Don’t let special interests dictate state water policy

The Sacramento River flows past windmills near Rio Vista in February.
The Sacramento River flows past windmills near Rio Vista in February.

California’s water system is in a very delicate place – a transition from 19th and 20th century policies and institutions to a system that must work for a 21st century economy and society. Complicating this difficult long-term transition, the state is now suffering a severe, multiyear drought.

Gov. Jerry Brown has worked hard to develop a balanced response to the drought and is commendably rethinking his options on the costly, highly complex effort to fix long-standing problems in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Farming groups, environmental interests and urban water users are seeking common ground. Programs to improve water-use efficiency and unprecedented efforts to manage groundwater are underway. Significant new water funding has been approved, and the Legislature has become far more engaged on water issues.

These are all steps in the right direction.

But all of these delicate, good-faith efforts are in jeopardy, threatened by actions by a few major players with narrow self-interests. This group – some Central Valley agricultural districts, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and some members of Congress – has been meeting for the past year behind closed doors with Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office with little input from other regions in the state, state or federal water policy experts, environmental or community groups, or the rest of the California congressional delegation.

Sometime soon they are expected to submit legislation that would fundamentally reduce federal and perhaps state environmental protections for the Delta’s endangered ecosystem and fisheries in order to increase water diversions for a small group of Central Valley farms.

Efforts to do this last year were stymied at the last minute by opposition from Brown, Sen. Barbara Boxer, other members of Congress, the fishing and environmental community, and others. Unfortunately, those efforts have been revived.

Such an old-fashioned water grab would destroy trust and return us to the old days of costly, unproductive conflict. If this kind of federal legislation is somehow pushed through, it could derail for decades any chance of a comprehensive solution for the Delta, lead to the actual extinction of salmon and other fish species, and ignite new legal battles.

California water policy has always been contentious, but the good idea that collaboration on effective solutions is better than perpetual water conflicts and gridlock has taken root. We have to accept that there isn’t enough water for everyone to do everything they want anymore, if there ever was. We have to accept that all water users, including the environment, deserve a say in how to allocate the limited water we have. And we should recognize that considerable progress has been made in recent years precisely because of these transparent collaborations.

New approaches to water policy are encouraging a shift to a modern agricultural sector, more efficient urban water use, and improvements in environmental conditions. Our lawmakers must ensure these critical efforts are not derailed by a small group of people who still believe that backroom deals can be made to benefit a few at the expense of real solutions to our water problems.

The drought and a changing climate have shown that cooperative water management is central to the future of our economy and environment. We need to continue working together toward a 21st century water future.

Peter Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute, an independent policy and research group based in Oakland.