Prestigious panel agrees: Delta is stressed, with no easy fix

03/30/2012 12:00 AM

03/30/2012 11:22 AM

A comprehensive new study on the Delta's environmental problems concludes there is no easy fix, only hard choices, if California wants to restore fish species and still satisfy its water demands.

The study by the National Research Council, released Thursday, was conducted at the request of members of Congress and the Obama administration. The 17 participating scientists, from various disciplines and regions of the country, took two years to complete the report.

Those experts say Californians must accept "scarcity" as a new watchword for its statewide water supplies. That doesn't mean doing without, but recognizing everyone can't always have all the water they want.

It also means setting aside the idea that a single solution will restore the Delta.

Instead, the state must accept that a "mosaic of impacts" is jamming up the Delta's natural machinery in different ways and at different times. A holistic approach to science and policy is needed, rather than focusing on a single species or a single category of water users.

"There is no silver bullet," said Henry Vaux, professor emeritus of resource economics at UC Riverside and one of the study's co-authors.

"We're trying to give our fellow citizens a wake-up call that water scarcity is not simply limited to drought situations," he said, "but is more or less a constant characteristic of the emerging water situation."

The study was unveiled amid high expectations that it might uncover a clear path out of the growing water and endangered species conflicts plaguing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a source of water for 25 million Californians.

But the independent panel largely confirmed the findings of other scientists, who have yet to pinpoint a single cause for the Delta's decline. Since 2002, nine native fish species have experienced steep population declines, capped by a declared "disaster" for Sacramento River salmon that included an unprecedented two-year closure of commercial fishing.

In an ominous coincidence Thursday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared that yet another Delta fish species belongs on the endangered species list: the longfin smelt.

Official listing for the fish, however, will wait until the service has sufficient resources to determine protective measures. In the meantime, the longfin will be a "candidate" for listing.

"That's unfortunate, and sort of reinforces that something else needs to be done to deal with some of these issues before longfin smelt and other listed species go extinct," said Erin Tobin, an attorney at Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm that has brought numerous lawsuits to protect Delta species.

Tobin said the National Research Council report is not likely to become a "game changer." But she hopes it will persuade people to stop looking for easy solutions and start working together.

"We need to make some decisions about conservation and changing our lifestyles in order to have a healthy ecosystem and be able to supply water to the people who need it," she said.

Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, also praised the emphasis on broad solutions.

"The report makes clear the need for a multifaceted approach toward solving environmental challenges," Wade said in a statement. "Addressing these stressors collectively gives the Delta a better chance for recovery."

The science panel was specifically charged with ranking the problems or "stressors" affecting the Delta. But it was unable to do that. Instead, it said a complex "mosaic of impacts" from numerous stressors on the environment makes pinpointing even leading causes impossible.

Any one stressor – whether it is water diversions, pollution or invasive species – may have a disastrous effect depending on which endangered species is being examined, when and where.

"Efforts to reduce the effect of a single stressor are unlikely to reverse species decline," Vaux said. "For those reasons, it makes no sense at all to rank, because the ranking is meaningless."

The panel found that California needs to undertake an integrated planning effort to address the Delta's problems holistically. To do that, it needs to streamline the fragmented management of the Delta that exists today.

State lawmakers adopted a package of bills in 2009 that attempted just that. But the panel suggests it did not go far enough.

As just one example, lawmakers in 2009 took a pass on regulating groundwater, instead imposing only monitoring requirements.

The panel highlighted the interconnected nature of groundwater and surface water, and noted California is the only state that lacks any regulatory means to control groundwater overdraft.

It said California needs to continue to focus on conservation. The state should also exercise its legal authority under the public trust doctrine to redistribute water rights to address scarcity. It said the need for this is already apparent in drought years, and is likely to worsen with climate change.

"There is not now in the Delta, or in the state of California as a whole, sufficient quantities of water to satisfy all wants for it, at all times, everywhere," Vaux said.

He estimated California has about 10 years to address these problems, after which frequent crises will make planning effective solutions difficult.


The new National Research Council report on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta can be found online at


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