California has made remarkable progress in addressing many of its long-standing water challenges. It has developed a statewide water action plan, enacted historic groundwater legislation, passed a much-needed water bond and garnered impressive cooperation in addressing the state’s severe drought.
But when it comes to dealing with the challenge of balancing environmental and water supply needs in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta – California’s water hub – no consensus solution is in sight. This, even though the Delta’s water-delivery system has hit a wall. Its crude pumping system pulls large volumes of water through the Delta, reversing the natural flows and creating a death trap for migrating salmon and other native fish.
The status quo is unsustainable. Despite frequent judicial and regulatory tinkering with how the pumps are operated, the Delta’s environment continues to suffer, even as water deliveries become more uncertain. The system is only a flood or earthquake away from complete collapse.
And California’s water hub cannot accommodate the state’s changing climate, which is putting a premium on capturing peak flows during wet years, and moving it into surface and groundwater storage facilities.
Despite the statewide importance of the Delta’s failing infrastructure and the lack of a consensus on what to do about it, two key elements needed to move forward are missing: a serious forum that can pull the public and key players into Delta decision-making, and a framework that gives the parties confidence that a negotiated solution will stick.
Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed a “Water Fix,” which would use tunnels to reduce the direct impact of exports on Delta fisheries and provide more flexibility to move water when it is available. Meanwhile, the governor is moving forward separately with “California EcoRestore,” a plan to improve Delta habitat.
Unfortunately, neither initiative provides the type of forum needed to engage leaders and the public in infrastructure and the environmental decision-making process. Instead, an opaque administrative process is underway, populated by an insider group of water users and environmental gladiators who appear to have little interest in working toward a consensus solution.
A more broad-based, higher-level forum is needed to energize and inform a debate about the governor’s proposals and other, alternative physical and operational options for the Delta. As required by federal and state law, improved environmental health for the Delta must be at the center of the discussion.
Finding an effective forum for serious discussions is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient to move off the status quo. After working through difficult environmental health and water issues, the forum must produce a broadly acceptable framework approach that cannot be easily set aside by the next change in administration in Sacramento or Washington.
As Bruce Babbitt commented in a recent speech: “The end toward which we are grappling is to provide a stable, reliable, environmentally appropriate framework to govern Delta exports. At present there is no such framework.”
The now-abandoned Bay Delta Conservation Plan could have provided the framework. But all sides correctly concluded that with climate change and other factors creating new uncertainties, the BDCP’s ambition to strike a 50-year deal that would settle endangered species issues in the Delta was unrealistic.
New options for a Bay Delta framework should be put on the table. In 2009, the Delta Stewardship Council was authorized to move beyond the BDCP and adopt “other plans” if they advance the co-equal goals of restoring the environment and increasing water supply reliability.
Alternatively, the Legislature could directly adopt a new framework and hard-wire it into state law. A consensus approach also could be put before the voters for approval. And we can expect the worst of all worlds – dueling, special interest voter propositions – unless there is a concerted effort to develop a broadly acceptable approach for the Delta that meshes with statewide water needs and policies.
The point is that it’s time to get on with it, and get serious about finding a forum and a framework that can deliver a viable, durable solution for the Delta.
David J. Hayes was deputy secretary of the interior in the Clinton and Obama administrations. He is a visiting lecturer in law at Stanford. Follow him on Twitter @djhayes01.