National Geographic : 2010 Apr
' at some point in time, I'm 99 percent certain." Some sheries biologists now believe build- ing the Peripheral Canal could also improve the delta's ecosystem---as long as the sh were guaranteed adequate water. Some of the low- est islands could be allowed to ood, providing habitat and food for smelt, salmon, and other native species. But the Peripheral Canal is still such a hot topic that it wasn't mentioned explic- itly in any of the water legislation passed last fall---even as those bills opened the door for its construction. e canal's future now lies with the delta's water exporters, who must develop a plan for restoring smelt and salmon habitat before they can legally increase pumping. If their plan is approved, water agencies in the Central Valley and southern California have pledged to foot the bill for construction. "A new canal could take the pressure o the delta, but it could also be the kiss of death--- because you'd have the capacity to take all the water," says Leo Winternitz, a water-policy expert with the Nature Conservancy. "But there's an old Chinese proverb: 'Unless you change direc- tion, you're apt to end up where you're headed.' And where we're headed in the delta is not a place we want to be." To get a rsthand look at the sh that start- ed all the fuss, I dropped by the University of California, Davis, smelt lab, which sits within a few hundred yards of the pumps that are partly responsible for the species' predicament. ere, biologist Joan Lindberg is raising thousands of delta smelts in a captive-breeding program as a possible safety net against extinction. A gradu- ate student pulled an adult smelt from a tank and held it in the palm of his hand---a frisky, wide-eyed, bullet-nosed sh that quickly leaped back into the tank. A er the brief tour I thanked Lindberg and got back in the car, but before I could drive away she ran up to my window with a concerned look on her face. "If you think about how we settled the West, it was all limitless, limitless resources," she said, rather out of the blue. "But now we're running up against limits, and people don't want to think about that." Therein lies a crucial part of the solution, water experts say, one much simpler and closer to home than a massive plumbing patch: learn- ing to live within the water resources of an arid landscape. Fully 70 percent of residential water in southern California is used outside the home for lawns, pools, and other niceties. Reducing that demand by using drought-resistant plants and recycling wastewater o ers the fastest and cheapest potential water savings in the state. To that end, the ra of new laws passed last fall calls for cities to cut water use 20 percent by 2020. Water agencies that supply farms must develop water conservation plans and monitor groundwater usage. And in Novem- ber, California voters will decide whether their state---already crippled by a $20-billion budget de cit---should take on another $11 billion in debt to fund new water-storage projects, con- servation efforts, wastewater recycling, and desalination plants. Even without the bond, southern Californians are focused on increasing e ciency and devel- oping new drought-proof sources. San Diego, which pipes in 90 percent of its water, is consid- ering following Orange County's example and opening its own wastewater-recycling facility. And the largest desalination project in the country broke ground late last year in Carlsbad, which will daily produce 50 million gallons of potable water from 100 million gallons of sea- water. Despite their high cost and energy use, some 19 more plants are on the drawing board in the state. Back in Orange County, the pro ered cup of puri ed sewage is still in Shivaji Deshmukh's hand. e thrum of the big pumps forcing all that wastewater through the micromembranes nearby ripples the surface of the clear liquid. I take a gulp. It's bold, bright, and refreshing. It tastes like California's future. j A three-year drought and a sardine-size sh have brought the state to its knees.