Pricey Rock Barriers and Desalination Plants: The Latest in California’s Drought War


With a key water source for farmers and cities threatened, state officials are banking on a $30 million pile of rocks to keep saltwater from encroaching further into the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The rock dam across the West False River in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta takes shape. California officials hope the dam will keep saltwater from intruding into the freshwater estuary because the rivers that feed it have shrunk due to drought. (Courthouse News photo / Nick Cahill)

ANTIOCH, Calif. (CN) — Normally the cargo moving through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta contains expensive commodities meant for ports all around the world, but in drought-riddled California the most indispensable freight is currently destined for the river bottom.  

Tugboats pushing and pulling barges loaded with boulders have suddenly become key performers in the state’s battle with a rapidly expanding drought, delivering supplies needed to reinforce California’s buckling water system. Around the clock crews dump the expensive cargo into the river strategically, racing to block salty tidal flows from the water pumps that sustain billions of dollars worth of crops hundreds of miles away.

In the grand scheme, California water managers hope a $16 billion tunnel will save the West Coast’s largest estuary from decades of mismanagement and climate change. But for now, a $30 million pile of rocks will have to do.

Faced with the prospect of the main water source for millions of farmers and residents becoming unusable, California once again is manually turning the tide in the delta. 

“Every single day the barrier is not installed, we can’t save the water we need in the upstream reservoirs,” said Jacob McQuirk with the California Department of Water Resources. “We realized we just weren’t going to be able to get through the drought without the barrier.”

The department’s barrier is a straightforward design taken straight from the playbook of a beaver. 

Over the last month, heavy-machinery crews have been sinking basketball-sized boulders in 30-feet of water, slowly building a nearly 800-foot-wide crude dam across a delta channel close to the city of Antioch. The department is hoping to keep as much San Francisco Bay saltwater as it can out of the West False River and more importantly away from pumps used to operate the State Water Project and Central Valley Project further south. 

The latest Band-aid to protect the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta during California’s drought: rocks. (Courthouse News photo / Nick Cahill)

An estimated 90,000 cubic yards of rock will be deposited across the channel, pulled from stockpiles in nearby Rio Vista and Stockton. Officials expect the project to be completed sometime this week and to have it removed by the end of November.  

A similar scheme was hatched during the state’s previous drought in 2015, to the chagrin of environmental groups that claimed blocking the channel violated the Endangered Species Act. They argued in court the barrier would harm protected fish and increase salinity elsewhere in the delta, but a judge OK’d the plan.

The emergency action helped preserve salinity levels behind the dam and, fortunately for California, atmospheric rivers returned the following winters and mercifully ended the state’s historic drought — or so it seemed.

Following consecutive dry winters, California’s water troubles are cascading again with an estimated 37 million people living with some level of drought.

Water levels in major reservoirs are dropping to record lows, wells are going dry in rural areas, hatchery salmon are being trucked out to sea due to scalding river temperatures and regulators are prepping water management plans that could kill nearly an entire run of endangered Chinook salmon this fall. And yet again, the delta is at risk of becoming too salty for humans.

Prior to the construction of major 20th century dams such as Shasta, Friant and Oroville, salty or brackish water was rarely an issue for most farmers and towns in the delta. Even in dry years, water from the five rivers that flow into the delta were able to slow the daily saltwater tides and “rinse or freshen” out the estuary.

California’s relationship with the delta dates to the end of the Gold Rush, when luckless miners and entrepreneurs transformed it from a major shipping route to an agricultural hotspot. Using mostly immigrant Chinese laborers, developers reclaimed delta marshes by building levees and dredging channels. Today there are over 1,000 miles of levees protecting delta islands and communities.

The state and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation zeroed in on the delta next, making it the focal point of the Central Valley Project. Thanks to countless upstream dams that trap spring snowmelt, the projects now supply delta water to nearly 30 million Californians, including about 30% of Southern California’s drinking water.

But the heavy plumbing of its largest rivers has come with a consequence, as the line marking salt and freshwater continues to push deeper into the delta.

The Golden State’s endless thirst has the delta on the brink of ecological disaster. Decades of overpumping, agricultural runoff and tepid water temperatures have nearly extinguished a once-booming salmon population and polluted water quality.

“In terms of salinity, the delta is now in a state of drought almost every fall because of human activity, including water diversions,” a 2010 historical review of delta water conditions concluded.

While state officials, farmers, fishermen and local business owners largely agree the barrier is needed this year due to the rapidly deteriorating water conditions, they don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on the root of the salt problem.

State agencies point a finger at climate change and sea level rise, while environmentalists and fishermen blame the state and feds for clinging to outdated, unsustainable agricultural water allocations schedules.

Until laws that allow farmers to plant record numbers of water-intensive crops during punishing droughts are amended, the delta and its salmon will be perpetually on the brink of collapse, warns John McManus, president of the Golden State Salmon Association.

More than 700 plant and wildlife species — including this egret — and 55 kinds of fish call the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta home. (Courthouse News photo / Nick Cahill)

The association McManus leads, which consists of commercial and recreational fishermen, fishing guides and tribal members in the state, is devoted to preserving water quality and improving conditions for salmon.

McManus and other environmentalists argue the state is paying lip service to the 2009 Delta Reform Act, which mandates “coequal goals” for managing the delta.

“The state’s coequal goals for the delta: Improve statewide water supply reliability, and protect and restore a vibrant and healthy delta ecosystem, all in a manner that preserves, protects and enhances the unique agricultural, cultural, and recreational characteristics of the delta,” the act states.

Like past dry years, McManus says the state is jeopardizing the health of the delta to keep water headed south to Central Valley farmers and their thirsty crops.

“There’s not enough water to have a burgeoning almond and pistachio industry and have robust salmon runs,” McManus said. “In the western San Joaquin Valley you’re dealing with a desert and you’re dealing with unsustainable agriculture that relies on water from hundreds of miles to the north.”

Ultimately the rock barrier is only a Band-aid. But Governor Gavin Newsom and state officials are pushing forward with what they believe is a permanent solution: a 30-mile tunnel.

With a starting point near Sacramento, the so-called Delta Tunnel would divert flows around the delta to a forebay near the existing State Water Project pumping facilities.

Proponents say it will protect the critical water project from future earthquakes and sea level rise, but critics cast it as a certain death blow for the delta. Similar versions of the proposal have failed in recent decades over environmental concerns and the lofty price tag, but the zombie project has been revived by Newsom.

After decades of declining water quality, locals are inherently skeptical of the tunnel and the state’s future plans for the largest remaining estuary on the West Coast.

“We’ve oversubscribed the system because of greed,” bemoaned delta resident Chris Lauritzen. “They’re robbing the delta of the freshest water.”  

Pointing out manmade islands named after men who dredged them over a hundred years ago, like Bethel, Sherman, Bradford and Twitchell, Lauritzen recounted his family’s rich delta ties

Lauritzen’s great grandfather Hans emigrated from Denmark to the region in 1870s, and his grandfather operated a popular ferry service in the early 1900s. Later the family built Lauritzen Yacht Harbor, located in the town of Oakley just a short boat ride from the rock barrier.

Checking in on construction one early June morning, the licensed captain said the barrier is just the latest example of the delta’s troubles. Aside from obvious signs like the barrier, tankers full of juvenile salmon or the endless harmful algae blooms, he said another massive public works project underway in Antioch sums up the delta’s blight.  

To maintain drinking water for its over 100,000 residents, the city is building a $110 million desalination plant to ward against the delta’s increasingly brackish water. It says climate change, sea level rise and “delta projects” like the temporary barrier continue to increase salinity levels and have forced the city, located on the shore of the San Joaquin River, to go elsewhere for usable water.  

“Antioch is smart,” Lauritzen said, pointing out the city’s existing river intake station. “We’re going to have more barriers; the state will do whatever it take to keep the [south delta] pumps going.”