Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Pumps Gotta Go

Modern Picture Jones Pumping Plant
Scale: See the vehicles on opposite side of canal?

“There’re two sets of pumps drawing water from the Delta. One’s run by the feds and sends water to Southern California. The state runs the other one, the one blown up last night. It sends water to farms on the west side of the valley.”
Jackson stretched his legs and continued. “The pumps are huge, like 25,000 volts. They suck water out of the Delta and pump it up a hill to a canal, where it flows down the valley by gravity. They put them in back in the 50s and right away knew they had a problem. Fish that got sucked into the pumps were chopped to pieces. So they dug canals to take water to the pumps and put up screens so the fish couldn’t get in the canals.”
“Sounds like it would work,” Grant said. “What’s the problem?”
“Lots of controversy.” Jackson said, wagging a finger in the air. “Fish get caught in the screens and have to be pulled out of the water and trucked back to the Delta, far away from the canals. A lot of the fish die in the truck, plus bigger fish hang around the dump sites and gobble up the smaller ones. This has been going on for more than fifty years and they say it’s drastically affected some fish counts, particularly the little ones. And now that the Delta smelt is on the Endangered Species list, environmentalists are calling for the pumps to be shut off.”
“But if the pumps are shut off, where will L.A. get their water?” Grant asked.
“Exactly. No judge would ever go along with it, which is why they’re going after the farmers’ water first. They figure it’ll be easier to take water from a few farmers than twenty million people.”

* * * * *

Continuing from my last post about certain fish species in the San Joaquin Delta and the Tuolumne River, central to the controversy are two sets of huge siphon pumps. Both draw significant amounts of water from the Delta and ship it south.

What Officer Jackson told Grant in this scene, and what Lightfoot told the gang while sermonizing on the riverbank, is mostly true. I’ll admit I made some stuff up to further the story along (it is a work of fiction) and likely got some other stuff wrong (again: fiction).

But here’s an update to the novel: a federal judge began restricting water deliveries from the pumps in 2007. Restrictions became so severe that much of the west side of Central California has reverted back to desert, unemployment hit 45% in some counties, and billions of ag revenue has been lost.

All because the Delta smelt was put on the Endangered Species List. Here is one of the little buggers5 to 7 cm (2.0 to 2.8 in) long:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Sacramento

Even if this had happened in the novel, it wouldn’t have been enough for John Lightfoot. Yes, the pumps have chopped up over 20 million baby salmon (that part’s true), but the pumps aren’t the whole picture. What he’s really after are the dams that control river flow.

That was the deal he’d struck with the two old Paiutes.

The pumps were for him, for fun. Because he couldn’t stand to let them be.


  1. Not letting things be: the place where all trouble begins.

    What great post Everett! And a big "awww" for the baby fish photo!

  2. That little fish is causing big problems for farmers, and people who work for the farmers.

    Yeah, Lightfoot had promised the old Paiutes he'd leave the pumps alone, but...

  3. That's a very interesting dilemma, and one that's sad for the farmers. Sounds like the only winner in this situation is the fish!

  4. You would hope. Problem is, shutting the pumps down hasn't increased fish counts. All it's done is bankrupt farmers. And piss a lot of people off.