Problems many, solutions few in long-awaited Delta report

A newly released plan, the first step in protecting and exploiting the water resources within the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, paints a bleak picture of the heart of California’s water system.

The long-awaited study was issued by the Delta Stewardship Council, a state agency charged with adopting an official policy for the next nine decades targeting the environmentally endangered Delta and the Suisun Marsh.  

The DSC succeeds CalFed, the Bay-Delta Program, when the Senate passed a bill creating the new state agency to manage the Delta in 2009.

The DSC plan echoes familiar concerns that the Delta’s water supply is limited and erratic.

“California state government cannot guarantee adequate rain or snow every year to provide reliable Delta watershed water supplies to meet all existing and projected water demands at affordable prices,” notes the plan.

More discouraging is the study’s findings that even “with substantial ecosystem restoration efforts, some native species may not survive.” The draft also raised concerns over the absence of an emergency response plan for the Delta, considering it is at high risk for a natural disaster.

But while the council’s draft plan addresses a number of ominous threats nagging the Delta, it doesn’t actually provide much in the way of a plan for fixing the problems.   

“This first draft is really just to start the conversation,” Eric Alvarez, spokesman for the DSC, said.

In doing so, the draft does build a bridge between the polarized viewpoints of Delta water politics through what it calls co-equal goals.

“The fundamental purpose of the Delta Plan is to achieve the coequal goals. The coequal goals are defined in law as ‘the two goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem,'” according to the DSC report.

Previously, water wonks went neck-and-neck over the two divergent goals of preservation and use.

The former goal has called for restoration and environmental protection. The latter goal has fought for access to the Delta’s water supply to carry it through a canal or some other kind of conveyance that would make water more available to the Central Valley and  Southern California.

The draft plan does not discuss the possible construction of a Delta conveyance.

The DSC “is not a construction company,” noted Alvarez, and the group will not be making any recommendations on whether or not a Delta conveyance is a good idea. In the early 1980s, the Legislature approved and Gov. Brown signed into law authorization for a Peripheral Canal, which would have taken excess water from the north and moved it south along the edge of the Delta. Voters rejected it in a 1982 referendum.

The DSC’s draft plan incorporates the Bay-Area Conservation Plan as the branch in charge of addressing the conversation on conveyance. Even at that, Alvarez noted, the Council is still a long way from taking any action.  

“The Council will start with the findings and then evolve into action. It’s too early in the process. We’re still looking at what’s wrong,” said Alvarez.   

And there is plenty to look at.

The Delta is a fundamental topic in water politics, and for good reason – it’s an epicenter for the state’s entire water delivery infrastructure.

According to the DSC, it provides water to 96 percent of Californians and carries more than 900 miles of power lines and natural gas pipelines on and around its banks.

Over 500,000 acres of California’s world-renowned agricultural products grow near the Delta while its waters and marshes house over 253 different species of plants and wildlife, all of which qualify for some form of regulated protection.  

There’s more: The Delta rests near a handful of seismic fault lines with a two-thirds chance of an earthquake, and it has been declared “inherently flood prone” by state law.

But while the draft acknowledges the Delta’s dangers as “immediate,” the DSC has a long process ahead before possible solutions can even begin to take form.

The first draft plan is just that: a draft. The 52-page document was formed by the DSC’s staff and still has yet to be reviewed, spell-checked, or fact-checked by the DSC.

Disclaimers make up the majority of the first page, even apologizing for patchy grammar, and entire sections of the report, including the executive summary, are missing or incomplete.

After the DSC meets later this month to discuss the draft in a six-hour meeting, a second draft will be released in March. The process then repeats itself every month until November, when the first final draft is slated for release. But once that draft is printed it’s headed straight for the Office of Administrative Law before it is vetted and eventually put into statute. And that’s just the development of a plan.

But despite the daunting process of merely sketching out changes to come, DSC spokesman Alvarez said the DSC has a proactive edge over its predecessor, CALFED, because the DSC has the ability to make laws.

For years, critics of Cal-Fed complained that the agency talked much and did little.

“We actually have the ability to create a statute. This thing’s actually gonna be a law,” Alvarez said.

Contact Jennifer Chaussee at

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