be put on the table.

Moreno has to think all the way back to '72 to recall a major flood, the one that hit Isleton, a Delta town south of Hood. The water came in the night. Two sheriff deputies noticed the lights were out at the Spindrift Marina, and when they arrived, they found not a road, but a river. Shortly thereafter, the water broke through another spot in the levee and the flood was on. A hundred forty thousand acre-feet of water were deposited on land, covering some areas 17 feet deep. A Heinz Pickle Cannery sustained serious damage. A reporter touring the scene a year later noticed "a surprising absence" of "pets and wild creatures." They'd drowned. For years afterward, when folks from Hood headed down to Isleton for a football game or to visit cousins, the whole place smelled like pickles.

"You can find sympathetic people out there in the Delta but the fact is that they don't stand for anything," Richard White, the historian, tells me. "They are an uncountable minority in California. The census doesn't even count 'farmer' anymore." I mention the spate of recent stories in the Sacramento Bee that begin with anecdotes about a Delta farmer. White scoffs. "What the Bee does is that you have a farmer who comes in and stands in for farmers without ever asking how many there are. Or what this way of life is about."

White is a bit of a curmudgeon. After a lecture at Stanford, I once saw him needle David Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize–winning American historian in front of the whole crowd. Kennedy had been the lecturer.

But it's worth asking: What's the scale of the agrarian economy in the Delta? There are 7,000 farm jobs in Sacramento County, 8,000 more between Yolo and Solano county to the west. Add in San Joaquin County to the southeast (much of which is outside the Delta proper) and you're looking at something like 26,000 farm jobs throughout the Delta region. If the state's total agricultural commodity production is $45 billion, or less than a percent of California's economy, then Delta agriculture's contribution to the gross state product is a fraction of a percent.

The logic of this rough utilitarianism says that if the water can do greater good for more people elsewhere, then it should be used that way. The people in the Delta aren't stupid. They know the richer areas of the states have more political pull.

"It's the big corporate farmers like Del Monte and them. Those are the morons behind all this," Nadar Chetty tells me, from his chair behind the counter of his general store. "As far as my business is concerned, my business will probably quadruple. I will be the biggest beneficiary of this tunnel. But at what cost? You cannot destroy a whole town and be the only beneficiary in town."

His wife sits beside him, eating a plate of rice as he rails on.

"If they do what they say they're going to do, we're going to have salt water in this river during high tide," he says. "If we're going to have salt water during the high tide, then all these farmers right here are out of farming."

"They are trying to help those farmers there, but what about the farmers here?" his wife asks.

"They are little people," Chetty answers. "They are mom and pop farmers. They are not corporate."

"Ohhhh, okay, so that's what it is it," she answers in mock surprise.

"They don't give money to Jerry Brown for his reelection."

"Ohhhh, so that's what it is."

"Or Darrell Steinberg." Steinberg is the president of the California State Senate.

"Ohhhh. They are not as big as they are."

"It should be Daryl Scumbag instead of Steinberg."

Then they both go quiet and the fork scrapes again.

"The governor is like the father of the state," Chetty said. "How can you favor one child over the other children?"

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