Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, is the California Senate president pro tem.

Viewpoints: Delta water plan shows progress in state's policy

Published: Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 5E
Last Modified: Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012 - 10:29 am

To the casual observer of California's water wars, the recent announcement by U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Gov. Jerry Brown seemed like just another news conference in an endless string of pronouncements over state water policy.

Partisans on both sides staked out their usual positions. Some of the large Delta water users said the plan didn't go far enough because it takes too long to implement and doesn't export enough water for a thirsty state.

On the other side, the "do nothing and it will all get better on its own" crowd once again decried any progress in water policy, preferring instead to endorse an unacceptable status quo that has led to a steep decline in the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the West Coast's largest estuary.

In reality, however, the joint federal/state announcement represented significant progress in the state's water policy and in the future of the Delta. That progress is due at least in part to the landmark 2009 water laws I and others authored to reset California water policy. More importantly, the context in which that progress is taking place has changed fundamentally since the days of the old "peripheral canal" and "Cal-Fed" debates of the past.

At its core, the 2009 legislative water package established two overarching new co-equal state water policy goals – both of which have now been incorporated in the much-improved, recently announced state/federal water plans and in other actions being taken by government agencies.

Those co-equal goals are to ensure water supply reliability for all regions of the state – including our Sacramento Valley, the Bay Area and other parts of Northern California – and to ensure ecosystem restoration of the Delta.

Rather than simply stating these lofty principles and leaving it to term-limited governors and legislators to implement them, the 2009 laws impose new and specific oversight on any actions in the Delta that could undermine these goals.

The new "Delta Stewardship Council," appointed by the governor and subject to Senate confirmation and oversight, must ensure proposals like the new twin tunnels are consistent with those goals. To ensure this is the case, the laws impose new requirements for assessment of water flows, fisheries and water quality based on scientific evaluation – not political whim – before any such conveyance proposals can be approved.

In order to reduce pressure to export more water from the Delta, the 2009 laws also establish new statewide "20 percent by 2020" water conservation targets, tougher enforcement against illegal diversions of water and new groundwater monitoring standards to better track use of this precious and severely overused resource.

Taken together, these laws force water agencies around the state to do all they can to reduce reliance on Delta water supplies and to assume much greater local and regional self-reliance to meet water needs. One real world example of this is the city of Los Angeles' Urban Water Management Plan, which vastly increases use of water efficiency, recycled water and local stormwater capture in that region.

None of these laws was in place the last time the state and federal governments put forward proposals to fix the Delta while assuring adequate water supply for the rest of the state.

Will they make a difference?

Contrary to the statements of the naysayers, the answer is that they already have.

The new plans unveiled by state and federal officials show a much stronger commitment to science-driven water development and protection of fisheries, water quality and the Delta itself than any prior plans or actions. It's fair to say that commitment wouldn't necessarily be there without the backstops and framework of the 2009 comprehensive water package.

The water efficiency, water rights and groundwater management parts of the legislative package already are making a difference in regions of the state still dependent on Delta water supplies.

To be sure, the Brown administration, the Legislature and the public must all stay vigilant. Nothing in the water supply world is a given. The full implementation of the laws and the administration's Delta actions will be decades in the making.

But the new plans – and the implementation of the 2009 water package along with them – are a good restart, and a positive first step for the Brown and Obama administrations.

Rather than rail that the good is the enemy of the perfect, it's time to get on with solving the state's water challenges and restoring the Delta.

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