The Science of Sustainability

Where Water Runs Uphill

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Harvey O. Banks Pumping PlantI'm standing in the Harvey O. Banks Pumping Plant, part of the State Water Project (SWP), looking at a set of huge pumps that slurp water from the Delta and hoist it 244 feet to the mouth of the California Aqueduct. The sensation is a little akin to the how I felt when, not long after college, I rode a sailboat through the Panama Canal: a kind of jaw-dropping wonder (dismay?) at the scale of this engineering feat. When we humans set our minds to re-arranging the landscape, we don't kid around.

In my last post I wrote about visiting a treatment plant to see where our water goes after we've washed the dishes. Now, on this tour of the Banks plant, I'm getting a glimpse "upstream" of the kitchen tap and learning more about where our water comes from.

The scale of the SWP is mind-boggling: More than two in three Californians rely on it for at least part of their drinking water. It is the largest publicly built and operated water project in the country, encompassing 17 pumping plants, more than 30 storage facilities, and over 660 miles of canals and pipelines. At the south end of the San Joaquin Valley at the Tehachapi Mountains, the huge Edmonston Pumping Plant raises the water 1,926 feet-the highest single lift in the world. (If you're driving to Southern California, check it out on the right side of I-5 just before the Grapevine). Moving all that water around and hoisting it over mountains doesn't come easy (water is heavy, after all): The SWP is the largest single user of electricity in the state.

The Banks plant is named for Harvey O. Banks, Director of Water Resources when voters approved funding for the SWP in 1960. The project was ostensibly conceived as a solution to the problem that most of California's water is north of the Delta, while most of its people are to the south and west. Big agricultural interests in the southern San Joaquin Valley also benefited-hugely-from "surplus" water shipped south. (And lest we Northern Californians start feeling smug, keep in mind we receive a greater percentage of our total water supply from the Delta than does Southern California.)

The Banks plant draws water from the Delta through intake gates into Clifton Court Forebay. From there, the water is pulled up a channel to the Skinner Fish Facility, where delta smelt, Chinook salmon, and some 90 other species of fish are, theoretically, screened out so they won't get sucked into the pumps (More on fish screening in my next post). But getting squashed in the pumps is not a fish's only worry: The pumping actually alters the habitat by impacting salinity and flow, disrupting natural rhythms that serve as vital cues for migration and spawning. The old joke that in California water flows uphill toward power and money is not far off the mark: The pull of the pumps is so powerful it causes rivers to flow backwards-literally uphill.

Crashing fish populations, poor water quality, the vulnerability of Delta levees and our water supply to earthquakes or other disasters-all have added to the growing realization that we can't keep quenching California's thirst through big straws stuck in the Delta. Obviously the SWP is not going to stop pumping anytime soon. But we do need to find ways to reduce our reliance on the Delta-through conservation, water recycling, and increased regional self-sufficiency-and to restore the functioning of an ecosystem so devastated by our radical retooling of our waterways.

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Category: Engineering, Environment, Partners, Water

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Ann Dickinson

About the Author ()

Before moving to California almost five years ago, Ann served as Sally Brown Fellow in Environmental Literature at the University of Virginia, where she taught undergraduate seminars on literature and the environment and coordinated an ongoing reading series featuring nationally prominent nature writers. Prior to that, she spent a year as a research assistant at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's field station on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, studying how young leaves defend themselves against herbivores.
  • http://aetoy.com Matt

    Interesting read. You mentioned that the pumping is actually altering the environment by changing the salinity levels and water flow. Have there been any environmental impact studies done in the last 40 years touching on this specifically? Ie., how it has impacted the migration and spawning?

  • Pingback: A fishy odyssey through the delta | QUEST Community Science Blog - KQED

  • Stuart

    Matt, I doubt it. Maslows hierarchy kind of dictates that even if california is royally screwing the environment by using gigawatts of electricity to pump water to what is mostly a desert out of a delta to quench legions of enivromentalists thirsts, no one wants to hear about it. Clean water for people > fish.

  • Dan

    Nothing is native to the Delta. People and jobs are more important than fish. Turn the pumps back on and screw the fish.

  • Rogene Reynolds

    I do not understand a repost of a 2008 article. The writer has surely by now answered some of the questions brought to mind, if she has followed the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) planning process.
    Thanks for the opportunity to comment.
    Rogene Reynolds, South Delta