Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, a co-founder of the organization Restore the Delta, discusses the issues facing the largest estuary in California.

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The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta provides water to 30 million people and more than 6 million acres of farmland.

The Public Policy Institute of California reported that the Delta, which is an estuary where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers converge and meet the San Francisco Bay, provides water annually to about 30 million people and more than 6 million acres of farmland.

The watershed is the largest estuary on the West Coast and is vitally important to California’s water supply.

But with the state entering another year of drought, water levels are low, causing various problems with water quality, fishing, water quantity and far more for the 4 million people living in the Delta region.

This week, the Bay City News Foundation hosted Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, one of the co-founders of Restore the Delta, an organization dedicated to promoting policies for the climate well-being of the Delta region. Barrigan-Parrilla has been working on Delta community issues for over 16 years and continues to work with state agencies to promote the health of the ecosystem. She broke down what the Delta’s well-being means for those in the area and all Californians.

Barrigan-Parrilla’s answers may have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Most of California relies on water resources from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the Public Policy Institute of California has reported. (Courtesy of the Public Policy Institute of California)

Q: Tell me about your work with Restore the Delta.

A: I am the executive director and one of the co-founders of Restore the Delta. We are a grassroots organization that has worked for the health of the estuary and Delta communities. Our work is rooted in the Clean Water Act, but also extends to other policy needs to protect Delta communities, in terms of climate change and public health related to environmental conditions. We have grown in our 16 years from about 70 members to over 70,000 now.

Q: The Delta watershed supplies water to an estimated 30 million people and more than 6 million acres of farmland. Can you tell me about how the Delta provides so much and why that makes it so important?

A: Well, sure. There’s a couple of things. The Delta is the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas, and not because of its water supply. An estuary by definition is where saltwater systems and freshwater systems converge. It’s the largest estuary on the West Coast of both North and South America. It’s an inverted estuary. It is home to 700 native plants and species. In its interior, there is the largest strip of prime farmland in California. That means the best soils on which to grow crops.

It comprises five Delta counties in its interior, in the rural part. And then there are major cities that are in what they call the secondary zone of the Delta, that are on the periphery but are still part of the Delta, including Antioch, Stockton, West Sacramento and parts of Sacramento.

Then there were all the interior cities. There are about 4 million people in the five Delta counties that are directly dependent on the health of the estuary either for work or water supply. The water in the Delta actually impacts their groundwater resources and their drinking water.

Now, the fact that the Delta supplies so much water is because we engineered the state through the State Water Project and the Federal Water Project first to export water. The system has been over built between the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project. A lot of land was brought into production in the last 30 years that was never supposed to really be farmed with Delta water. So that’s why there are so many firms that are dependent on it. So, it’s increased their share of water supply.

The drinking water component is interesting because things may have changed a bit with the drought. They like to use that 30 million number but then they forget to tell you sometimes these communities are only individuals who are only maybe dependent on a couple of gallons of water a year from the Delta. So, it gets blown up to justify the water exports from the Delta.

However, I will say this because of the way we developed California, we are always going to have to share water. And the question is, ‘Where and with whom?’ Science has shown us time and time again. You can’t really export more than 25 percent of an estuary’s freshwater supply and expect it to remain healthy and unchanged. And the problem is the extreme drought conditions we are facing. I don’t think that we can say safely anymore that we’re just in drought. I think this is a permanent condition.

Q: How do drought-like conditions that we are currently experiencing in California affect the water levels in the Delta?

A: It can affect it in a couple of different ways. First off, we are sending in comments today to the Army Corps of Engineers because they are looking at putting in additional barriers in the Delta to stop saltwater intrusion. They’ve already had one barrier in place, and now they’re going to have to put barriers in much further upstream on the Sacramento River system. So, what will happen is in our sloughs on the periphery of the Delta, especially in our urban areas, we end up with the water levels going down. What we then end up with is stagnant water. And then that stagnant water becomes warm. It kills fish populations. The residence time of pollutants, which means how long the pollutants stay in the water, increases significantly.

And then you have the conditions, especially with agricultural discharge that comes down stream on the San Joaquin River in the Sacramento River. You end up with heavy concentrations of nitrates in stagnant water, hot water temperatures, hot air temperatures, so then you end up with harmful algae blooms. And that is happening more and more in places where the system was built, where there’s poor water circulation around the peripheries of the Delta. But also in the interior of the Delta as well, especially around marinas, places where water dead ends.

And the second problem you have, which the state is reaching out to us on, is what are going to be the impacts of a changing Delta if the Delta becomes salty? And so, that’s the reason for these barriers. It isn’t so much about protecting the Delta’s freshwater needs because our estuary is inverted estuary. The interior Delta is freshwater, and it gradually gets saltier. It becomes brackish in Antioch, and then it of course gets salty as you’re in the Bay. It’s a gradual system and all those areas make up the estuary. The problem is that if we have saltwater intrusion to the existing pumps, which they’re fighting against, then you’re going to have poor water quality, salty water for water exports. And that is what they’re trying to control for. Not because they’re worried so much about water quality in the Delta. To an extent what they’re doing will help protect agriculture in the Delta and we support that.

On the other hand, we argue that there has to be a natural freshwater barrier, because otherwise you’re going have an increase in harmful algal blooms throughout the Delta. You’re going to finish off the fisheries, which are in serious decline.

And because the system has been mismanaged for so long, we are in a situation where we are stuck between two bad scenarios. The state has failed to be ahead of this and do smart long-term drought planning years ago, and the state overall has failed to make the hard decisions on how much water can really be exported from the Delta.

But, you know, prior to all of this, 70 percent of the water taken from the Delta went for exports in the San Joaquin Valley. But a significant amount of water has never reached the Delta upstream, because it was also used for agriculture. And we’re kind of arguing at this point that you have to remember the people upstream who have the senior water rights. Those were water rights that ended up as the result of genocide and just taking land and making sure communities of color can never buy land, and yet, it’s tribes and communities of color that are living with all the pollution impacts.

Our big push is that we can’t continue as they’re managing the system every year protecting water rights for senior water right users, while everybody else is expected to do with less. 

We’re always going to have to share water with Southern California because Southern California is overbuilt and they’re in trouble with losing water on the Colorado side. We need to, in California, create as much regional self-sufficiency through water efficiency projects, reusing and recycling. We are going to need to look at agricultural production upstream and downstream from the Delta in order to make sure that there is enough flow to keep the system from completely collapsing and the rivers from completely dying. I think ultimately also to make sure that there is an adequate drinking water supply, where we have to share water.

Q: How would harm done to the Delta affect a big city like Stockton, which is one of the peripheral urban areas on the Delta?

A: First off, we’re already living with the impacts. Our waterfront is completely ruined by harmful algae blooms. We are collecting data for the state right now and working on trying to get it up on our website. Our waterfront is where people go and should be able to just live or recreate.

The cyanotoxins are 200 times over dangerous levels. And the problem is that we are learning right now in a study (that we are involved in) that those cyanotoxins become airborne. One-third of Stockton is already an ‘environmental justice’ community. They live in the bottom 99th percentile for environmental health indicators. And these are the same communities that are breathing in the polluted air from the cyanotoxins. Just like Owens Valley or the Salton Sea.

Water pollution is becoming air pollution here. It’s impossible, also, for a city like Stockton to focus on the redevelopment it needs as a city at its core and in its environmental justice communities. Who wants to invest in a community that is surrounded by toxic water?

It isn’t just fishing, because people love fish, or recreation throughout the entire Delta we have to think about. There are about 40,000 sustenance fishers. These are people who fish for food. So, the decline in fish numbers and the contamination of fish is a public health threat to them. I would not be surprised if that number got higher during COVID because we had so much widespread hunger in the interior Delta and in parts of Stockton.

So, it’s an absolute threat and it is also a threat to our drinking water supply. If the Delta becomes more saline, they’re [the state] planning on moving forward with their analysis on the Delta tunnel which is just an absolute waste of time during all of this. It solves no problems for the estuary and if we go through this rapid ratification that it looks like we’re entering, the tunnel [Delta tunnel bringing water south to Kern County and Southern California] isn’t going to be able to supply enough water for people for the cost.

The state is failing in its planning on how it’s going to address drinking water challenges for the Delta. Our organization is being invited into lots of conversations and to participate in processes and how to plan for that.

But repeatedly the state makes San Joaquin County and the city of Stockton a loser. If I were to compare this to the Hunger Games, it is like we live in the outer region that is always the sacrifice zone for the rest of the state.

Q: There are so many different complex proposed solutions, like you mentioned with what the Army Corps of Engineers is considering and the tunnel and all, but as an organization, what are some of the best next steps that Restore the Delta would advocate for?

A: We really advocate that there needs to be a re-look at shared sacrifice in terms of water used for unsustainable agriculture in California. And that means downstream in the San Joaquin Valley and upstream in the Sacramento Valley.

We just said in our letter to the Army Corps of Engineers that nobody has done an assessment of what would happen if water cuts in agriculture were pretty equally shared, so that we could keep our rivers alive. So that the rivers don’t become polluted and sources of contamination and pollution for the people who live near them. And so that we could share drinking water during these difficult years in amounts where it needs to be shared.

Also, there is a tremendous opportunity for a really significant water conservation work program. We need to replace all of our front lawns with zero-scaping. We need to replace all of our toilets with low flow toilets and low flow showerheads. There’s so much that can be done in outdoor landscaping for businesses.

There are a lot of ways on the urban side to save water, but it will not work if we do not get agricultural in demand with what our water supply really is. Those things have to happen. There’s a lot of rebuilding and a lot of reworking that has to be done there.

So, the state is extremely far behind. In fact, I would say that for the most part, they’re in denial. They’re trying to hold on to status quo solutions that they have been running around with for 15 or 16 years and they’re not doing the hard work of really considering what our changing conditions are.

As far as I’m concerned, there should be a moratorium right now on any more work on the tunnel. They need to first come up with a serious drought management plan for the Delta and for the state under the assumption that we’re not going to be saved by rain in the next couple of years.