So what’s this peripheral canal thing, anyway?

The reason I read up on California water history was to understand the background of this past season’s political debate. Fine geeky recreation. Radio programs said that Governor Schwartzenagger’s proposal to restore the delta was a recap of the “peripheral canal” project which was politically defeated in the 1980s. Ok, so what was the peripheral canal. Why was it defeated. Was it good or bad then? Is it good or bad now? Would it restore the delta, and why is the delta in such terrible shape, anyway?
So, here’s my summary attempt to answer these questions. Bear in mind that I just got to California and read a few books. These opinions reflect that highly imperfect knowledge.
Why is the Delta in terrible shape? Largely because fresh water is being siphoned off in massive quantities. On an average year (using 1980 to 92 to calculate the average), about 26 million acre-feet of water flowed from the Delta’s sources, and 5 million of that gets diverted to farms and cities in central and southern california. Take that much fresh water out of an estuary evolved for a shifting mix of salt and fresh water, and the ecosystem declines. Other reasons include pollution from farm and city runoff, and the “flood prevention” system that keeps the area from being regularly recharged by spring floods, and keeps houses dry for the two million people who currently live in the region.
So, would the peripheral canal restore the delta? Well, the governor’s version did have funding for some environmental restoration, but in sum, it takes more water out of the delta. Taking more water out doesn’t seem like the right direction.
Why did the peripheral canal fail in the 80s? For the most part, Southern and Central Californians were in favor of it and Northern Californians were opposed. But the dynamics of the fateful 1982 election were more complicated. Some supporters stopped fighting for the canal, because the initiative also included protection for some wild rivers. The water lobby got greedy and opposed the wild river measure as a bad precedent.
Why are California water politics so stuck, and so environmentally destructive (This is my own inference based on spotty information and could be horribly wrong). Agriculture, which uses 80% of the state’s water, is a large, $30+ billion dollar industry with very large players, and seems to have the legislature well bought. Through a combination of federal and state programs, farms get subsidized water at 1/100th the the price paid in cities, and so agriculture has minimal incentive to conserve. There is a historical alliance between southern california’s cities and central california’s agricultural districts to take more water than the environment can bear.
So, why has Arnold’s plan failed so far? It is described as a partisan issue, with democrats opposing the plan to build a peripheral canal, plus dams and reservoirs. But how did the dynamics map to the North/South, urban/rural divides? Hard to say without doing some more looking into the issue.
Is there any way to get agriculture to waste less water? Much of the farm water subsidies are federal, and the structure of the Senate makes that equation politically tough. State incentives to transition from wasteful methods would be helpful, but not as much as needed. In California, would it be possible to break the historical alliance between Southern California cities, which have done a spectacular job of conservation in recent decades, and probably lean more blue and green, agriculture, which continues to waste? Has this happened already, and is this dynamic contributing to the woes of Arnold’s water plan? I have no idea.
pls. After I read a few long, juicy books, I found this
cogent summary, which provides the big picture view of California water use and water troubles. If you’re curious and don’t want to read long books, start here.

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