When it comes to the heart of California's water system the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta we need a new direction.
The Delta is not just the place where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers merge; it is an important source of drinking water for tens of millions of Californians and of irrigation water for millions of acres of productive farmland.
It is also a critically threatened estuary in which almost every natural thing from the amount and the quality of water to seasonal changes in water flows to wetland and floodplain habitat has been altered. It's no wonder native fish species are in danger of disappearing. At some point, the engineering we put in place to move water from one place to another might have made sense. It doesn't anymore. It's never worked for nature, but now it's even failing for people.
To make a bad situation worse, this flawed water system also depends upon levees that are susceptible to catastrophic failure during an earthquake or a large storm that could abruptly turn the Delta into an inland salty sea. This would result in devastating consequences for the people, plants and animals that depend on this water source, interrupting water supplies for millions of Californians for years.
But there is reason for hope. The state is currently considering the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan, which is intended to reverse the dramatic decline of the Delta ecosystem and provide a more certain supply of water for people.
Soon, a new and, hopefully, improved version of the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan will be announced; the proposal for moving water via underground tunnels is a subject of substantial controversy.
Everyone, from Delta landowners to water contractors, must evaluate the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan to ensure it puts us on a trajectory to provide water in the Delta when nature needs it, to restore important habitat and to increase flexibility to move water when it is abundant. The project's design, proposed operations, impacts and financing must:
Provide a basis for better long-term ecological conditions in the Delta, including providing water at the right times in the right amounts to help recover crashing fish populations.
Include a strong monitoring and science program to guide operations of any new tunnels.
Protect the remaining natural habitat in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys and secure the water and wetlands necessary for healthy fisheries and bird migration across the Central Valley.
Include investments in flood safety in the Delta, addressing flood conditions that will be more likely in California as we experience larger and less predictable storms due to our changing climate.
A successful BDCP cannot be about exporting more water from the Delta. We recognize the need to reduce reliance on the Delta as a water supply source, and that is the intent of California's 2009 water reforms.
Profound changes have been made to the Delta over the past 200 years. We are now paying the price for a massive engineering project that ignored the needs of nature for too long. Even a strong BDCP will not fix all that is wrong in the Delta. But it is almost impossible to envision addressing California's broader water challenges without it.
From farmers to scientists to policymakers, we need to reach common ground in the Delta. While opinions are strong on all sides of this issue, we need to move beyond the heated rhetoric and have a thoughtful discussion about how to move toward a better future for nature and for people.
There is no dispute that the Delta ecosystem is failing and that water supplies continue to be less reliable. If the proposed project improves the Delta's environment and our state's water-supply reliability, then it warrants serious consideration and action.
We need to chart a new course for water in California, and it needs to start with a successful Bay-Delta Conservation Plan.
Mike Sweeney is the executive director of The Nature Conservancy's California chapter. He has more than 16 years of experience with environmental challenges in the United States and internationally. Jay Ziegler is the director of external affairs and policy of The Nature Conservancy's California chapter, overseeing work with governments and other stakeholders at the state, county and local levels.