Advisory panel issues long-awaited report on water

Assuring California of an adequate water supply and protecting the ecologically fragile river delta east of San Francisco are of equal importance, and the state “must secure the future of both,” an advisory group appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared in a new report. The panel says the state should obtain enough information by next summer to decide whether to build a canal to move water around the edge of the sensitive delta — a proposal that voters rejected 25 years ago.

“A process should be launched to urgently assemble available information (including expert judgment where needed) on design features, cost, and performance of alternative conveyance options against specified criteria to allow selection of a preferred alternative by June 2008,” said the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force report. “Conveyance” is a term used within the government that refers to moving water through or around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Placing environmental and water supply issues on an equal footing — the group’s top recommendation — is likely to anger two key interests in the fight over water: the environmentalists who demand delta protections and the farmers who demand water for their crops.

But a “failure to protect the estuary could result in an inland salt sea or the collapse of an estuarine ecosystem with loss of protected and desired species. The consequences for statewide water supply would be unacceptable. The loss of a reliable supply of water from the delta could lead to substantial economic hardships because large fractions of the state’s water supply must come from the delta watershed. Some of this water must be exported from the delta to other parts of the state,” the report said. The group was headed by lobbyist Phil Isenberg, a former state Assembly member and mayor of Sacramento. During his time in the Legislature, Isenberg headed the Judiciary Committee and also was recognized as a specialist on water.

The report notes that “new facilities for conveyance and storage, and better linkage between the two, are needed to better manage California’s water resources, for both the estuary and exports,” and adds that “existing delta water conveyance systems are inadequate and must be improved.

“Similarly, existing groundwater and surface water storage capacity is inadequate and must be improved. Linking improvements in these two areas is critical to California’s water future.”

“One way to manage water exports is to create isolated facilities that take water around the delta. Perhaps this would enhance the reliability of exports, create fewer problems for selected species, be less exposed to seismic risk, and result in higher water quality.

But at this point, there is not sufficient, specific information to guarantee these outcomes,” the report noted.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is the nexus of rivers that include snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada. Much of the state’s drinking water passes through the delta, which is crisscrossed by 19th century levees. The delta has long been a bottleneck in getting water from the rain-rich north to the central and southern parts of the state, which are largely arid. The delta also has fish species that have been harmed by the state and federal pumping of water from the delta to the California Aqueduct.
Among the group’s other recommendations:

• The state should take steps to increase the visibility of the delta as a unique and valued area. This would help create a statewide public identity for the delta and encourage expanded tourism and recreational investment.

• It can and should be reconstituted to function more fully as an estuary, to better support native species and recreational fishing, and, importantly, to be resilient to future change in ways that achieve desired goals. Efforts must also be made to reduce the number of invasive species and to monitor and manage the impacts of these species.

• Californians should change their water usage. “There is no unlimited supply of cheap water in California. Greater conservation, increased regional self-sufficiency in water supplies, more conjunctive uses, integrated water system management and demand management, and new technologies will all be essential.”

• The foundation for policymaking about California water resources must be the long-standing constitutional principles of “reasonable use” and “public trust;” these principles are particularly important and applicable to the delta. The “reasonable use doctrine,” a part of California’s Constitution and water rights doctrine for nearly a century, requires that all uses of water in the state be reasonable.

• The goals of conservation, efficiency and sustainable use must drive California water policies. “We must start by requiring and investing in water use efficiency by all users throughout the state. The fastest ways to address the growing demands for water are to conserve and to increase the efficiency of the water supply system. These efforts can start almost immediately. Vigorous conservation efforts are essential as far as we can see into the future.”

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