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  • Randall Benton Intakes for the proposed water tunnels would be built in this general area of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, near Courtland, in Sacramento County.

  • Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press

    Darrell Steinberg

Editorial: Can Steinberg head off a Delta train wreck?

Published: Monday, Jul. 15, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 11A

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is in a unique position to influence at least a partial resolution of the brewing battle over the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The question is: Can he use his leverage in a way that benefits both the district he represents and the state of California he serves?

Steinberg was the driving force behind a 2009 Delta law that declared California will "reduce reliance on the Delta" for water supplies. That law also established the twin goals of improving reliability of water deliveries and restoring the Delta ecosystem.

Steinberg came under fire locally for supporting that 2009 legislation, and so did this editorial board. Since then, Steinberg has been fairly quiet about the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to restore wetlands and build a pair of massive water tunnels through the Delta to more easily ship water to the south. All the while, Delta communities – including Sacramento County – have harshly criticized BDCP, saying they've been left out of a process largely driven by water contractors in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley.

Last week, we asked Steinberg why he had not joined Sacramento County, Sacramento city, U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui and other members of Congress in pressing Brown to make changes in BDCP.

Steinberg's initial answer wasn't inspiring. "I haven't been asked," he said, adding that he has "been focused on a whole host lot of other things."

When pressed further, however, Steinberg made clear he's ready to seek significant modification in BDCP, and he has an opportunity to back that up.

Permits for the Bay Delta plan depend on roughly $2 billion in funding for restoration of wetlands in the estuary. The most likely source of that money is a state water bond, which Steinberg has the ability to influence before it goes to voters.

"Let me be real clear," said Steinberg. "I don't see supporting a water bond for the remainder of my tenure unless there is a positive resolution of the BDCP."

For that resolution to have a chance, he said, two things need to occur:

• "The administration should take heed of Delta communities' concerns about engagement and involvement."

• The debate needs to shift from the size of the tunnels "to the enforcement condition which a water project will operate over the next 50 years."

That second part is crucial. The Brown administration is pursuing a process that will involve construction of the tunnels before approving a plan for how those tunnels would operate – how much water would be diverted during dry, wet and normal periods. State and federal officials want to study those operational details while the tunnels are constructed, with a set plan to be determined before the tunnels are completed.

As we've stated several times before, this is the wrong approach. It leaves Northern California with grave concerns on water supplies and leaves water contractors uncertain about how much water they will receive from the project, which is estimated to cost $24.5 billion.

Steinberg says state and federal officials need to resolve these operational questions, and back them up with enforceable legal provisions that will reduce the uncertainty for all stakeholders. Those provisions don't need to be part of any bond that goes to the voters – as some thought he was stating in a speech earlier this year. But they need to be in place before Steinberg will support a water bond.

"That is the only way there is going to be a breakthrough," he said.

Steinberg, of course, only has another year and a half running the Senate. Water contractors and Brown administration might be able to delay going to voters with a water bond until 2016, leaving him cut out of the process.

Yet Steinberg is there now, and while he is, he should aggressively use his leverage – more than he has to date – to make sure that the interests of the Delta and Northern California are protected. For a guy concerned about his legislative legacy, there can be no bigger single issue.

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