We’ve been framed

Have you noticed that certain words and phrases are used over and over again to describe the Delta, while other conditions never get described at all?   Discussions about the Delta have been “framed” by people invested in seeing it in a particular way, whether or not that way is accurate.

Think about how often you have seen the Delta described as the “hub” of California’s water system, as if that image conveyed everything important about the region.  

But anyone looking at the system honestly would have to admit that the Delta’s days as a “hub” are over.  Water coming in is limited, fluctuating, and/or compromised.  Sending historic levels of that water out is fatal to the ecosystem.

Describing it instead as “an estuary formerly used as the hub of California’s water system” might help push public perceptions in the direction of regional sustainability.

Another example of insidious framing: In the early drafts of the Regional Conditions Report for the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan, every time the phrase “levee failure” appeared, it was preceded by the word “catastrophic.”

People in the Delta know that not every levee failure is a catastrophe, and catastrophe is less likely if adequate emergency response systems are in place.  Restore the Delta managed to get a lot of those “catastrophics” out of the report, but not all of them.

One indicator that Senator Feinstein is still thinking inside the box about the Delta is the language in the bill proposing a NHA.  Look at what the language says and what it doesn’t say.


“The Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta is in crisis . . . invasive species are predominant in the Delta . . . the native species of the Delta . . . are in decline . . .”

Not said:

Changes in hydrology resulting from export pumping have given invasive species a foothold in the Delta and have pushed toward extinction four ESA-listed runs of salmon that depend on sufficient clean cold water flowing through the Delta.


“pollutants and chemicals have deteriorated the water quality . . . studies indicate that effluent from wastewater treatment plants on the rivers and tributaries of the Delta have changed the food web and negatively impacted native species . . . derelict ships, in particular, the Ghost Fleet of abandoned World War II era Military Ships, leach toxic chemicals into the waterways . . .”

Not said:

Toxic run-off from unaddressed drainage issues in the Southern San Joaquin valley contributes to degraded water quality in the Delta.  The history of Kesterson Reservoir tells us that the selenium packed runoff from the Westside of the San Joaquin Valley is capable of causing disfiguring mutation to the offspring of waterfowl.


“the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta is at risk. . .”

Not said:

Conditions in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta make it impossible to continuing exploiting the region as a hub of the state’s water system and a profit center for exporters of taxpayer-subsidized water.


“as levees and water exports have altered the flow of water through the system, many of the islands of the Delta are between 10 and 20 feet below sea level . . . many of the levees in the Delta are at risk of failure, threatening communities and infrastructure with flooding, and the risk of an earthquake in the Delta is high. . .”

Not said:

The state has increased exports of water through the Delta without committing to maintaining all the levees that contribute to sustaining the export system and regional infrastructure. Periodic levee breeches that would otherwise have primarily local impact thus become a threat beyond the Delta region. Despite the region’s proximity to fault lines in the San Francisco Bay Area, Delta levees have never collapsed in reaction to earthquakes to the west.    However, the rigid, concrete-lined California aqueduct on which millions of export users rely runs along a fault line on the western side of the Central Valley, making continued reliance on this infrastructure unwise.

Plus, rather than developing new technologies for environmentally sensitive/responsible dredging to help with levee maintenance, dredging for Delta maintenance has been curtailed by the state.

If the NHA process were to begin in the Delta itself, we would start out with a much different picture than the one painted by DWR, the PPIC, and Delta Vision and now seen everywhere in government documents and in state and national media.

The more control we have over how the Delta is described, the more control we will have over its fate and our own.

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