Parting thoughts for Delta water warriors

The north state’s treasured Delta, as depicted by Gregory Kondos in his 1986 painting “Sacramento River Summer.”
The north state’s treasured Delta, as depicted by Gregory Kondos in his 1986 painting “Sacramento River Summer.” The Sacramento Bee

More than 50 years in public policy have taught me a lot of lessons. Maybe the most enduring is that regular folks as well as hired lobbyists talk differently in public than they do in private conversation.

The most common refrain in public is “me, and my interest first.” When I talk to these people in private, however, they are far more reasonable.

This was my last week on the Delta Stewardship Council. It’s been described as a “new agency with an old, controversial job” – to ensure a reliable supply of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta while simultaneously ensuring its environmental protection. This goal is backed up with laws that mandate change, and provide a real but limited role for the council to enforce the laws. All this is expressed in the legally enforceable Delta Plan we adopted in 2013.

How to do this is a balancing act involving water districts, government agencies, environmentalists, business and agriculture representatives, many of whom I have come to know over the years, and whose views I have supported or opposed at points in my public service. Talking to folks who are reasonable only in private discussion, I have occasionally demanded they say in public what they tell me in private. Some smile, but mostly they glower or stare back without responding.

This is the American way to negotiate: Demand in public more than you want or need, in the hope of getting something better than you expect. Ask tough questions of your opponents, but duck the ones that come your way. Offer to compromise 30 minutes before a final decision.

This is not a great way to make public policy.

Less public posturing would simplify life for my council colleagues as they weigh, for example, the consistency of the governor’s water tunnels proposal with the council’s Delta plan, and consider the related ecosystem actions being planned.

The council’s marching orders are clear. The statutory “coequal goals” – a more reliable water supply for the state and a protected, restored and enhanced Delta ecosystem – are mandatory, not discretionary. That means compelling state and local agencies that come before the council to include and fund their promises, particularly promises to improve the Delta environment.

‘Me and my interest first’ posturing may be the American way to negotiate, but it’s not a great way to make public policy.

California law also mandates that we “reduce reliance on the Delta in meeting California’s future water supply needs.” That means an actual reduction in water taken from the Delta watershed, and is reflected in the Delta Plan. A lot of water users don’t like this, but it is inevitable and we need to get on with it.

State and local agencies must use the best available science and scientific “adaptive management” to be consistent with the Delta Plan. And they have to guarantee funding for those activities, not just unenforceable future promises.

Finally, the council needs to insist that the current mishmash of management and operating rules be more coherent.

Those are reasonable parameters. And good policy could emerge from them, if my friends in the water wars could let their reasonable private selves do more of the talking. Maybe it’s time to put California’s interests first.

Phil Isenberg is the outgoing vice chairman of the Delta Stewardship Council and a former state assemblyman and Sacramento mayor and City Council member. He can be reached at