Delta getting worse, not better

SACRAMENTO -- The mighty river delta that supplies water to two-thirds of California's population and serves as one of the most important wildlife habitats on the West Coast is in worse shape than ever despite $4.7 billion in government spending.

The ambitious venture launched seven years ago to restore and protect the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has spent most of its budget on water projects hundreds of miles away, according to an Associated Press review.

While many of those projects are regarded by environmentalists and policy-makers as worthwhile in their own right, they have done almost nothing to achieve the main goals state and federal lawmakers laid out when they created the California Federal Bay-Delta Program, or CalFed.

Scientists and politicians agree that native fish species continue to plummet; pesticides, fertilizers and other pollutants are making the overall water quality worse; invasive species of fish, clams, algae and other organisms are still spreading; and the delta's antiquated earthen levees have not been reinforced to withstand a major earthquake, something that could cause deadly, catastrophic flooding and cut off water to millions of people for perhaps years.

"CalFed's a dismal failure because, details aside, CalFed promised to restore the delta," said Steve Evans, conservation director of Friends of the River, an environmental group in Sacramento. "Overall, the delta today is worse than it was seven years ago."

Joe Grindstaff, director of CalFed for the past two years, acknowledged: "Fundamentally, the system we devised didn't work."

Levee collapse biggest danger

The pools, channels and marshes in Central California where the Sacramento River meets the San Joaquin River are the source of drinking water for 25 million Californians. Water is pumped from the vast, 1,153-square-mile delta and delivered via aqueduct to booming Southern California, some 300 miles away, as well as to the San Francisco Bay Area, about 40 miles off.

Water is a precious resource in California, and in recent decades, farmers, city dwellers and environmentalists have waged legal battles that have threatened to interrupt or reduce the pumping of water from the delta.

CalFed was supposed to achieve four objectives: maintain a steady supply of water from the delta; improve water quality; reduce the risks of a catastrophic breach in the levees; and restore the ecosystem for plants and animals.

While CalFed was envisioned as a 30-year program, nearly all sides said they had expected to see more improvement by now.

"It's tried to bring people to the table, but at the end of the day you have to look at results," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia. "It appears that all the problems have gotten worse."

Policy-makers and environmentalists say the biggest danger is a levee collapse that could devastate the countryside. And if the delta's environmental health keeps declining, California could face more legal battles that could disrupt the water supply in the nation's most populous state.

Money a grab bag for agencies

Already, partly because of CalFed's lack of progress, California's water wars are flaring anew. Over the summer, a federal judge slapped limits on the pumping of water from the delta to protect fish, raising fears of a statewide water shortage next year.

The AP review found that some CalFed efforts have fallen short.

For example, the various agencies that carry out water projects under CalFed's aegis initially proposed spending $950 million to eliminate mer- cury and other contaminants from the delta water. But the agency has spent just 13 percent of that, about $125 million, and produced little if any improve- ment in water quality.

Fourteen California and federal agencies have access to CalFed money. But CalFed does not have full authority over how the money is spent. Its 24-member board, made up of state, federal and local officials as well as members of the public, can only sign off on grant requests.

The $4.7 billion allotted to the program so far has been treated like a grab bag by the agencies that have access to the money, with the vast majority of it spent on hundreds of projects outside the six-county delta region.

Among the expenditures:

$113 million to improve the taste of tap water in Southern California, hundreds of miles from the delta.

More than $40 million to tear down five dams along Battle Creek, about 160 miles from the northern point of the delta, to restore 42 miles of habitat for salmon and steelhead trout.

$118 million on studies to build or expand dams in Northern and Central California, three of which are outside the delta.

Supporters of the agency's spending say some of the peripheral projects, namely, water recycling and conservation measures, have indirectly eased pressure on the delta by generating enough drinking water for 4 million to 5 million people.