Has the ambitious CalFed water-supply plan run aground?

SAN FRANCISCO -- In 1994, a bit of light cracked through the California water wars to coalesce in a federal-state initiative that advocates hoped would sear through decades of intractability over how to manage the state's crucial water supply in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The much-hyped program was called CalFed, and enthusiasm was high. Politicians, commercial fishers, environmentalists, farmers and water districts all signed on to support what was a multibillion-dollar vision for restoring salmon runs, shoring up levees and ensuring reliable water supplies for farmers and 25 million Californians.

Nearly 15 years later, another consensus appears to have emerged. It is less hopeful.

"They should put a bullet through its head," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.

A harsh assessment, no question, but the half-dozen experts interviewed to examine the health of the delta, and CalFed's attempt to fix it, all responded in like fashion. These sources -- from environmental groups, fishing interests, water users and academia -- appeared to agree with Grader that the time has arrived for a blunt analysis that may result in terminating the ambitious program.

All six said that 14 years into CalFed, the results are flat, at best. Salmon and the endangered delta smelt that pass through the delta are in more danger than ever; millions of dollars in crops have collapsed in the Central Valley because of water shortages; levees are old, getting older and could fail after a major earthquake; statewide water rationing for the driest parts of Southern California may be inevitable; and interested parties are back in court fighting for their side of the issue.

In other words, all sides of this complicated public policy battle seem to agree on one point: that CalFed, which was created to bring new life and vision to a stale set of issues, has failed at the outset of its 30-year mandate.

"CalFed basically said, we can have it all," said Cynthia Koehler, a law professor who helped craft the California Bay Delta accords, which led to the creation of CalFed. "By that standard, it certainly has not lived up to its goals."


'Total standstill'

The history and fate of CalFed hews closely to California's troubled experience with moving water from the wet north to the dry south.

The plan was ambitious and hinged on the ability of CalFed to corral 25 state and federal agencies with a say into a single plan of action. CalFed officials were granted the authority to cut through red tape and get the agencies working together, in addition to a sizable budget to start watershed restoration.

But from the outset, CalFed officials appeared eager to spend money on solutions like land acquisition but hesitant to make tough political decisions, according to a veteran of the water wars who first went to work for the state Department of Fish and Game in 1957.

Bill Kier, a former Fish and Game biologist and assistant Resources secretary, said CalFed bought some land and closed some minor dams but refused to take water away from anyone. Officials were not willing to get dirty and confront the water interests, he said, and have therefore failed to make a dent in a system that has used four times the state's total water supply over the last century.

"The CalFed program strived so for buy-in and consensus that by the time the buy-in and consensus was accomplished, it was a total standstill," Kier said.

Judith Layzer, a professor of environmental policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, concurred with this analysis. CalFed officials, she said, were tasked with providing a "new direction" that would force powerful parties -- namely, developers, farmers and water districts -- to change how they did business.

Instead, California got something closer to a political stalemate. The agency may have provided "good studies and good science" about the delta, but Layzer said officials refused to intervene to cut off water supplies to protect fish runs or remove larger old dams where it made sense.

Nor were CalFed officials willing to press farmers to change their planting patterns to less water-intensive crops. Farmers in California have been planting corn, cotton and alfalfa (all water-intensive crops) for decades without regard to the logic of growing them "in a hot place where water is scarce," Grader said.

"They shouldn't be able to grow any damn crop they please," Grader added.

So nobody is winning: not fish, not farmers, not commercial fishers. This year's salmon season was shuttered before it got started, and about 10,000 acres of crops in the Westlands Water District have been abandoned due to a lack of water.

And all the while, the delta's maze of levees is threatened by the possibility of a big earthquake that could ruin millions of acres of cropland if saltwater floods into the Central Valley.

"This is typically what you end up with when you say everyone can have what they want," Layzer said.

In sum, the critics blame a bloated bureaucracy and a lack of leadership for delay after delay after delay (and study after study), during which no sector benefited more than another. The result is back to square one nearly 15 years after the process got moving, they said, especially given several recent court decisions that have stopped pumping from the delta to protect fish.

"All CalFed did was delay what we've yet to come to grips with: that the bay and delta doesn't have adequate flows," Grader said.

NGOs 'got rolled' by Newt Gingrich

Kier doesn't necessarily blame the officials at CalFed for the alleged failure. He directs a sizable chuck of the blame to a single politician: Newt Gingrich, the powerful former Republican congressman from Georgia who was the House speaker from 1995 until 1999.

When the Bay Delta accords passed in 1994, they represented an unprecedented stakeholder agreement after years of litigation over the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. The results of the litigation largely favored environmental groups and pressed the growers and developers to cede to CalFed, to bring the parties together under a single umbrella.

But as Kier tells it, the actual execution of the CalFed agreement came days after Republicans toppled the Democratic Congress in the 1994 midterm congressional election. That election saw the rise of Gingrich and his Contract with America, a central premise of which was the dissolution of the ESA.

Groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund were nervous about Gingrich doing away with the ESA, Kier said, so they "got rolled one night" when negotiating the details of the CalFed agreement and the criteria for success in the delta.

"It was set up for failure," Kier said. "Damned if the Republicans didn't surprise us all that night in November of '94."

Several important criteria -- including restoration of the San Joaquin River and relief for the spring run of salmon in the Sacramento River -- were left on the cutting-room floor because groups like EDF and NRDC got spooked at the last minute, Kier said.

"The silk-stocking enviros were so traumatized by the Newt Gingrich takeover ... that they rushed into a too-easy deal," he said.

The result? Kier said the bargain left CalFed officials with no option but to throw money at land acquisition (and the Nature Conservancy). The agency was also forced to ignore the hard decisions associated with cutting off water supplies to voters who like to water their lawns and farmers who might have shifted to less water-intensive crops.

That left CalFed "throwing money at the problem," according to Grader, and even that option was ultimately choked off when Congress failed to authorize CalFed in fiscal 2000 through 2004.

"We pissed away money on the CalFed ecosystem restoration program," said Kier, who estimates $2 billion has been spent by the program to date. "In order for all these things to be healthy again, you have to take something away from somebody, and that right there is what government agencies are incapable of doing."

CalFed's defense

Keith Coolidge, deputy director for program performance in CalFed's Sacramento office, likes to paraphrase Mark Twain when the subject of the program's demise hits his desk. "Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated," he said.

Coolidge admits CalFed has been hindered by funding issues in Congress and management problems, but he insists the program is still in its infancy. Formed in 1994 to draft a 30-year plan, CalFed just started its implementation phase in 2000 after a six-year span of study and development, Coolidge said.

So the last seven years are a more accurate barometer, in Coolidge's mind. Over that time, since approving an $8.6 billion master plan through 2030, the state has increased its water supply by nearly 700,000 acre-feet through conservation, recycling and groundwater storage. Moreover, federal funds have been spent to acquire 130,000 acres of habitat -- a figure that exceeds expectations in terms of starting to restore the depleted salmon fisheries, he said.

"CalFed set out a 30-year plan to try to resolve things in the delta, so calling it a failure means it's a failure based on one-sixth of that program," Coolidge said. "We're halfway through our freshman year."

Coolidge insists salmon populations in some streams have started to return, notably winter-run salmon on the Sacramento River and spring-run salmon on Butte Creek, "both of which were at an all-time low in the early 1990s." The program has installed 82 fish screens, removed dams on Deer and Mill creeks, and has eight more targeted on Battle Creek, all of which are key spawning areas.

Still, Coolidge acknowledged the program has struggled to maintain support in Congress, which has meant a diminished federal role (Kier likes to call the program "CalCal," subtracting the Fed). Authorization on Capitol Hill lapsed for much of this decade, but Coolidge thinks that has turned around with the emergence of a Democratic Congress led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and the current authorization lasts through 2010.

"I'm not sure that the federal level is there at the level that was contemplated," Coolidge said.

Coolidge also thinks it is high time to revise the program's governance structure, which he says has been a failure. The California Bay Delta Authority, as some call it, was initially conceived as an independent body, but that model has been hampered by "a lack of accountability and a lack of authority," he said.

The next step? Coolidge said his office is waiting to hear the final recommendations of a two-year task force -- the Delta Vision -- created by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to study the delta and come up with a new plan. The task force recently issued its fourth draft of proposed recommendations.

"I just don't think it's fair to lump the problems of all West Coast fisheries onto the back of one program," Coolidge said.

Back to the future?

Koehler, who works at EDF as a consultant and teaches law at Golden Gate University, agreed that CalFed has brought a minor shift to a massive set of problems. She said the program has resulted in an emphasis on science and has been successful in terms of bringing the 25 agencies with jurisdiction into the same room.

"The agencies are now talking to each other," Koehler said. "They didn't used to do that."

At the same time, Koehler believes that such federal-state collaborations at the macro level -- whether it's CalFed, the Everglades, the Columbia River, the Chesapeake Bay or even New Orleans -- are slow to react to quickly accelerating crises. All these programs, she said, have spent billions "tinkering around the edges" while levees deteriorate, wildlife suffers and water supplies evaporate.

"CalFed is a great dissertation of the benefits of these kinds of huge collaborations," she said, comparing it to the Everglades process. "Money's being spent on projects that are good, but they're not getting to the the heart of the problem."

And what is the heart of the problem? In Koehler's view, what's missing is a leader willing to make a healthy wild salmon population and the agricultural economy higher priorities than watering lawns and golf courses in the desert to increase property value. Also missing are funds for desalination research and aggressive conservation efforts.

Layzer agreed and blames a lack of brave political leadership willing to stop average consumers from wasting water.

"What people will say is this is the best we could do politically," Layzer said. "But that's not good enough."

Layzer, who wrote a book on ecosystem restoration called "Natural Experiments," said California would be better served changing to a regional model to encourage local conservation, mandate water recycling for lawns and golf courses and encourage better communication about the depth of the problem. In Pima County, Ariz., for instance, officials have "stuck their necks out" to change the way people do business to save water in the parched Sonoran Desert, she said.

"I don't think it has to be an obituary" for CalFed or other federal-state collaborations, Layzer said. "But we are sort of at the point that all the slack in the system is gone. We ignored the warnings for 30-plus years."

Kier is even less optimistic. When asked about the latest new-old idea -- to build a peripheral canal around the delta, a plan voters rejected in 1982 -- Kier said an entire generation of policymakers, scientists and lawyers now owe their careers to the stalemate. So he expects more of the same.

"What do I see? I see us going forward into the past," Kier said. "Which is back to the future on its head."

Click here to see a map of the five regions of CalFed.

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