Any water deal must give Delta protections the top priority

This week, California’s budget drama played out in full focus of media. Every television, radio, and print media outlet relayed and Twittered the details of the “Big 5” negotiations to Californians in real-time.

In contrast, there seems to be very little focus on issues surrounding water which is set to be the next big issue on the Legislative agenda.  Of immediate concern is how this process will work.  

There have been rumors of hearings over the summer recess and a water conference committee that will begin meeting soon, but since the legislation is still yet to be released to the public there are many who fear that this becomes a legislative rush job where a series of bills are gutted and amended in the last week of the session and fast-tracked to the Governor’s desk with little public scrutiny.

We hope that the Legislature will take the time to fully debate all of the pertinent water issues including, but not limited to, governance and management of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Region, Delta restoration and sustainability, regional and local water storage projects, groundwater storage, water cleanup and a statewide water conservation plan.  

There needs to be some honest answers about the impacts of potential projects on the Delta. The region is home to more than 500,000 Californians and is a key source for agriculture, fishing, hunting and other related economic activities; it is more than a debate on the economic value of corporate agriculture vs. Delta fish.  It is also the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas, but it is an ecosystem in danger of collapse. Any changes to the Delta could mean increased exposure to pollutants in the waters, increased costs for water and water treatment, reduced farm production, greater loss of commercial fishing and a higher risk of flooding.

A comprehensive plan must use independent science to identify how much water it needs to recover and those flows must be guaranteed and enforceable. As State Senator Lois Wolk has said, “The Delta isn’t just the state’s plumbing system and it shouldn’t be treated like an aquarium.”  

Finally, the issue of oversight needs to be a key component in this debate.  For example, the Department of Water Resources is already drilling for possible intake sites for a Peripheral Canal.  This comes as no surprise to any of us who have been part of the water debate in the Central Valley for years.  The Peripheral Canal has been a centerpiece of Governor Schwarzenegger’s water agenda and is now part of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) that is already on an accelerated schedule to have the studies and permits needed for construction done by next year, which just happens to be the last year of the Schwarzenegger Administration.

Any discussion on water this legislative session should include some accountability of the Schwarzenegger Administration on this issue.  For example, in the past six months cost estimates have soared from $5 billion to well over $10 billion, with some estimates putting the cost over $20 billion.  Who would pay for these costs?  Will Southern Californian’s pay an additional fee on their water bills without receiving any NEW water? What about the ongoing costs to maintain and operate it?  What about mitigation costs?  Ultimately, can California take on more new debt while it is in the midst of financial meltdown?  

And, although many of us have heard the cries about “putting people before fish”, let’s cut through the public relations spin and focus on the facts.  The Contra Costa Water District recently reported that a canal would not deliver ANY more water in dry years and even in normal years the Peripheral Canal would likely deliver less water than allowed because of adverse effects on the Sacramento River.  If flows are decreased in the Delta, the Delta becomes a salty sea, thereby contaminating water that many of us rely on for drinking, farming and fishing.

We see many opportunities to solve some of the water issues that have plagued the state for so long, but we are fearful what will not take place in this debate. Draft legislation under discussion reportedly proposes that a politically appointed council make the decision as to the adequacy and implementation of the BDCP, which INCLUDES the Peripheral Canal. There needs to be a system of checks and balances put in place and the Legislature must have the ultimate oversight on these key issues. If not, next year we will be left with a plan that allows the Peripheral Canal, which would rival the size of the Panama Canal, to slice through the Delta. This canal would be built to help the legacy of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but not for good public policy. The Peripheral Canal was a bad idea in 1982 and it is still bad idea today, the only difference is a higher price tag.

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