Rally protests peripheral canal

SACRAMENTO — In a counterpunch to recent valley water rallies, environmentalists and fishermen gathered at the Capitol on Tuesday to protest a proposed canal to divert water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The "peripheral canal" is an old idea that's enjoyed new life as state water planners search for ways to stabilize supplies for San Joaquin Valley farmers and Southern California cities. The plan got a boost last year with an endorsement by Gov. Schwarzenegger's Delta Vision Task Force.

The canal would siphon Sacramento River water upstream of the delta and send it to the pumps near Tracy, bypassing the delta.

Residents near the delta — including farmers who rely on its freshwater supply — fear the canal is a water grab by the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. Fishermen and environmentalists say that if more water is diverted north of the delta, a higher percentage of the delta's freshwater would come from the more-polluted San Joaquin River, hurting fish.

Canal supporters counter that the canal could protect fish endangered by delta pumping. With the canal, only fish-free water would be sent to the pumps, state officials say. San Joaquin Valley farmers like the idea because the canal would give them a more stable supply.

Feeling shut out

At Tuesday's event, delta advocates charged that legislators were shutting out their views as they consider the canal and other water proposals behind closed doors.

"In a time where the budget is spiraling out of control, it makes no sense to move forward with a multibillion-dollar boondoggle idea like a peripheral canal and new dams," said Steve Evans, conservation director of Friends of the River, an environmental group.

So-called "working groups" of lawmakers have examined many water proposals in private meetings.

Multiple bills have been written calling for water bonds of as much as $15 billion. Proposals include new government agencies to promote the "coequal goals of restoring the delta" and "creating a more reliable water supply."

But no consensus has emerged on any of the proposals as most of the attention in Sacramento is on the state's budget woes.

In the valley, water events have focused on court-enforced environmental rules that farmers blame for dwindling supplies from the delta. In marches and rallies, residents often frame the debate as "people versus fish" as they call on the government to increase pumping from the delta.

The dozens of delta supporters at Tuesday's event pushed an alternate message: that "fish is food" and the fisherman who rely on the delta are hurting, too. One sign called for "Fewer water exports, not fewer delta fish."

The crowd was spirited, but small compared with water rallies in the valley, which have drawn thousands.

'Effective public relations'

Robert Johnson, a fly fisherman from Contra Costa County, took a shot at the valley rallies, calling them part of a "highly effective public relations campaign that seeks to make Californians believe that radical environmentalists and fishermen would put a three-inch fish before California jobs, farms and people.

"We are farmers, we are fishermen and we are fighting to save our communities," he said to loud cheers.

None of the plans circulating in the Capitol authorize a peripheral canal, but delta advocates fear such a provision could be added at the last minute. Schwarzenegger's administration believes the canal could be authorized without legislative approval, and officials have taken initial planning steps.