Trouble in the Delta

A water peace effort in California falls apart at the worst possible moment

  • Scientists are trying to understand why fish populations in the San Francisco Bay-Delta are crashing. Meanwhile, water agencies are pressing forward with a plan to pump even more water from the Delta at the Banks Pumping Plant, shown here

    California Department of Water Resources

In California, water wars can be so fierce they make Attila the Hun look saintly. The San Francisco Bay-Delta has been the site of some of the state’s worst battles. A little more than a decade ago, however, the search for an end to the constant fighting united the three main camps: Southern California cities, Central Valley farmers and the state’s increasingly powerful environmental advocates.

A 1994 peace treaty led to the creation of CALFED, an ambitious state, federal and locally funded program that promised to ensure reliable water supplies for 23 million people and the Central Valley’s farms while restoring the Delta’s ecosystem (HCN, 9/30/02: Delta Blues). The program was overseen by the 24-member Bay-Delta Authority, a sort of council meant to bring the warring tribes together under one tent.

Twelve years on, however, the truce is more precarious than ever. CALFED has long been dogged by questions about its effectiveness, and now the tent may be coming down around the tribes — precisely when the Delta most needs help.

CALFED has chalked up some successes, including increases in chinook salmon and steelhead trout runs. But the program’s failings were cast into stark relief last year with the news that populations of Delta smelt — a federally protected fish that provides an important indicator of the Delta’s ecological health — had fallen to their lowest levels ever (HCN, 5/30/05: A massive restoration program may have nothing left to save).

In June, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, R, ordered a review of the program by the Little Hoover Commission, a state government-oversight body. The commission was still completing its work in October when the state Court of Appeals ruled, in one of several lawsuits challenging water management in the Delta, that the legal foundation underlying the entire CALFED program did not adequately protect the environment. When the Little Hoover Commission released its report the following month, it recommended replacing the Bay-Delta Authority "with a governance structure that is better capable of managing a complex program and resolving conflicts."

On Dec. 20, the Bay-Delta Authority’s board voted to disband, and now the future is uncertain. CALFED staffers are in the midst of drawing up a 10-year restructuring plan. For the time being, the disbanded Authority is operating as the California Water Commission; state Assemblywoman Lois Wolk will likely introduce a bill this year to consolidate authority over CALFED under the state resources secretary.

The Delta adrift?

It is not a good time for the Bay-Delta to be without a guardian, because the Delta itself may be in the throes of death. "Exports" of water to farms, and to cities such as Los Angeles and San Diego, more than 400 miles to the south, are at an all-time high, and there’s wide suspicion that they are causing water-quality declines that are killing the Delta smelt. Scientists are also concerned about other critical species in the food chain, including copepods, threadfin shad and striped bass — all of which are declining.

And the situation may soon get worse. The state’s Department of Water Resources is holding hearings on a program that would further increase water pumping from the Delta. "When all of the bureaucratic smoke (surrounding CALFED) is swept aside," says Jonas Minton, a water advisor to the Planning and Conservation League and the former deputy director of the state water resources department, "Southern California water districts and corporate agriculture are still pulling the levers to actually increase exports from the Delta."

Even as the state contemplates pumping more water, environmental groups are suggesting that exports should actually be reduced to improve water quality. But the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies some 18 million people in Los Angeles and San Diego, is intent on protecting its access to the Delta after being forced to stop using excess Colorado River water three years ago (HCN, 10/27/03: California strikes a water truce). Metropolitan Vice President Tim Quinn says that environmental groups aren’t doing much to keep the CALFED peace process moving forward: "We’re not having a lot of success avoiding the courtroom these days. The environmental community seems to be back on a strategy of trying to address these problems through adversarial processes."

Alternative to war

In spite of all its imperfections, resuscitating CALFED could help prevent a devolution into all-out warfare. It’s clear, however, that environmental groups will sit on their hatchets and stay under the tent only if water users re-commit to the program’s environmental protections.

In particular, nonprofit groups such as Environmental Defense say it’s important for farms and cities to begin underwriting a part of CALFED known as the Environmental Water Account. The account buys water and releases it through the Delta at key times to replace water pumped out for cities and farms. By guaranteeing water for endangered fish when they need it most, it protects water users from being forced to shut down their pumps to comply with the Endangered Species Act.

According to a recent Environmental Defense report called Finding the Water, however, inadequate funding has left the account with much less water than it needs. That’s largely because CALFED received far less of the state and federal funding than originally anticipated, and the bond revenues that funded environmental protection measures are now running out.

CALFED is now scrambling to assemble a financing strategy for the future. Although it held meetings with water users in the fall to discuss a "user pays" program, it is now looking primarily to federal funding and a new $22.5 billion bond that Gov. Schwarzenegger hopes to put before voters in June. But Environmental Defense’s Ann Hayden argues that water users should finally step up to pay for programs that help ensure reliable access to water: "The Environmental Water Account has benefited water users greatly," she says. "They should pay for the bulk of this program."

The writer is HCN’s associate editor.

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