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Elements is a collection of stories reported and produced by Mark Schapiro about the four most elemental ingredients of life and how they’re being reshaped by climate change.

Finding the most important spot in California’s water story

Rocks are one of the last lines of defense in the battle against salt water. The state has piled mounds of rocks to hold back whatever salt has snuck through.
Angela Johnston
Rocks are one of the last lines of defense in the battle against salt water. The state has piled mounds of rocks to hold back whatever salt has snuck through.

This is the first story in a series. Listen to the rest at kalw.org/elements.

NASA is always looking for signs of water somewhere out there in the universe because water is where everything begins, the source of all life. In fact, NASA's orbiting satellites found water on Europa, one of Jupiter's moons.

And water has always been a part of the stories we tell.

About a hundred years ago, Memphis Minnie sang about the levees on the Mississippi River.

She was singing about what happens when humans’ efforts to control water fails.

From the outer rings of Jupiter to the water coming from our tap, water is so central that we look for it on other planets and people have written songs about it over the ages.

This story is made to be heard. Click the play button above to listen if you are able.

Story transcript:

MARK SCHAPIRO: Brett Baker grew up on a pear farm near the Delta town of Cortland. He’s also a water lawyer; he’s represented the city of Stockton and local Delta water agencies for years. Good luck for us, he owns a boat.

We meet him in mid-March, at a dock on Brannan Island, just outside of the town of Rio Vista, about 50 miles northeast of Oakland. Baker has challenged the state multiple times to ensure the quality of the Delta water supply.

Brett Baker is a pear farmer and water lawyer in the Delta.
Angela Johnston
Brett Baker is a pear farmer and water lawyer in the Delta.

BRETT BAKER: The Delta is home to millions of dollars of infrastructure, railways, aqueducts, pipelines, that all depend upon the maintenance of our levee system. And by and large it's something that affects everybody in our state. 

MARK SCHAPIRO: The Delta is one of the most managed water systems in the United States. What was once a vast wetland is now a circuit of narrow channels, called sloughs, and islands, called tracts. In parts, it's just beautiful, with water birds and sea otters. In other parts, it’s green with pollution from shoreline industries.

But it’s always pulsing with the shifting tides, pushing and sucking from the San Francisco Bay to our west, with all the salt it carries. For farmers, salt water is the enemy in this war.

BRETT BAKER: it's a little too close for comfort, you know, it's like it's like oh, they just have their tanks lined up just a little bit across the border, moving just a little closer, don't worry about it. It's not no big deal, because for us, salt, I mean, that's it. You put it on your land, and it ruins the productivity of your land.

MARK SCHAPIRO: Fresh water here sustains numerous farms in the Delta, like Brett’s family’s place. And the water flowing through here also gets sucked up into giant pumps in Tracy, to sustain the multi-billion dollar agriculture industries in the Central Valley, and cities, like Los Angeles,for one small example. So there are millions of people, not to mention fish and other wildlife, who rely on keeping this water clean and fresh.

Which is where the X2 line comes in.

BRETT BAKER: X2 is kinda like this magic idea where the salt and the freshwater mix.

MARK SCHAPIRO: It’s not exactly magic. Every day the state picks up data about the salt threat: Monitors on the riverbanks transmit salt levels to a team in Sacramento. Reservoir operators report on how much water is flowing in the rivers.

So, from our start in the eastern part of the Delta, we head west, searching for the X2, the place where the salt and freshwater meet, which changes everyday. We make a few stops along the way, key locations in the state’s nonstop battle with the ever-rising waters of the San Francisco Bay.

Brett guns the motor on his boat, and we zip through the channels, cutting through hyacinth weeds floating on the surface of the water.

BRETT BAKER:  So I thought we could go down here upstream, over to the false river barrier and see what's going on there.

So this is the San Joaquin River, This is the Sacramento River over there. We're just adjacent to the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.

MARK SCHAPIRO: We’re about twenty miles northeast of the Carquinez Bridge. Water birds are skittering along the surface, looking for fish.

BRETT BAKER: You're seeing the most expensive rock you've ever seen in your life. Like, it's been moved so many times.

MARK SCHAPIRO: Rocks. They’re the last defense in the battle against salt water. No salt water should have made it this far east, past the X2. Here in the False River, the state has piled mounds of rocks to hold back whatever salt has snuck through.

BRETT BAKER: So you have kind of a barrier, it's a shunt way to prevent saltwater from intruding to Tracy.

MARK SCHAPIRO: There are two ways to block the salt. One is a physical barrier, like these rocks. There are 112,000 tons of them, to block the salt from the west from traveling any further east. Salt is heavier and sinks, so the saltier water, or some of it, gets blocked by the rocks.

BRETT BAKER: This is a bandaid, obviously this is a band aid. This is duct tape. This is baling wire and some bubble gum.

MARK SCHAPIRO: If this is the band aid, what's the wound?

BRETT BAKER: We don't have enough water for everybody all the time, all their wants and needs and desires.

We're about to go see why it's here. We're in Frank's Tract. And this is the reason for that barrier. 

MARK SCHAPIRO: We’re in what feels like a lake. It used to be a farm protected by levees. Levees here collapsed in 1938, and again in 1982. Now it’s shallow open water.

But this big open body of water, Frank’s Tract, is like a salt magnet. Whatever salt is in the water will stay here, and concentrate.

BRETT BAKER: If this gets salty it's really hard to operate the pumps.

MARK SCHAPIRO: He means those all-important pumps that send water down to the Central Valley farms and the cities further south.

On the other side of Frank’s Tract, just down a broad channel lined with grasses along the Holland Tract to the west we came upon what might be the most important slough in the Delta, at least for the residents of Contra Costa County. The Delta is the source of most of Contra Costa’s drinking water.

Here you're just kind of tootling along very slowly because it's extremely shallow, on a very narrow slough. And then suddenly, we see about four different kinds of crane-like looking things and a wall of gray, concrete cylindrical barriers that act as the pumps that suck up the water from the slough here and send it into the Contra Costa water system. So it's quite extraordinary to look at. Actually we are in the middle of a vast water system. No notice of landmarks anywhere, very narrow watery passageways. Very intense growth of underwater plants, what Brett our guide here is calling zombie hyacinth, which is like these floating pots of dead would-be-plants. And there we have the Contra Costa water intake section, the one sign of a human influence. Really a lot in this whole pretty remote channel.

I live in Contra Costa County, so this gets personal. I was glad to see that the county’s main water source is on the other side of that X2, the freshwater side where we’re at.

BRETT BAKER: We're gonna get out of Rock Slough and continue our hunt for X2.

MARK SCHAPIRO: The X2 beckons. Brett tells us it’s not far. We head southwest, toward Antioch, in the distance. And so we leave the clumps of zombie hyacinth behind and head downriver.

Remember the rock wall? That's one of the two ways to block the salt, with a physical barrier.

And the other way is with water. Freshwater. The state releases water from itshuge storage lakes – Folsom, Shasta, Oroville – and sends it roaring into the Delta to block the salt. The point where the freshwater wall hits the saltwater? That’s the X2 line.

The X2’s location is not a secret: Every morning, the Department of Water Resources publishes a navigational chart telling where it is—a measure of how much water there is in the reservoirs to be released, and how strong those tides are coming in from the rising sea.

BRETT BAKER: Right over there, just off to my left or off the port side of the boat is Collinsville. And yeah, X2 is somewhere in the water between here and there.

MARK SCHAPIRO: And there it is. From our boat, we see a collection of old derricks and dredging machinery on a spit of land, surrounded by water, just upriver from the city of Antioch off the coast of a place called Collinsville

It’s not like there’s a line stretched across the water. You can’t tell other than a subtle change of color. The greenish blue water becomes a little more brownish blue. Nor is there any big sign saying X2. We know it's here because this is as far as the state has decided to hold off the onrushing salt during this drought. Stick your finger in the water, it's a little saltier.

MARK SCHAPIRO: If you were looking, for whatever reason, for really salty water, you would just head straight over there and further west, and the water’s gonna be a hell of a lot saltier than it is right here?

BRETT BAKER: Correct. The further west, you go from here, the saltier it gets until you're out in the bay, and then ultimately, the ocean. 

MARK SCHAPIRO: They might not all know it, but for the people of the Central Valley and places further south, of Contra Costa, and of the latticework of Delta towns and farms, this is the most important spot of all in the Delta, maybe one of the most important spots in California.

We looked on the map. Brett points to Collinsville. He tells us it’s the furthest east he’s ever seen the x-2 line in March.

The Public Policy Institute of California concluded that an increasing amount of freshwater is needed to keep the X2 line from moving even further east. Four times the amount of water the Delta sends in an average year to farmers in the Central Valley is used not for drinking or irrigating but to block the flow of salt from the sea.

The Contra Costa Water District , for which the Delta is the main water source, concluded that there has been a seven-fold increase in the salinity of the water in Suisun Bay over the past 100 years.

And so the X2 line is moving steadily east, which makes Brett increasingly nervous.

BRETT BAKER: We're an indicator species, I think. I mean indicator of what's going on in the watershed. And we just have to stay involved and have to stay tuned and engaged because it affects us daily, and it changes daily.

MARK SCHAPIRO: One of the great old truisms from California history is that water built the state. Bobbing up and down here at the X2 line offers a glimpse into the extraordinary, and precarious, underwater balancing act necessary to ensure a healthy supply to the dry half of the state. Climate change is poised to throw that effort right out of balance.

We look out on the saltwater front line, ebbing and flowing with the tide. It was quiet. There was no signpost saying X2. But beneath the surface, the eastern front of California’s water war was underway.

As if on cue, a couple of sea otters popped up to the surface.

Brett tells us, they like the turbid water, where the fresh and salt waters mix.

The Elements Series was financially supported by Invoking the Pause foundation and by the journalism non-profit, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Lisa Morehouse edited this story. Angela Johnston and Mary Catherine O’Connor provided production assistance.

Mark Schapiro is an award-winning investigative journalist and author specializing in the environment. He is also a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Journalism