The Impacts of Climate Change and Delta Water

Sierra Club

One of the ironies of living in an era of climate change is that it underscores how much we humans have to change. We cannot stop, reduce or adapt to climate change unless we change.

Yet, because change is hard, policy influencers who can make a big difference—even the best intentioned—are having a hard time giving up on the old ways and embracing new approaches that are now essential.

Take water, for example.

The last decade-plus has put just about every region of California into a new relationship with water. 

We have a system of canals, dams and pipes that depends on massive annual snowfall in the Sierra Nevada to deliver water to parts of Northern, Central and Southern California.

We have another system of pumps, canals and pipes that draws water from aquifers deep underground to either entirely serve or augment the snowmelt water.

Both systems rely on a lot of energy and infrastructure to move water a long way. And both systems were designed before climate change. Now, with climate change, it has become clear that we can’t rely on old assumptions about water.

California governor wants to secure water for the drought but will it leave enough for wildlife?

The snow isn’t falling as much or as consistently, and the pressure on aquifers has intensified.

We have to change the way we do things. 

Yet at the state capitol and at state agencies, we still hear water wholesalers and retailers and large water consumer groups, such as agricultural interest groups, pushing for half measures when robust change is needed.

When the state water board was prepared to finally impose a long-awaited regulation setting flows for rivers linked to the Sacramento Delta late last year, the then-governor and the governor-elect both intervened to stymie the regulations. Those regulations would have required farmers and others dependent on certain rivers to be more conservative in their water use, and agricultural interests joined with the City of San Francisco, to stall the regulations.

Although the board ultimately adopted the regulations early this year, they did so with the agreement that they would not be implemented or enforced while negotiations for a “voluntary agreement” with water users is hashed out.

Those negotiations are still in the works. As a result, the conservation that climate change impacts demand in the San Joaquin River system has come to a standstill. 

Then there are the famous tunnels. If ever there was a tired idea that won’t work during climate change, it is the proposal to build a tunnel system to divert water that would normally flow through the Sacramento River and into the Delta. 

Can the proponents just get honest here and stop referring to the tunnels as the “WaterFix”? The idea is not a fix. It’s essentially a peripheral canal straightened out and covered up with a concrete hat. It’s an idea that voters wisely rejected in the 1980s.

Unfortunately, Jerry Brown, who was a young governor when the canal was first rejected, decided during his late-in-life terms as governor to revive the idea as two tunnels.

Now Governor Gavin Newsom has pared the idea back to one tunnel. That’s a half measure. 

The tunnels are not the answer. Shifting our water system to emphasize regional resilience is. Spending money and brainpower on conservation, efficiency and other practices that will help all of us cut our water consumption without sacrificing our health is the answer.

In short, we have to change.

With this in mind, Sierra Club California’s water committee has been working on a brief paper that outlines some of the policies and actions California can and should be doing to transition to a water system that works in an era of climate change. It provides alternatives to the outdated tunnel concept. 

That water committee is composed entirely of volunteers, including people who have spent careers in water policy. We’ll be releasing that brief paper within the next two weeks.

It will, we hope, help illuminate the path for change that we need now.


Kathryn Phillips

Kathryn Phillips