California's water system needs bypass surgery

By Luis Alvarado, Familias Unidas de California

Fifty years ago California was bursting at the seams with new citizens and a rapidly growing economy.  This resulted in an ever-increasing demand for water. As a result, the State of California wisely created the State Water Project to deliver this vital natural resource to where it would be needed. 

That was 55 years ago. Today, that system is badly outdated and in need of emergency bypass surgery.  The lingering drought has rightly turned our focus to this urgent problem.

Just as the previous generation tackled the difficult problem of balancing the water needs of our cities, towns, and suburbs against our farms, ranches, and dairies, it is now up to the current generation to create a 21st century water system that can achieve those same goals as we plan for future generations.

The debate over this issue has been raging for decades as rural and urban interests have clashed over how to solve the problem.

The center of this debate is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the heart of California’s water supply system, as water is pumped from the delta to quench the thirst of Southern California communities and businesses. Years of pumping water to supply those needs has weakened the delta and its fragile ecosystem, and later restrictions on that pumping have failed to reverse this decline. 

You don’t have to be an expert on water policy to understand the impending crisis.

Think about your own heart.

It is the most critical organ in your body that allows you to not only survive but thrive. Without a healthy heart pumping blood to the other organs and tissues that make up your body, you would quickly perish.

If you neglect your heart’s health, your doctor might advise you to take some medication or to improve your diet and exercise. If the doctor’s advice fails to address the problem, you might be faced with something as drastic as bypass surgery or transplant.

For decades we have tried to restore the health of the Delta, the heart of our water system and it is still sick and getting sicker by the year.

So we need bypass surgery.


Currently the fresh water of the Sacramento River flows into the Delta and is then pumped out and sent on its way south through a series of levees and canals. But many those earthen levees are over a century old and are in danger of catastrophic collapse.

This is where Governor Jerry Brown’s Bay Delta Conservation Plan comes into play. The ambitious engineering project builds two tunnels along the Sacramento River that pipe water 150 feet under the Delta, bypassing that endangered ecosystem. These tunnels will benefit native plant and wildlife species, and will in time restore 30,000 acres of habitat. More importantly, it will stabilize this region for the 500,000 Californians who call the delta valley “home.”

Just as a heart bypass allows the heart to recover so the body can continue a healthy life, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan allows the delta, the heart of our water system, to recover and restore to health California’s delicate and vital ecosystem.

However time is not on our side.

While we currently are in a drought, someday the rains will return and with it we will see flooding in the areas that surround the Delta putting pressure on the patchwork of levees that make up the current system of water delivery.

A catastrophic failure of the levees would be the equivalent of a massive heart attack, which would take many years and billions of dollars from which to recover. 

If we don’t act with all speed to restore the Delta and modernize our north-south water delivery system, we will have failed future generations of Californians and jeopardized the economic engine that drives America’s growth and provides an agricultural bounty that feeds the world.