Split Over the Delta: This pact falls short on protecting nature

Legislative supporters and some environmental groups hail the controversial package of delta water policy bills and budget- busting $11 billion bond as "ambitious water reform" and a "huge winner for the environment." Other environmental groups and those who opposed the complex water policy legislation challenge the reforms as being too weak to be effective and say that the bills are rife with environmental loopholes and pork-barrel funding.

Supporters claimed that the package passed earlier this month wasn't about building the costly and destructive peripheral canal, a controversial facility originally rejected by voters in 1982. Apparently, someone forgot to tell that to Gov. Schwarzenegger. The day after the package passed, he vowed "to build a canal around the delta."

Friends of the River, the Sacramento-based statewide river conservation organization, believes that approval and construction of a large canal will all but dry up the delta by diverting freshwater flows from the Sacramento River around the estuary for export south to Central Valley agribusiness and Southern California urban developers. We're concerned about the health of the estuary, and delta farmers and communities are concerned that they will lose fresh water that supports a farm economy worth $2 billion annually.

The package establishes the Delta Stewardship Council with a mandate to develop an overall "delta plan." But the council will not be accountable to voters, and it will consider conveyance options for the delta ("conveyance" is the new political euphemism for the peripheral canal). Since the majority of the council is appointed by Schwarzenegger, it seems likely the council will support the canal.

Loopholes and vague language in the policy package substantially watered down its few good provisions. Although the package promises to reduce reliance on the delta to meet California's future water supplies, it fails to explicitly require reducing current delta water diversions, which have degraded the estuary's ecosystem and pushed its fisheries to the brink of extinction.

The package directs the State Water Board to determine how much water should remain in the delta in order to restore and maintain its ecological health and meet water quality standards. Unfortunately, it doesn't necessarily require actual adoption of standards that would put limits on delta water exports. Whether the board will have the backbone to recommend and adopt effective delta flow standards remains to be seen.

Another positive-sounding but incomplete provision in the package proposes to reduce per capita urban and residential consumption of water by 20 percent. Conservation efforts by agriculture, which consumes 80 percent of the developed water in the state, will remain largely voluntary.

Perhaps the greatest failure of the policy legislation is in regard to groundwater, the largest single source of water consumed in the state. California is one of the few states that does not regulate groundwater, which has led to groundwater overdrafts in many regions. The original legislative package took a timid step toward regulation by requiring groundwater monitoring. But in the final bill, monitoring is largely voluntary.

The most disturbing outcome was passage of the $11 billion water bond, which will likely be placed on the November 2010 ballot for voter approval. Although the bond provides needed funding for regional water conservation, water recycling, reclamation of polluted groundwater and ecosystem restoration programs, it also provides billions of dollars to build new dams and expand existing dams that directly threaten many California rivers. With the water bond, the Legislature is relieving water districts of the financial responsibility for conserving and developing water supplies and foisting it off to the taxpayers.

The state treasurer and the Legislative Analyst's Office have warned that the state can no longer afford to borrow money by selling more general obligation bonds. Existing bonds will suck up 10 percent of the state's general fund revenues in the next few years, necessitating more reductions in programs that have already been cut to the bone. Selling billions more in bonds to fund water projects and programs -- many of which should and could be funded by locals who directly benefit from the projects -- will only make California's dismal financial situation worse.

Early in the Legislature's special session, it seemed that fiscal sanity would reign as numerous members indicated opposition to the bond. But the political tide turned when the policy bills were approved, prompting the need for a funding mechanism.

The debate over the policy package and water bond split the environmental community. Organizations that fought furiously against passage of the delta policy and water bond package include Friends of the River, Restore the Delta, Planning and Conservation League, Sierra Club California, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Clean Water Action, Environmental Justice Water Coalition, delta farmers and water districts, and many others. Concerned about the state's finances, several public employee unions also rallied against the water bond. Many members of this loose coalition are considering organizing a "No on the Water Bond" committee.

Passage of the policy package will require renewed vigilance in several major quasi-public and public planning efforts in the next few months. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Westlands Water District in the Central Valley will soon release for public review their proposed peripheral canal as part of a draft Bay-Delta Conservation Plan. Early next year, Schwarzenegger will appoint the Delta Stewardship Council and the council will initiate the overall delta plan process required by the legislation.

Also in 2010, federal and state agencies will roll out environmental studies for at least two of the dam projects to be funded by the bond -- the Sites Offstream Storage Reservoir in the Sacramento Valley and the Temperance Flat Dam on the San Joaquin River. The studies will give the public an opportunity to review and comment on the environmental impact of these facilities and hopefully answer the questions of how much water they are supposed to produce, at what cost, and who (if anyone) will pay for the supposed nonpublic benefits.

So there will be plenty to do for California's veteran water warriors in the next 14 months. The Legislature's approval of the delta water policy and bond package was hardly an end to California's chronic water wars. They've clearly just begun.

Evans is conservation director of Friends of the River.