A Different Environmental Perspective on Delta Bills, Part VI

Waters of the Merced (left) and San Joaquin Rivers blend at the confluence.
Waters of the Merced (left) and San Joaquin Rivers blend at the confluence.

This is the sixth in a series of postings on conflicting perspectives about the five Delta-related water bills now under discussion in Sacramento. Today we focus on the perspective of another segment of the environmental community: the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC).

I am not providing the opinions I’ll pass on over the next few days to validate them or my own perspective, but provide them to help you understand a few other perspectives. Each of them make some good points and miss the mark on others (in my opinion). I’ll let you decide which is which.

A Rare Opportunity for Change: California’s Five New Water Bills

Barry Nelson
Western Water Project Director, San Francisco
Blog | AboutPosted August 10, 2009 in Health and the Environment , Solving Global Warming

I have been working on California water issues for 25 years, and I’ve learned that major opportunities for transformative change doesn’t come around too often. Now is one of those times.

Late last week, the California Legislature released a package of five major water reform bills (find links to each bill here). Like many others who work on water issues, I’m still combing through them. But I can already sense that this is an opportunity to lift California out of our current water crisis and into an economically and environmentally sustainable future.

Why is this happening now? For starters, the state finally has a budget, and lawmakers are turning to other pressing issues. What is interesting is that water has now risen to the top two or three priorities of our legislature.

Three things are driving this new sense of urgency:

  1. California has had three consecutive dry years.
  2. Californians have a growing awareness that global warming is threatening our fragile water resources. Sea level rise threatens the Delta and the prospect of reduced runoff and more severe droughts is expected to reduce existing supplies.
  3. The San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem has cratered and our salmon fishery has been closed. We have clearly reached the limit on how much we can take from it–the largest single source of water in California.

Today, it’s a challenge to find anyone who believes that the course of California water policy over the past decade will be sustainable in the future. This emerging reality has prompted some high-level reaction. In September of 2006, the governor and the legislature commissioned the Delta Vision Task Force to write an ambitious new plan for the future of the Delta. That plan was completed and submitted to the legislature in December of 2007. In February of 2008, Governor Schwarzenegger also announced that he wants California to decrease per capita water use 20 percent by 2020.

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass and Senate President pro Tem Darrel Steinberg responded to these developments by convening a small legislative working group. After lengthy discussions within that group, Bass and Steinberg released a package of five heavily amended water bills. The package includes cost-effective measures for conserving and using California’s water more efficiently in order to achieve the governor’s water conservation goal. NRDC and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California are co-sponsoring this legislation, which is being carried by Assemblymembers Mike Feuer and Jared Huffman.

The package also takes the bold and much-needed step of proposing major reforms to the state’s water agencies. The Delta Vision Task Force concluded that “governance reform” is required to resolve issues in the Delta because the California’s current fractured and antiquated agencies are simply not up to the job. The bills would create a new Stewardship Council to manage the Delta, require the development of a comprehensive Delta plan to address ecosystem, water supply and flood management issues, establish a new Delta Conservancy to implement restoration projects, and strengthen the powers of the Delta Protection Commission to regulate inappropriate land use in the Delta.

As I study the bills more closely, I’ll have more detailed recommendations for improvements. But I welcome this opportunity for reform.

You see, we really can change the way water management works in California. I have seen it before, although not on such a sweeping scale. Back in 1992, Congress passed the Central Valley Project Improvement Act to make the project more responsive to the environmental and economic needs of the state.

The CVPIA changed the landscape pretty substantially. Prior to the law, the Bureau of Reclamation claimed it did not have the authority to protect endangered species. Now we have two new federal biological opinions requiring the CVP to protect Delta species listed under the ESA (see my colleague Doug Obegi’s post about this here). Today, no one at the Bureau questions the need to protect these vanishing species. The law was also designed to promote water transfers. Today, there is a thriving water transfer system among agricultural water agencies south of the Delta.

The package of five bills before the legislature has the potential to have an even bigger impact – but on a broader set of water issues.

AB 49, for example, could make water conservation strategies–things like smart irrigation controllers– business as usual. And all Californians would benefit from agency reform that allowed the resolution of difficult Delta issues.

These times don’t come around too often. I hope our lawmakers seize the moment.

One thought on “A Different Environmental Perspective on Delta Bills, Part VI

  1. To say that drought, global warming and salmon fisheries are the sole reasons behind the urgency with which water is being addressed is disingenuous and foolish. It is action by the NRDC and others to force the Delta into crisis via the listing of the Delta smelt, and the resulting restrictions on pumping and profound impact on agricultural communities and Southern California water bills, that has made the public aware of water issues in the state.

    That said, the NRDC seems now to better understand the complexity of the problem and the serious economic ramifications created by its Delta strategy. An alternative conveyance system that changes the Delta from a piping system to an ecosystem is needed, and I think even the NRDC is willing to accept this now.


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