SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta ecosystem is busted.
That view prevails on all sides of a raging fight over the delta’s coveted water supply. Whether an environmentalist, commercial fisher, farmer, bureaucrat, academic or politician – all of whom were invited yesterday to a major hearing in the state Legislature – all seemed to agree that the delta had fallen apart.
"Anyone who believes the status quo is working doesn't understand what's going on," said Lester Snow, director of the state Department of Water Resources. "The system is broken."
"The delta has gone to hell in a handbasket," added Sen. Joe Simitian, Democrat from Palo Alto.
The delta, which draws water from the Sierra Nevada, is at the center of an economic firestorm in a state whose output of goods and services rivals that of Germany or France. But without water, California has no crops, no fish, no manufacturing. And without all three, the state's economy falls off a cliff.
The region is so crucial because it provides two-thirds of the state's water supply. Its massive pumping system routes water to cities and farmers alike, but the pumps have drained the delta region and become a kind of killing machine for endangered salmon and smelt. Add to those concerns the likelihood of increased salinity as sea levels rise due to climate change, diminished snowpack in the Sierra and the possibility of a major earthquake destroying the delta's maze of 1,100 levees, and you get a perfect storm that could dwarf Hurricane Katrina as a natural disaster.
The consensus at yesterday's hearing was clear. Marin County Democrat Jared Huffman, who chairs the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife, summed up the prevailing view when he said environmental damage in the delta's estuary has surpassed the Chesapeake Bay and the Everglades, making it the site with the most urgent U.S. environmental restoration effort.
So what's to be done? For now, Democrats in the Legislature have introduced a package of five bills they would like to move by the end of the year. The measures build on the work of a group called the Delta Vision Blue-Ribbon Task Force, which spent the last two years digging through layers of competing interests to devise its plan.
But even the chairman of that task force, Phil Isenberg, seems less than thrilled about the plan that may result. He testified before the daylong joint Assembly-Senate hearing, offering a bit of sage advice to the lawmakers looking to push the package through over the last 25 days of this year's legislative session.
"If you manage to do nothing at all this year, a lot of people will be mad at you," Isenberg said. "And if you do something significant, a lot of people will be mad at you."
On one side of the fight are farmers who want to eliminate the Endangered Species Act's pumping restrictions. On the other are environmentalists who want to restore the delta's water flows and encourage strict conservation. In the middle are commercial fishers, recreation advocates, urban water users and water districts.
To Simitian, all sides risk toppling the state's economy by not compromising. That is why he is pushing a bill that would establish a seven-member council that would be tasked with putting the state's interest above those of individual parties.
Noting that polls give lawmakers here an 11 percent approval rating, Simitian is placing a bet that a council with four members appointed by the governor, one by the Assembly and one by the Senate, and an expert chairman at the helm, might be able to unite the 200-odd agencies that run the water system.
A council placed above local or constituent interest, he argued, might be able to implement the Delta Vision's entire set of recommendations, which range from earmarking land for restoration and building new storage facilities to mandating recycling programs.
Voters, he said, "are not convinced we can actually solve the problems that affect their daily lives. I would like to prove them wrong."
"No one is really in charge," added Huffman, who voiced his support for a new governance structure. "California can't afford to continue this disarray."
Another proposal in the package of five would codify a proposal from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to establish a 20 percent conservation mandate for urban water users. Water districts would not be eligible for state loans or grants if they do not comply. Another would require groundwater reporting.
But critics have slammed the special council as a new layer of bureaucracy that would duplicate work at other agencies and repeat mistakes of the past, among them the failed Cal-Fed federal-state partnership formed in 1994 (Greenwire, Sept. 17, 2008).
Sen. Tom Berryhill, a Republican from the Central Valley, compared the effort to the California Coastal Commission, which in some quarters is viewed as an activist agency that sets its own agenda. And Snow, the state water department director and a respected veteran in the field, said he fears the council would add red tape at a crucial time.
"The bills appear to establish additional obstacles, which may in fact delay and not expedite some of the actions that we need," Snow told lawmakers.
Greg Gartrell, Contra Costa Water District assistant general manager, agreed with Snow. "It could set up a system that adds more layers of bureaucracy and opportunities to say no," he said. "It is not easy getting a permit to do anything."
Schwarzenegger pushes back
With Snow as its lead voice on the matter, the Schwarzenegger administration came out swinging yesterday.
The governor sent a letter to Democratic leaders that was largely critical of the water package, while Snow reiterated the administration's position that nothing will be solved without new infrastructure.
In his letter, Schwarzenegger applauded the attempt at consensus building, but he said the package fails to directly address construction of new dams and reservoirs or how to fund them. Snow repeated this argument and said the governor would reject any reform package that fails to include a water bond.
"It has to have a bond as part of this package," Snow testified. "It's not acceptable to put these programs out and not have a method for funding."
An attempt by Schwarzenegger, with the support of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D), to push a $9 billion bond onto the state ballot fell short last year, but the governor appears to believe the year-end push represents a second chance (E&ENews PM, Aug. 18).
Snow urged revisions to the package, adding provisions for statewide conservation, regional investment, increased statewide storage and bond funding. "The package is not complete and does not address some of the issues that are most important," Snow said.
The administration has also been pushing for construction of a peripheral canal around the delta, to avoid having to pump it through, or looking at an "all tunnel" option that could lead to a 50-mile tunnel under the region.
Don Koch, director of the California Department of Fish and Game, told lawmakers that the package as written is a "Band-Aid" that fails to address the age of the system, much of which was built in the mid-20th century.
"Without dealing with infrastructure, we're not going to deal with water supply," Koch said.
Isenberg, the task force chairman and a former mayor of Sacramento and member of the Assembly, said the Legislature was wading into a "water ecosystem puzzle" that nobody had cracked in decades of policy debate. He empathized openly with the difficulty of the challenge, citing voter ambivalence and ignorance as key factors for inaction.
"They will go on as long as we live, these debates," Isenberg said. "We're not yet very serious about conservation. ... It is a statewide problem."
Still, Isenberg urged direct alterations to the package. He told lawmakers to mark specific acreage for restoration to give agencies a conservation goal. He threw his support behind the governor's bond proposal. And he said expedited environmental processing is badly needed.
"I understand how controversial [that is], but you have to take actions as rapidly as possible," Isenberg said.
Others at the hearing expressed a range of views.
Jeffrey Mount, a professor at the University of California, Davis, said the blogosphere and media have wrongly focused the debate on the peripheral canal when rebuilding the levee system is far more important. Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, called the Democrats' package a solid framework to build upon. And Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, scolded lawmakers and citizens alike for treating the delta like a giant reservoir available for their personal consumption.
"Right now, it's on the verge of ecological collapse, and we're about to turn it into an inland sea," Grader said, noting the many differences between an estuary, which needs flow-through, and a static reservoir. "I don't think you can look at draining it any more than you can look at draining Lake Tahoe."