Jeff Mount addresses California’s biggest water challenge

California’s future as a food producer for the rest of the U.S. is tied to its water, particularly to the fresh water supply in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, says Jeff Mount. Mount said over time, the levees have weakened and the ecosystem has declined – and the state will have to make difficult choices to restore the delta.

Jeff Mount: When you look at the total array of water problems within California, this one problem sits right at the top. Because if you are going to break California’s water supply system, you break it right there, at the delta.

Jeff Mount of the University of California – Davis is referring to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in northern California.

Jeff Mount: This delta is basically the fresh water supply for 25 million Californians, and at least 3 million acres of irrigated agriculture, making it really the most significant hub in California’s water supply system.

This area was originally a large freshwater marsh. A system of levees converted the area into a populous agricultural region. Mount said over time, the levees have weakened and the ecosystem has declined.

Jeff Mount: Today we are in a full-blown crisis. The ecosystem has degraded so much, you’re losing native species. Water quality has continued to decline in the system. The levee system itself is so fragile that it’s on the verge of collapse. We’re staring down the barrel of climate change, which will exacerbate the problem in this delta. And we have no political consensus on what to do about it.

Mount said California’s future as a food producer for the rest of the U.S. is tied to its water. The state will have to make difficult choices to restore the delta.

Jeff Mount: I remain optimistic, because I think we have tools, we have the resources.

Jeff Mount co-authored a report called, “Envisioning Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta,” published in February 2007. He described the history of the Delta.

Jeff Mount: During gold rush, miners rushed to CA and a large number never made a dime in gold but made much more money growing crops to feed the miners. One of the places they started was at head of the San Francisco estuary, where they reclaimed all of this land. In the process, they eliminated some of the fundamental habitat that makes up the estuary. They also locked it in place with 1,100 miles of levees. Starting in the 1930’s, the state of California and the federal government decided to use it for water supply. The combination of farming and water supply extraction helped contribute to its overall degradation.

The report set out a variety of possible solutions to the delta’s crisis. The first group of alternatives would maintain the delta as a freshwater source by strengthening existing systems. The second set would manage the delta as a more complex, evolving environment rather than treating it as a homogeneous environment. A final, more extreme group of alternatives would aim to reduce dependence on the delta or abandon it completely. In any case, Mount said, deciding on a strategy for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will be very difficult.

Jeff Mount: It’s going to be expensive, it’s going to be politically divisive – well, it is politically divisive. It’s simply not going to be easy and it’s going to take a long time. It’s arguably the biggest water supply controversy in the West right now.

Lindsay Patterson