Does SLO County’s future water supply depend on a very fragile concept?

January 15, 2023

Daniel Blackburn


Fifty years ago, my one-of-a-kind job was to promote the construction of a California water project then known as the Peripheral Canal. My efforts were spectacularly unsuccessful, as the object of my labors has yet to materialize.

And therein lies an unpleasant truth.

The idea of a huge public works project that would impact a considerable swath of the state – one that has been mired in a controversial and suspended state of planning for half a century — might fairly be viewed with some skepticism. But like a stubborn blood stain, this is a project that is not going away. As a concept it has morphed and evolved and clung to survival over the years, doggedly remaining at the forefront of California’s long term water resources planning.

There’s a reason for that, too.

Over the decades, what was originally the “canal” became the “twin tunnels,” then the Delta Tunnel, and today, the Delta Conveyance.

While its moniker may have been periodically altered, the proposed project’s purpose has not changed, not one bit: getting water of sufficient quality and quantity to agencies holding contracts for deliveries from the State Water Project. Those entities, most using water for agricultural and domestic purposes, all are located south of the city of Tracy at the edge of a sprawling estuary, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

SLO County’s stake in the plan

San Luis Obispo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District is one of 32 of those contracting agencies, each of which depends to some degree on the promise of current or future water delivery.

In 1970, I was plucked from my news reporting job at the Orange County Register by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD). There I spent part of the next three years exploring the under-construction State Water Project, stretching from Oroville Dam to the outskirts of Los Angeles County. It’s a 450-mile-long transfer facility featuring canals, tunnels, pumping plants, and holding reservoirs.

Without getting too far into the tule patch, the water project would probably work just fine, given adequate water to fill its canals… if not for that darned Delta in the middle of it all. Think about the problem like a tiny electrical short that can darken a small city.

So the plan from the very start was to somehow divert Sacramento River water around the Delta, to skirt the constant threat posed by the Delta’s unpredictable salinity levels due to its tidal nature.

I was picked by my bosses at the MWD to become executive director of a new quasi-public entity called the Association of State Water Project Agencies, answering to a board of directors featuring some of those day’s top water players. Our office was in Sacramento, and because of my singular professional interest, the Peripheral Canal plan, and my occasional chats and contacts with lawmakers, my board decided I needed to register with the state as a lobbyist.

It was a position for which I was sorely unprepared, partly because my reporter’s instincts (such as they were) soon began colliding with the “facts” about the proposed canal I was assigned to peddle.

I went into the job already steeped in the knowledge that officials of the biggest, southernmost contracting agencies knew from the very beginning that the water project would likely never deliver the amount of water promised by those oh-so-many agreements. That made it imperative to politically protect what water was deliverable, at virtually any cost. And that in turn made the proposed canal all the more important.

Delta degradation ‘collateral damage’

Those involved at the time knew that the giant pumps taking water from the Delta were poised to wreak havoc on the estuary. The diversions were often so powerful that the tidal-influenced waters were actually drawn toward the pumps, which also sucked up fish, fish eggs and other aquatic features.

While our group of water diversion advocates argued for the canal’s construction, we also downplayed the destruction of entire fisheries, like the Delta smelt, a primary food for the Delta’s annual migration of anadromous salmon, steelhead, striped bass, shad, and others.

State Water Project pumping plant

Working with what was then the Department of Fish and Game toward a “solution” to the environmental damage being done, I found myself among lawyers and others who should have known better when they would chuckle and say things like “die, Delta smelt” and “who gives a s**t about that fish?” Fifty friggin’ years ago!

At one point during a meeting, I mentioned to my board of directors that I thought environmental lawyers opposing the canal were becoming more informed and adept, and perhaps we could benefit by opening up dialogue with them.

I was called a “communist” by the director from Kern County Water Agency, the second-largest contractor for the water project, and my suggestion was dismissed.

In June of 1975, I sat amidst hundreds of water industry folks at a conference and listened to plans to gradually erode environmental protections from federal legislation designed to enable the funding of the canal. My job, it seemed apparent, was to lie for the next two years to the public and to my reporter friends and associates.

View of the delta

I resigned my position immediately; the San Francisco Chronicle published my very critical three-part series with an accompanying editorial where my concerns were outlined. Suddenly I was unemployed and the target of a host of impotent threats from some water folks. They’re all dead; I’m not.

Half a century later, it’s all the same… the arguments, the promotion, the regularly disgorged environmental impact studies, and inevitably the myriad complications of hydrology, engineering, public opinion, and politics.

Nothing has changed. And that includes the state’s water exporters’ intent to pursue a canal-like solution to the “Delta problem” at any cost, for however long it may take.

If, that is, there is any water for the State Water Project to send south.

Daniel Blackburn co-founded CalCoastNews after somehow surviving the water wars.

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Stop building. There isn’t enough water infrastructure to support current population levels, so why do government entities keep issuing new building permits??

Morro Bay has a power plant that sits on a limitless supply of saltwater. Fire up one of those generators and use the power to produce desalinated water. Run pipelines to several reservoirs around the county and sell that water. Morro Bay would soon be quite wealthy I think….


Whisky is for drinking and water is for fighting. I guarantee that the smart ones will continue to use water to make money. This paradigm is 100’s of years old in this country.

Hmmm. Known Blackburn for some time now, never knew most of this stuff about him.

Get FOIA for any and all Gov contractors commiting crimes. As gain, FOIA, get American on these terrorists. Failed infrastructure; all untreated water goes from roof to street to watershed. Contaminated runoff; powers at be aren’t held accountable. Atascadero is sueing corporations for products atascadero waste management acting as psychopaths burry in dirt; off gassing methane and ruining the water with PFAS which causes cancer in all biology. Silt build up, lack of beavers, Salinas valley farming. Billionaires and failed social infrastructure. What I do, as someone affiliated with Beaver Brigade and CCC, is I get fish and game involved, identify endangered species, secure the land. I get higher Gov involved because San Luis is run by sell out psychos who are yes men and women at any cost and just follow orders blindly for pay like most people do in atrocities.

Has anyone seen atascadero plan for new construction landscaping? It was designed by an idiot. No encouragement of swales, no incentive for water storage, no incentive for no water natives, no idea about the sun, light hours, nothing. Nothing. Planting non natives everywhere, irrigation running while it’s raining. Idiots. Report them, I do, just flood them pun intended with their crimes. Get water samples; Slo county will process them for free if you have concerns. Call air control board, get notes. Get ALOT of notes and data. If we all do this, hold a**holes accountable for vineyards and breweries, get Adelaide on a water district. Stop Debbie Arnold and her lobbyists, and Gibson too. Stop Wallace firm, stop Gearharts. Be civil and active. What good is anything if we live in Chernobyl and place blame elsewhere. Atascadero landfill, and all Slo county, are atrocities. I’m a child of a dead young father from cancer, most likely linking to Slo county negligence. Get FOIA act articles in everything, thanks patriot act for something good.

In part due to government’s enjoyment of spending taxpayer money, expensive water projects and storm water projects have been built only to fail. The Cambria Community Service District (CCSD) is an example of a government entity that spent (and continues to spend) millions of ratepayers dollars on engineering projects that fail. Had the CCSD built reservoirs 30 years ago when proposed, the water running into the ocean would be collected for use, including fire safety storage.

WORD!!! That failed and wildly expensive project that we are still paying ridiculous and wasted money for has done only damage to our watershed so far. What else it did was to establish a precedent for such projects to be installed 1) In a floodplain, which flooded and released toxins from the evaporation pond that contaminated the whole space on the first year of existence, 2) Within an endangered species habitat. 3) Smack dab up against a State Campground (even though the highly toxic evaporation pond and blowers were not supposed to be anywhere near habitation). 4) Within the boundaries of a State Marine Sanctuary, where it would cause significant damage to the marine environment.

This project was fast-tracked by the County Board of Supervisors, with no consideration of the damage it would cause, the unaffordability and unsustainability of the project or the fact that it was not within the gridlines of any permit process.

But what it does accomplish is the goal of spreading like projects along the entire coast of California. If we allow this to evolve, it will further drive up the cost of water without supplying any, as it has done in Cambria and just about anywhere else with such

a project. But those who are promoting these facilities will continue to reap maximum profits at the expense of our futures and our environment.

Thank you, Dan, for reporting again on this important issue. We need impartial citizens to take this up yet again, and we must demand that our voices be heard and be represented, free from the special interest lobbyists with the best interests of our residents forefront. Of course, that’s what our elected representatives are supposed to do. It’s up to us to be sure that they take this on, and we all need to monitor it much more aggressively. Dawn Addis, are you listening?

That last line is so very telling. “If, that is, there is any water for the State Water Project to send south.”. IMHO, with massive wildfires wreaking havoc up there, there is not. At least not on a consistent basis and when we most desperately need it. I applaud Mr. Blackburn for stepping away from a corrupt situation where people are endlessly employed to pretend to be doing something they are not and lying through their teeth about it to us in an effort to enrich other corrupt entities or simply themselves. We have more than enough people doing that already.

However, we still need to develop water sources that work with Nature, rather than against her. We can already see what working against Nature gets us. Anyone who does not, is certainly not paying any attention whatsoever. Alos IMHO, we need to create local solutions to these problems whenever possible.

Looking at what we have to work with, it is pretty obvious at the moment that there are times when we have more than enough water and times when we clearly do not. In the case of oversupply, this water just rushes out to sea, often causing extensive property damage on the way. It would seem very obvious to me that this water could be slowed and stored, both in our aquifers and small dams in our extensive watershed sufficient to last us through the periods of drought quite nicely.

And guess what? This is just how Nature did it. Up until relatively recently, that is. In its natural state, our watersheds were full of BEAVERS. They were everywhere. A very little research will inform you that beavers were extremely common in the west, roughly 600 million of them, until the pioneers of the area decided to eradicate them to prevent other settlers and fortune hinters from coming here to “take” their pelts, which were quite valuable at the time. Exterminating this keystone species has completely changed the landscape of the west, and not for the better.

Having them in our watershed on the Central Coast would, according to a study done by Fish and Wildlife in Cambria, rehabilitate our steelhead salmon population and completely refurbish our watershed. i/3 of the increased water supply would go toward the immediate environment by evaporation, thus reducing fire danger and increasing chances of rain. 1/3 would go to the ranchers and farmers and the local wildlife and the riparian environments, loaded with biodiversity that the increased water would create. 1/3 would slowly seep into our aquifers, keeping them constantly recharged. Beaver dams are excellent, effective firebreaks, that also provide a safety zone for wildlife to survive an actual fire. Lush environments are created, everything thrives. And beavers work for free. They will begin building a dam at merely the sound of rushing water. Even better, their dams help slow and mitigate flooding, a feature many should be able to appreciate right about now.

The best news on this, for those tired of being reamed by government over projects that waste their money, such as the very ill advised “toilet to tap/desal” monstrosity installed in Cambria against much of the public will, reinstatement of the Beavers would be far, far more cost effective and likely paid for by state funds. Governor Newsom has allocated funds for this very effort and state law has been revised to allow for the relocation of these cute and intelligent creatures for this very purpose. Several states are way ahead of us on this type of project, so it is easily researched.

Beavers, unlike complex and expensive infrastructure projects, are much more cheaply and easily maintained. Many simple techniques have been developed to control their work to eliminate the more “nuisance” aspects of their incessant free labor. No need to worry about them overrunning an area, as they disperse themselves regularly and reproduce very slowly, not to mention not having any defense mechanisms other than hiding underwater and being delicious little meatloaves who appeal to many predators.

If this piques your curiosity, contact the San Luis Beaver Brigade for more information. We will still need at least a few more reservoirs, they are necessary for firefighting, among other things, but the beavers? This is something we can do ourselves.

Not to disagree with your comments, but it’s worth adding that we have beavers here now. They have been studied by State Parks docents and are located on many of our local watersheds and streams. They should certainly be part of the solution, but I think Dan’s comments and advocacy are also necessary.

Would not disagree that many solutions are now necessary. However, we have only a fraction of the beaver population that was formerly here and we cannot expect to see the kind of results we need until we have considerably more. There are several other states that are well ahead of us on projects like this. Climate change extremes of weather are not going away any time soon and the northern areas of our state are becoming as compromised as our own.

Not much has changed in 50 years, people still drink wine and fight over water.

Thank you for insight Mr. Blackburn.

50 yrs later still thinking about it is nothing new as the Government had there hand in it. The state in the last 50 yrs could of built reservoirs and dams also to hold water demanded a updated electrical system but they just Politic on these items. Now the states dams and reservoirs are overflowing the government will put off any water storage projects for another 50 yrs.

Exactly! The Cambria Community Service District (CCSD) had an opportunity to work on reservoirs about 30 years ago but instead chose an expensive and environmentally unsustainable desal/reverse osmosis project. This project provides no water, has imposed damage, significant fines because it was not operated correctly BUT the CCSD continues to throw money at it. What is wrong with these CCSD politicians and staff? What is wrong with Cambrians that they support wasting money for unreliable water projects?