San Joaquin supervisors oppose Peripheral Canal

STOCKTON -- A canal between the Sacramento River and pumps near Tracy would damage the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, dry farms and provide a straw for Southern California to suck the region's water, San Joaquin County Supervisors said Tuesday.

The board voted unanimously to oppose the Peripheral Canal, which is among the options under study by state officials. Proponents say it would secure a safe water supply for communities south of Tracy in the event of an earthquake and protect the delta's fragile ecosystem.

But county officials argued the canal would do neither and instead invite a host of problems.

"As far as I'm concerned, Southern California's thirst shouldn't be quenched at San Joaquin County's expense," Supervisor Steve Gutierrez said before making a motion to oppose the canal. "There are other options for Southern California, and they just look at this as the easy straw."

Last month, a federal judge ordered steps be taken to protect delta smelt. The threatened fish's habitat is destroyed by brackish water now pushed into the delta by powerful pumps in Tracy. They are used to take Sacramento River water from the delta to communities and farms to the south.

A state panel came up with two alternatives for moving water south; both include gates to control so-called seawater intrusion, levee improvements and environmental restoration. One of the plans also includes the Peripheral Canal. It would move the water directly to the pumps so it wouldn't go through the delta.

Gov. Schwarzenegger has praised the canal as a protective measure for ensuring safe drinking water should a massive flood or earthquake break levees in the delta and allow saltwater to flood in.

The irony is that the canal would be subject to an earthquake, too, said Thomas Flinn, the county's public works director.

Canal would be a temptation

Along one proposed alignment for the canal, 500 homes would stand to be affected by excavation, according to C. Mel Lytle, water resources coordinator for the county.

"We don't see there being any true benefit to the county, and the impacts are numerous," he said.

Among them are increased risk of flooding, seepage of water from the canal onto adjoining land, agricultural land lost and the potential for losing water rights.

Then "there is still the philosophical problem that we still need to keep enough water in the delta to keep the delta healthy," Flinn said. "And in dry times, it would be very tempting for people to take all the water they can through the canal, and then the delta would become very saline."

The temptation for the state to divert water south and leave area farmers in the lurch became all too apparent during the past two droughts, in 1976-1977 and in 1991-1992, when the state suspended water rights, said Dante John Nomellini, who represents the Central Delta Water Agency.

"It boils down to the emergency power of government," he told supervisors. "They sus-pended all water rights and contracts and basically instituted martial law. The conduct of the state in the past has demonstrated they have not acted in a way that suggests they would act in good faith in the future. The delta smelt ... is an example of the operators running rough-shod over what is clearly known to be a very sensitive part of the delta."

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California supports the canal. So does the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, a panel created by Schwarzenegger to make recommendations for improving the region's economy and quality of life. It sent a letter signed by Kern County Supervisor Ray Watson seeking San Joaquin County's support.

"As a member, we need to send a clear message that we have some concerns regarding the request," Supervisor Victor Mow said. "Otherwise, we are going to get run over by a train, and in that context, I don't know where Stanislaus County is on this issue. And we probably need to talk to Contra Costa County and relay our concerns and our positions."

Board members decided to ask San Joaquin County's cities to endorse the position, and the board plans to send a letter to the California Partnership stating the county's position.

San Joaquin County has only a limited voice on the partnership, whose other communities are to the south, Supervisor Leroy Ornellas said. "The southern part of the valley has a tremendous amount of influence and it makes a lot of noise, so we need to do as much as we can from this county," he said.

Bee staff writer Inga Miller can be reached at imiller@modbee.com or 599-8760.