They have fought for years over water management in California's sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Now these longtime foes have managed to agree on a variety of short-term projects to help the estuary.
The Coalition to Support Near Term Delta Projects has met quietly for the past six months. With help from the Center for Collaborative Policy at Sacramento State University, the group managed to agree on 43 projects supported by all participants, from water titans like the Westlands Water District to local levee maintenance agencies in the Delta itself.
"It's pretty remarkable," said Tom Zuckerman, an attorney for the Central Delta Water Agency, which serves a number of major property owners in the Delta. "I know some of these projects will get done. It's just a question of how far the existing funding goes."
Zuckerman and other key participants presented the coalition's project list today at a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Delta Stewardship and Sustainability.
One of the biggest projects is strengthening levees along two key Delta watercourses -- Middle River and Old River -- at a cost of about $180 million. This could protect Delta islands from floods and earthquakes, and help protect statewide water supplies that would be jeopardized if those levees failed. Which is how the group reached agreement: The projects are things that had broad benefits.
The group also lived by an important ground rule. No projects would be considered that might preclude action on the major controversy that has divided them in recent years: A proposal, still being debated, for a pair of massive tunnels that would divert Sacramento River water out of the Delta. The $14 billion proposal is bitterly opposed by Delta residents and many environmental groups.
This ground rule allowed support to emerge for the 43 smaller projects, which total about $1 billion and include habitat restoration, wildlife research and water quality projects. The latter includes a proposal to recycle the Sacramento region's treated sewage into a water supply for irrigation purposes.
"We can't wait, and we need to find more of these kinds of collaborative, mutually beneficial, no-brainer things to do," said Jason Peltier, chief deputy general manager at Westlands Water District, which provides farm irrigation water diverted from the Delta to a large swath of the San Joaquin Valley.
What happens next with the project list remains unclear. The Legislative Analyst's Office reported that more than $500 million is available for the projects in two existing bond measures. Some projects already have money available from local governments or ratepayers. Some projects will require action by the Legislature or key regulatory agencies before construction can begin.