Conflict over water allocations from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is the most intractable water management problem in California.
The sources of contention are many, but three interrelated issues dominate the debate: whether to build two tunnels that divert water from the Sacramento River, how much water to allocate to endangered fish species, and what to do about the 1,100 miles of Delta levees that are essential to the local economy.
All of these issues need to be addressed to reduce unproductive conflict and litigation and resolve our water problems.
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Here we outline a potential “grand compromise” for the Delta that meets the co-equal goals of water supply reliability and ecosystem health prescribed by the 2009 Delta Reform Act. To this end, California should:
▪ Build one tunnel, not two
The most commonly stated fear about the twin tunnels is that they will increase exports and significantly harm the Delta. Project proponents have failed to convince opponents that proposed regulatory assurances on the tunnels’ use will actually protect water quality and species that are at risk.
Building one tunnel with roughly half the proposed capacity caps the amount of water that can be taken from the Sacramento River and greatly reduces the project’s cost. Even at half of its proposed capacity, the project would significantly improve the reliability and quality of water supply. And by having two locations to draw water from the Delta – a new tunnel plus the existing south Delta pumps – the project creates the necessary flexibility to better manage the environment.
▪ Manage water for ecosystems, not just endangered species
To improve the effectiveness of environmental investments, California will need to move away from viewing water and land management activities in the Delta primarily through the lens of the Endangered Species Act. Instead, environmental managers should allocate water and restoration funds based on greatest overall ecological returns on investments.
This does not mean abandoning threatened or endangered species, but rather refocusing recovery efforts on ecological health, based on realistic assessments of the benefits of environmental water allocations.
For example, it may be time to consider captive breeding for Delta smelt – which are approaching extinction in the wild – with the goal of reintroducing them into restored habitats in the north Delta. Targeted investments in riparian and floodplain habitat in the north Delta and Sacramento River watershed – along with well-timed flows to support native species’ life cycles – are likely to provide the highest return on investment for salmon.
To accomplish this, the state Water Resources Control Board should revise its Bay-Delta Water Quality Plan to allocate a share of water that can be flexibly managed to meet biological and ecological objectives. This strategy has been successful in Victoria, Australia, and the water board has proposed a similar approach for managing water in the lower San Joaquin River basin.
We believe existing law can accommodate this change in environmental management. This approach also guarantees a substantial share of water for environmental uses and a more certain water supply for the 25 million people and 3 million acres of farmland that depend on the Delta for at least some of their supply.
▪ Make investments that benefit Delta residents
Most Delta counties have other water problems that can be resolved within a grand compromise. Strengthening the levees that protect Delta islands would reduce flood risk to farms, homes, roads, pipelines and power lines. It would also improve the reliability of export water supplies.
Negotiators should also explore opportunities for Delta residents to benefit from water quality improvements – for instance, by providing access to tunnel water in places where local supplies are salty. These improvements would recognize the Delta’s residents as essential partners in the administration of California’s largest and most important water system.
Grand compromises require sacrifice to achieve a better future. For those who rely on water exports from the Delta, a single tunnel would be a cost-effective means of improving supply reliability. For environmental interests, a flexibly managed, guaranteed block of environmental water would facilitate a more functional and sustainable estuary. And for Delta residents, the levee improvements would enhance the security of their lives and livelihoods.
Negotiation of this grand compromise will require stakeholders to embrace its broad contours before turning to its many details. If we fail again to find common ground, the political paralysis that has plagued the Delta for decades will continue. And the many economic and environmental benefits that the Delta provides to California will continue to decline.
Ellen Hanak is the director of the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jeffrey Mount (email@example.com) and Brian Gray (firstname.lastname@example.org) are senior fellows at the center.