Warring parties agree on some levee, habitat fixes in Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

10/16/2012 12:00 AM

10/16/2012 6:43 AM

They have fought over the sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for years. Now Delta residents and those who demand its water have managed to agree on $1 billion in short-term projects to help the estuary.

The Coalition to Support Near Term Delta Projects has met quietly for six months. Its three dozen members cover the range of animosity and accusation in the long-running water wars that have bedeviled the Delta, from environmentalists and levee managers to Delta farmers and Los Angeles water exporters.

Yet somehow, they have agreed to support 43 projects, including levee upgrades, habitat improvements, wildlife research and a proposal to recycle the Sacramento region's sewage.

"It's pretty remarkable," said Tom Zuckerman, an attorney for the Central Delta Water Agency, which serves a number of major landowners in the Delta. "I know some of these projects will get done. It's just a question of how far the existing funding goes."

The Delta is a critical source of water for 25 million Californians from Napa to San Diego. It also irrigates 3 million acres of farmland.

All that water is diverted at massive state and federal pumping systems near Tracy. The pumps kill millions of fish each year, including endangered salmon and smelt. The whole apparatus is threatened by major floods, earthquakes and sea-level rise.

After struggling for two decades to address these risks, state officials are finalizing a controversial solution: build a pair of giant tunnels, at a cost of $14 billion, to divert a portion of the Sacramento River directly to the export pumps.

That project is part of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and has proved controversial. Delta residents fear the tunnels will allow more salty water to intrude from the ocean, harming local farms. Conservationists and fishery experts worry it may do little, on balance, to help wildlife.

The controversy has prevented action on smaller fixes, a realization that brought the coalition into being six months ago. Participants said they were able to agree on the 43 smaller Delta projects because they decided at the outset to avoid weighing in on the controversial tunnels, or any projects that would affect them.

"The effort shows our common desire to make progress in the near term," said Jason Peltier, chief deputy general manager at Westlands Water District, which sells diverted Delta water in the San Joaquin Valley.

The Center for Collaborative Policy at California State University, Sacramento, served as facilitator for the group. The effort was funded by a $35,000 grant from the state Department of Water Resources.

Two of the largest projects identified by the group are levee upgrades along Middle River and Old River. These north-south channels are how water is currently conveyed from the Sacramento River to the diversion pumps near Tracy. The levees that define them are vitally important to statewide water supplies.

The group determined that all the levees along these two routes could be upgraded for about $180 million. This would not bring the levees up to urban standards like those in Sacramento. But it would leave them bigger and stronger than a common federal standard for rural levees, and far more capable of withstanding floods and earthquakes.

Another proposal, estimated at $106 million, would launch a project to recycle treated sewage generated by the Sacramento metro area. The wastewater, now discharged into the Sacramento River, is targeted for cleanup by state regulators because it is suspected of altering the Delta ecosystem.

The coalition has no decision-making power. But the individual members are considered key players in Delta water policy, and their recommendations are expected to carry considerable weight.

Some of the projects would require additional action by the Legislature or regulatory agencies. Others could be funded by money already available from local governments or ratepayers.

Anton Favorini-Csorba, of the Legislative Analyst's Office, said $582 million is available through existing state bond measures that could be dedicated to the projects.

"While there are a number that could move forward in the near term," he said, "the majority are still in the conceptual stage and need further cost refinement and feasibility studies."

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