Opinion Columns & Blogs

Viewpoints: When it comes to re-plumbing the Delta, trust is a two-way street

For two decades, Sacramento battled with the East Bay Municipal Utility District over diverting water from the American River, which would have reduced our water flows, endangered fish and other wildlife, degraded the American River Parkway and compromised our water rights. After battling to a standstill for several years, my colleagues on the Sacramento City Council and county Board of Supervisors, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and I worked out a solution with EBMUD that met the critical needs and objectives of both sides.

The solution has become known as the Freeport Water Project, and it preserves all of our values and assets for Sacramento while meeting the requirements of East Bay Municipal Utility District for greater access to water in drought and low water periods. We were only able to reach this solution because we took the time to understand the views and interests of each side and to build trust among both the people and the agencies involved in the dispute.

A similarly collaborative approach should be undertaken with regard to the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Unfortunately, however, the parties pushing this project have displayed scant interest in working with Northern California to develop a plan that would serve the needs and requirements of all Californians. Monday’s release of more than 30,000 pages of an environmental impact report that purports to justify the current Bay Delta Conservation Plan project only underscores the need for statewide collaboration.

The long-term health of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is absolutely critical to the environment and economy of the Delta region as well as the San Francisco Bay. The preservation of indispensable and long-standing water rights is essential to the Sacramento region to ensure a sustainable and prosperous future.

The desire of south San Joaquin Valley agricultural interests and Southern California water contractors to have an assured and massive source of water to satisfy their customers is manifest. Indeed, the demands of the State Water Contractors are so great that they completely unbalance California’s legislatively declared coequal goals of ecological restoration and preservation of the Delta and a reliable supply of water for the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

Of greatest value to the water contractors, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan would result in a 50-year “no surprises” permit issued by state and federal agencies to operate the new water export system. “No surprises” refers to an unusual provision of the law that would allow water contractors to essentially keep pumping a predetermined amount of Delta water, regardless of what new problems might be discovered down the road toward restoration of the Delta.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan’s current implementation scheme is complicated, but in the end, fundamental authority for implementing the conservation measures intended to restore the Delta is left in the hands of water contractors subject to little or no influence by federal and state agencies responsible for natural resources protection – and with virtually no input from those of us who depend on the Delta for our livelihood.

In essence, the plan could provide nearly free rein to water contractors to operate the new water export system and decide whether that system is actually working to restore the Delta.

Unlike the agreement we reached with the East Bay Municipal Utility District that served the interests of all parties, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and the proposed enormous water export tunnels supported by the water contractors would give assured benefits to those who would take water out of the Delta while leaving Northern California and Delta parties with only uncertainty and risk. This situation is neither fair nor reasonable.

To begin to develop a better approach, we must first question the desirability and necessity of the mammoth physical facilities being aggressively promoted by the water contractors, as well as the consequences they would bring to local families and the economy. At the same time, we need a meaningful analysis of alternative water conveyance options, something the Bay Delta Conservation Plan has failed to do.

Next, the State Water Resources Control Board must have a role in implementing or overseeing implementation of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, in part because that board is responsible for setting water quality standards and flow criteria in the Delta.

Further, the Delta water master must have a role in determining effectiveness of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, given that the Legislature has charged him with overseeing water diversions in the Delta, and for monitoring and enforcing the state water board’s orders and licenses that apply to conditions in the Delta. Finally, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan needs to include Delta representatives within the permit implementation structure so that Delta interests are represented when future adaptive management and project operation decisions are made.

If we take this approach, then we will be much closer to building the needed trust among the parties and achieving an outcome that incorporates the interests of all parties. That result would truly replicate the success of the Freeport Water Project.