Three Big Lies About the Peripheral Canal

The proposal to build a peripheral canal around the California Delta, overwhelmingly defeated by the voters in 1982, has been resurrected many times since then by politicians trying to curry favor with corporate agribusiness. In June 2007 Governor Schwarzenegger unveiled a new water bond proposal for a peripheral canal and more dams – and has been relentlessly campaigning for it ever since.

The current incarnation of the canal, the “dual conveyance” backed by the Governor, Senator Diane Feinstein and Legislators from both sides of the political aisle, is cynically being touted to serve the “co-equal”goals of water supply and “ecosystem restoration.”

However, a growing coalition of Delta farmers, recreational fishermen, commercial fishermen, Indian Tribes and environmental justice advocates are fighting this financial and environmental boondoggle because they believe it will only be used to export more water out of the Delta and destroy the ecosystem. The canal and dams are being pushed through the Governor’s controversial Delta Vision and Bay Delta Conservation Plan processes, as well as through the Legislature. Opponents criticize the canal for a number of reasons, including its enormous cost and environmental destructiveness.

The water bond would cost anywhere from $10-40 billion today and much more over the thirty years trying to pay it back, according to Steve Evans of Friends of the River. This is at a time that Governor has proclaimed a “fiscal emergency” because of the $24.3 billion deficit. Schwarzenegger last Wednesday called the Legislature into a special session and issued an executive order to impose three furlough days per month for state employees.

Canal opponents also believe that the canal/dams plan will transfer destructive impacts of pumping upon salmon and other fish from San Joaquin River to the Sacramento River, take increased water exports from an estuary that needs more freshwater flows for fish to survive and cause increased salinity in the Delta, impacting Delta farmers.

The campaign for a canal and more dams has been based on what I call the “Three Big Lies” of the Schwarzenegger administration, corporate agribusiness and their political allies.

Big Lie #1: No Dams for 30 Years

The false contention that no dams or water infrastructure have been built since the 1970’s was the “Big Lie #1″ used in the summer of 2007 by Schwarzenegger and the water barons to promote the peripheral canal. “Do you know that for 20 years, well, actually since the late ’70s, they have not built a dam?” Schwarzenegger stated at a town meeting in Bakersfield in July 14, 2007. “I mean, think about that. They have not built a dam.”

Actually, numerous dams, reservoirs and groundwater banks have been built in recent years, amounting to 6,200,00 acre-feet of water since 1990, according to data compiled by Spreck Rosecrans, a economic analyst for Environmental Defense. Some of the surface storage reservoirs constructed during this period include:

• San Justo Reservoir in Hollister
• Los Vaqueros Reservoir (100,000 acre feet of water) in Livermore
• The Metropolitan Water District’s massive Diamond Valley Reservoir (800,000 acre feet of water) in Southern California

However, virtually all of the economically and environmentally feasible dam sites in California have been already been used. The two dams that Schwarzenegger and his allies are proposing, Sites Dam in the Sacramento Valley and Temperance Dam on the San Joaquin River, are not considered to be economically feasible for the amount of additional water storage they would provide.

After I exposed this Big Lie and other reporters began to research the facts, the Governor stopped using this lie in his press conferences and press releases. He then moved on to Big Lie #2: A Catastrophic Drought.

Big Lie #2: A Catastrophic Drought

“This drought is an urgent reminder of the immediate need to upgrade California’s water infrastructure,” said Arnold Schwarzenegger in June 2008, using the “drought” as an opportunity to push the canal and dams proposal. “There is no more time to waste because nothing is more vital to protect our economy, our environment and our quality-of-life.”

The Governor again declared a drought this year, even though 2099 and the past couple of years have been by no means critically dry years. “This drought is having a devastating impact on our people, our communities, our economy and our environment, making today’s action absolutely necessary,” Schwarzenegger said in his statement declaring a drought emergency in February 2009.

In fact, information compiled by the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) reveals that in 2009 water supply in most parts of the Valley will be in excess of 80% of average. Water storage in the state’s reservoirs was at 72% of normal on March 1, but had risen to about 83% of normal by June 30. State reservoir water levels are only about 16% below normal, according to Elissa Lynn, DWR senior meteorologist.

Meanwhile, the American River Division contractors will be delivered 100 percent of their water. North of the Delta contractors who receive their supply from the Sacramento River will receive 75 percent of historic deliveries. Friant Division contractors in the San Joaquin Valley will receive 100 percent of their water.

Westlands is the only district whose Central Valley Project water deliveries are being cut substantially, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. In spite of all of the rhetoric of gloom and doom among the Valley’s water contractors, Tom Birmingham, the district’s general manager said in a press release on June 15, “We expect to have 64% of our average water supply in 2009,” correcting a chart attached to a letter by DWR Director Lester Snow to Senator Dianne Feinstein that indicated Westlands would have 86 percent of their average water supply this year.

“Over the past 20 years, Westlands has imported an average of 750,000 acre feet of water from the Central Valley Project each year,” said Birmingham. “This year, with our current allocation of 10%, we are on track to import 119,000 acre feet, which is 16% of our average over the past 20 years. Even if we include our anticipated supplemental water supply of 135,000 acre feet, the district will still receive only 36% of our average imported water supply.”

Birmingham indicated that it would obtain the rest of their irrigation water through groundwater pumping, but said, “We do not know at this point how much water Westlands farmers will pump in 2009.”

In spite of the hyperbole and rhetoric, it is clear that the contention of Schwarzenegger and corporate agribusiness that we are in a catastrophic drought is simply not true, though it is true that we are in the third year of below normal precipitation.

Big Lie #3: Fish Versus People

In conjunction with the lie about the catastrophic drought, the Schwarzenegger adminstration and Valley agribusiness have been pushing Big Lie #3: “Fish Versus Jobs.”

Schwarzenegger, Paul Rodriguez, chairman of the agribusiness-backed Latino Water Coalition, and numerous others have tried to falsely portray the battle to restore the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and oppose the peripheral canal as one of “fish versus people,” ignoring the thousands and thousands of commercial and recreational fishing businesses and coastal communities that have been devastated by fishery collapses caused by massive exports of water to corporate agribusiness and the operation of Central Valley dams.

“This federal biological opinion puts fish above the needs of millions of Californians and the health and security of the world’s eighth largest economy,” claimed Schwarzenegger in June when he attacked the federal plan protecting Sacramento winter and spring run Chinook salmon, green sturgeon, Central Valley steelhead and southern resident killer whales. “The piling on of one federal court decision after another in a species-by-species approach is killing our economy and undermining the integrity of the Endangered Species Act.”

Contrary to the Governor and agribusiness, the conflict is actually one between thousands employed in the fishing and tourist industry and Delta farms versus subsidized agribusiness. More simply, the real conflict is people versus land barons!

Damages to the fishing industry in Washington, Oregon and California totaled $290 million last year because of the ocean and river salmon closures, spurred by record water exports out of the Delta. Currently there are 23,000 commercial and recreational people unemployed because California’s salmon fishery is shut down, according to Dick Pool, administrator of Water for Fish. This has taken $1.4 billion out of the State’s economy.

Commercial and recreational fishing contributes many billions of dollars to the California economy. California had the highest amount of sales generated by the commercial fishing industry, $9.8 billion, and the most jobs, 47,000, of any state in 2006, the last year that salmon fishing was open on the ocean. California was also third in recreational fishing sales, $1.9 billion sales, and jobs, 23,000, in 2006, according to NOAA’s Fisheries Economics of the United States, 2006 (

Many of these jobs are directly dependent upon the health of the California Delta. The Delta Protection Commission in 1995 estimated that over 6,000 jobs were directly tied to recreational fishing within the Delta itself.

Farmworker jobs on the Delta are also directly threatened by water exports to west side agribusiness. The 500,000 acres of Delta farmland produce an estimated total revenues of $3 billion annually, according to Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, campaign director of Restore the Delta.

Meanwhile, Representatives Devin Nunes, George Radinovich, Jim Costa and Dennis Cardoza, kneeling down to corporate agribusiness, attempted to portray the drought as the cause of massive unemployment and economic misery in the San Joaquin Valley during a town hall meeting with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in Fresno on June 28. Paul Rodriguez tried to make fun of environmentalists’ comparison of the Delta smelt to the “canary in the coal mine” as an indicator of the ecoystem’s health.

“The canary is there so it will perish and the miner can live, but these people got it backward,” Rodriguez claimed. “They want the fish to live so that everyone can die.”

Contrary to the lies of agribusiness representatives and Valley politicians repeated again and again at that meeting and at rallies and press conferences over the past several months, farm employment actually rose in 6 out of 7 San Joaquin Valley counties from May 2006 to May 2009! During three years of drought between May of 2006 and May of 2009, farm employment went up 13.7% in Kern County, 12.1% in Fresno County, 19.3% in Tulare County, 2% in Merced County, 5.3% in Madera and 8.4% in Stanislaus County, according to official data compiled by the California Economic Development Department. Only in the smallest agricultural county of Kings was there a decline.

“While we’re told that 262,000 acres have been fallowed in Fresno County, the County’s Department of Agriculture was releasing a report that revealed 2008 was another record year with agricultural production dollars up 5.9% over the previous record year of 2007,” revealed Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

For more about agribusiness lies about the drought and the “impact” on San Joaquin Valley agriculture, please read CSPA’s Press Release – Myths, Lies and Damn Lies at For a superb analysis of the public relations firm, Burson-Marsteller (B-M), that has promoted the “Fish Versus People” lie to give a “human face” to corporate agribusiness, read Lloyd Carter’s “The PR Firm from Hell

The Delta Ecosystem Crash Continues

While the Governor’s office, Valley Representatives and land barons are constantly repeating the “Three Big Lies” to push the peripheral canal and more dams, the unprecedented ecosystem crash on the Delta continues.

Delta smelt, American shad, threadfin shad, Sacramento splittail, longfin smelt, juvenile striped bass, threadfin shad and other fish have declined to record lows in recent years. The causes of the collapse are increases in water exports, toxic chemicals and invasive species, according to scientists from the Pelagic Organism Decline Team.

Winter, spring run and fall run Chinook salmon are also being devastated by massive water exports and decreasing water quality. Only 66,264 adult Chinooks returned to spawn in the Sacramento River in the fall of 2008, the lowest number on record. Only 122,196 fish are expected to return to the river this fall. The Sacramento run numbered nearly 800,000 fish only seven years ago.

Record water export levels occurred in 2003 (6.3 million acre-feet or MAF), 2004 (6.1 MAF), 2005 (6.5 MAF) and 2006 (6.3 MAF). Exports averaged 4.6 MAF annually between 1990 and 1999 and increased to an average of 6 MAF between 2000 and 2007, a rise of almost 30 percent, according to the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

The two big questions I have posed to canal supporters are:
(1) Can you give me one example in U.S. history of where a diversion canal has taken less water out of a system?
(2) Can you give one example in U.S. history where a diversion canal, after being constructed, has helped to restore an ecosystem?

I am still waiting for an answer.

If you oppose the peripheral canal, make sure that show up at the North Steps of the State Capitol on Tuesday, July 7, at 11 am for a rally by Delta Legislators, Delta farmers, recreational fishermen, commercial fishermen and environmental justice advocates opposed to the 48 mile canal, which would be nearly the width and length of the Panama Canal. For more details, go to:

DAN BACHER can be reached at:








Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher