Schrag: California Water Policy, Dams, and the Delta More Important than the State Budget4 min read


But Schwarzenegger Traveling Around State On Has Only Made Bare Beginning on Water Policy

Last week, while Senate Republicans thumbed their noses at their governor and vetoed his budget, he was showing-and-telling new projects for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the 738,000-acre region of sloughs, wetlands and farms that many Californians don’t know exists.

But of the two, the latter, with its thorny tangle of related water issues is easily the more crucial to the state’s future.

Delta restoration work that the governor came to Twitchell Island to announce will be a bare start on a set of problems — shaky levees, endangered wildlife habitat, subsiding land, rising sea levels — that affect not only the Delta, but much of California’s water supply as well. The Delta is the hub of California’s water system.

Given the fragile state of the region, the governor’s attention is both welcome and long overdue. It’s also encouraging that the administration, in the words of Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, D-Davis, is now “engaged” in her effort to link flood risks to land-use planning in floodplains and to devolve some responsibility for flood damage to the local entities that authorize development there.

Yet even recognizing, as Department of Water Resources Director Lester Snow does, that the listed projects — restoring habitat, working on emergency plans in case of earthquake or floods, checking land subsidence — are just a beginning, the governor’s program does nothing to change the basic assumptions on which the state’s water policies and planning have long been based.

The key assumption is that there’s a direct relationship between growth of the population, a growing economy and increasing demand for water. But as Peter Gleick of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute points out, between 1975 and 2001, as California’s population increased by 60 percent and the state’s gross product rose 250 percent, total water consumption went down.

Forty years ago, according to Gleick and his colleagues, California consumed 2,000 gallons of water per person per day. It’s now half that. Yet the governor’s water plans still include building two new surface dams and a “conveyance” to take northern California water around the Delta for delivery to San Joaquin Valley farmers and Southern California homes.

Is that “conveyance” a revival of the Peripheral Canal plan that voters rejected 25 years ago? In his remarks last week, the governor alluded often enough to the “conveyance” that some environmentalists described the Delta restoration plan as little more than a down payment on the canal.

At the same time, even skeptics among the enviros now look on the canal idea a little more favorably than they once did. Moving more water around the Delta would reduce the use of the Delta pumps near Tracy that chew up smelt and other fish.

And as pointed out in an influential report from the Public Policy Institute of California, a canal might also, if managed properly, increase sea water concentrations in parts of the Delta and thereby reduce the spread of the invasive species that depend on fresh water.

The wild card is global warming — the rising sea level, the diminishing Sierra snowpack and drought. Director Snow believes that the shrinking snow level, meaning diminishing water storage in the mountains in the coming years, will itself generate the need for more flood control and downstream storage. Some could be pumped into underground aquifers, he allows, but often not at a rate that would capture sufficient runoff. Ergo, the need for more dams.

In fact, nobody really knows. The research, Gleick said, hasn’t been done. If the state’s existing dams were programmed for new climatic conditions by capturing more runoff during the wet season and saving less for the snowmelt that won’t come, the state might well manage without new surface storage.

And what about the assumptions about demand? Gleick is confident that with proper conservation techniques — more drip rather than flood irrigation, changes to higher-value crops that require less water, greater use of recycled water for gardens, parks and golf courses and a variety of conservation measures in household use — consumption could be reduced below what the Department of Water Resources projects. Exports from the Delta could thus be reduced.

Equally crucial is pricing. Who pays what share of the cost of capturing and delivering the water?

“Urbanites have long subsidized farmers,” said Tom Graff, the regional director of Environmental Defense, largely because of old federal contracts and outdated water rights that use “the taxpayers’ rather than the ratepayers’ money.

“There just isn’t enough water to continue to pass it around willy-nilly on the cheap, extract huge quantities of it both upstream and from the Delta, and expect a healthy, much less ‘restored’ ecosystem in the Delta.”

There’s a governor’s commission that’s supposed to report on the broader Delta issues by the end of the year. Much of California has always teetered on a narrow edge between flood and drought. Because climate change will make that edge even narrower, a lot of things urgently need rethinking.

Peter Schrag is former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee. This article is published with his permission. Many of the issues in this article are dealt with more extensively in his book, California: America’s High-Stakes Experiment.


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