Stuart Leavenworth

Stuart Leavenworth: Dogs of war still hungry in 'Water-stan'

Published: Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6E
Last Modified: Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012 - 10:32 am

One of California's great misnomers is the term "water community" when discussing stakeholders who have an interest in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Webster's defines "community" as "a group of people living together as a smaller social unit within a larger one."

Water interests getting along? There's a better chance of cats and dogs living together.

In California, the water community would be better described as "Water-stan," a warring band of tribes. There's the Westlands tribe, the Metropolitan Water District tribe, the Kern County tribe, the Delta farmer tribe, the environmental tribe, the Glenn- Colusa tribe and on and on.

Getting these tribes to the table is about as easy as, say, brokering a lasting peace deal in Afghanistan. And that's too bad. At least on paper, the "water community" now has its best chance in decades to at least partially settle some long-standing conflicts.

It is a once-in-lifetime opportunity, especially for south-of-the Delta water users. They've long dreamed of building a canal or tunnel that would shunt water around the Delta, making them less vulnerable to a shutoff of water pumping aimed at protecting imperiled fish. Pete Wilson couldn't deliver this. Neither could Arnold Schwarzenegger. By contrast, the current Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, wants to carry out his father's dream of completing the State Water Project with a long-planned canal. It's a Nixon-goes-to-China moment.

That would seem to bode badly for environmentalists and Delta interests, except that Brown has tapped John Laird, his natural resources secretary, to help broker a Delta deal. Laird is a native Northern Californian who, while serving six years in the Assembly, had one of the strongest environmental voting records of any lawmaker. It's hard to imagine a better advocate for what environmentalists claim to want out of a deal – habitat restoration, dedicated flows to help imperiled fish and honest governance of how a canal would be operated.

The playing ground for any compromise is the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, a multi-year effort by water exporters to get a permit for Delta water withdrawals that complies with the Endangered Species Act.

Yet in this process, trust is about as abundant as smelt are in the Delta. Some of the water contractors of the San Joaquin Valley don't trust the BDCP, and so they are pushing federal legislation that would sidestep that process and give them the water they want. That power play has in turn alarmed environmentalists and led many of them to doubt they will get a fair shake with the BDCP.

The tribes of Water-stan speak in a variety of tongues, and within these tribes, there are subgroups and assorted dialects. That makes it harder for them to speak with one voice. Within the environmental movement, for instance, groups such as the Nature Conservancy are open to construction of a canal or tunnel as part of multipart deal. On the other end of the spectrum are multiple groups ready to file lawsuits against any final package, a litigation strategy that, over the years, has done so much for salmon and the Delta smelt.

In an interview, Laird expressed frustration that some environmentalists won't recognize both the substance and the symbolic value of the BDCP. This is one of the largest habitat conservation plans attempted under the Endangered Species Act, and if it succeeds, it will help bolster the ESA and protect it from perennial efforts in Congress to repeal it, he said.

On the other hand, if the Delta ecosystem continues to decline, disrupting water deliveries and triggering litigation, the Endangered Species Act becomes more vulnerable.

"At some point, you have to be reasonable within the context of the law, to protect the law," Laird said.

Next week, the drafters of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan will roll out 1,500 pages of reports on the costs and benefits of various options being studied for the Delta – ranging from a massive 15,000-cubic-feet-per-second tunnel to alternatives that are smaller.

Expect all sides to retreat to their talking points. The environmental tribes will rail against "water giveaways for corporate agribusiness." The water buffalo tribes will rail against wetlands being restored "to save a 2-inch fish."

They will join the chorus of Northern California water tribes that are resisting efforts by Phil Isenberg, chair of the Delta Stewardship Council, to seek sacrifices for the good of the estuary.

After all the posturing, it's possible that these tribes might want to engage in real dialogue, and that Laird and Brown will broker a historic deal. But it is also equally possible that Laird will end up like Gen. David Petraeus did in Afghanistan – unable to budge sectarians away from their ways.

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Read more articles by Stuart Leavenworth, Editorial page editor

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