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A Delta water crisis exit strategy

It’s not surprising how white-hot emotions can get, how dirty the politics can become, or how high the stakes will be over water battles, for at their core these are fights about survival. There is no life without water.

So hold on tight because a revamp of our state’s major water system, the Delta, is in the works, quite likely in time for a 2008 statewide vote. To get there, the next several months must be filled with respectful but intense negotiation, and not descend into rhetorical bombast. If the deliberations currently underway by Governor Schwarzenegger’s Delta Vision Task Force and Stakeholders Group (the groups assigned with finding a solution to the state’s Delta water woes) do fall apart–and the farmers, environmentalists, southern and northern California water districts run back to their ramparts–the result will be paralysis, which is the worst result of all.

Almost everyone agrees that the Delta status-quo is unacceptable. Why? From an environmental perspective the Delta ecosystem is in freefall. Food-chain foundation species like phytoplankton, zooplankton being gobbled up by non-native clams and the Delta smelt are vanishing. This matters profoundly because the Delta ecosystem is the largest estuary in North America, a key stop for migratory birds on the Pacific flyway and a home or passageway for many endangered fish. In terms of water supply, 23 million Californians from San Jose to Los Angeles turn on the kitchen sink or shower and Delta water pours out.

Likewise a vast amount of California crops are grown with Delta water. Yet, the entire system will stop functioning under three imminent threats: global-warming-induced sea-level rise (already almost a foot higher at the Golden Gate Bridge), a strong earthquake in or near the Delta (75 percent chance in the next 25 years according to the Department of Water Resources), or a catastrophic flood (66 percent chance in next 50 years according to the University of California). All three threats could breach the 1,345-mile levee system, sucking a big saltwater “gulp” from San Francisco Bay over the region’s low-lying islands, farms and residents. For at least a year or two, only salt water could flow into the California Aqueduct–and to be stark, yet accurate, essentially ending civilization as we know it in California.

That’s why the Bay Area Council has pulled together Northern California business and environmental groups, and water agencies to work with the Southern California Water Committee, Delta, agriculture and other stakeholders to share ideas, build trust and lay the groundwork for a significant alliance on a Delta solution.

The work has resulted in promising options that could improve both Delta ecology and water supply reliability. Varying the Delta geometry, salinity and flow to favor native fish over invasive clams, coupled with restoration activities, can likely improve habitat. As for drinking and irrigating water, three long-term water diversions strategies are being considered: continuing to deliver water through the Delta; a peripheral canal bypassing the Delta; or a compromise “dual conveyance” with water flowing both through the Delta and a diversion canal.

Also on the table, are “water banking” options such as floodplain, ground-water and surface storage solutions to “bank” water from wet springs to dry summers. Finally, any long-term strategy should also include demand reduction through more conservation and perhaps retirement of low-yield croplands.

Although some have loudly jumped aboard one option or another, it is still a few months premature to declare absolute allegiance. The final data is not yet in. While mountains of studies have been generated on the Delta, the treasure trove of scientific data has astonishingly never been compiled into a framework that would show the actual impacts of each of the major options. We call upon the state to finance an emergency compilation of the data that will then allow us to know the costs, risks and benefits of each of the options. Only then, with the current spirit of collaboration uncommon to California water policy, can we make an honest, common-sense, and informed series of decisions about what to do.

The only other option is a war of attrition and none of us can afford that anymore.


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