Split over the Delta: Plan is our best hope to avert a dry future

On Nov. 4, the Legislature passed the most important water reform legislation in a quarter century. California has never been more in need of this historic change of direction. The solutions in this package can best be evaluated in the context of the serious water-related challenges facing the state.

The delta alone presents a Gordian knot of interconnected problems. Record diversions in recent years have pushed the most important estuary on the West Coast over the brink. Salmon populations have plummeted and forced the closure of the state's salmon fishery for two years running. Without prompt action, this quarter-billion-dollar industry could be lost forever. A growing list of delta fish species are in danger of vanishing. Without adequate fresh water and restored habitat, the damage could soon be irreversible.

The second major challenge is the prediction that a catastrophic failure is likely in the aging system of 1,100 miles of levees -- with dire potential consequences for delta farms and communities, water supplies, the state's economy and natural resources.

Statewide, our water supply faces an uncertain future. Simply put, we are out of new rivers to tap. In addition, climate change is expected to reduce water supplies as the state becomes drier. The traditional approach to providing more water -- pumping more from the delta and other rivers -- will not work.

In the face of these challenges, agencies and the Legislature have been gridlocked for years. CalFED, the previous state and federal effort to resolve these issues, is largely seen as a failure. In the delta, agencies have been playing a risky game of "blind men and the elephant." Dozens of agencies with separate responsibility for water supply, ecosystem protection, land- use and flood management have been unable to develop a coherent approach to these linked problems.

Without real solutions, California's water wars have boiled over during the past three dry years. Today, the federal courts are increasingly the water managers of last resort. There are proposals in Congress to block legal protections for the delta, which, if successful, could be the last straw for delta fisheries and the salmon industry. The media wars have also heated up -- with increasingly confrontational and often inaccurate stories.

Some have suggested that these problems are not solvable. In this context, the three major water reform bills provide a comprehensive package of workable solutions.

The "governance" bill creates a new Delta Stewardship Council, with the responsibility to coordinate existing agency efforts into a united strategy. Future land-use decisions should incorporate flood risks; ecosystem restoration should be coordinated with expanded floodways and strengthened levees; and water supply planning should ensure the water the delta needs. The council also will work to protect the delta's legacy towns and agricultural heritage. A new Delta Conservancy will work with landowners to restore delta habitat. Most importantly, the bill includes stronger environmental protections.

Far from greasing the skids for an old-fashioned peripheral canal, as some have suggested, the bill requires a comprehensive analysis of alternatives to a canal. It requires the State Water Board to determine how much water is needed to restore the delta's health. It requires the existing flawed planning process, which has focused primarily on a traditional canal, to meet the state's highest standard for protecting natural resources. The bill requires water exporters to pay for any new conveyance solution. Given that a canal could cost more than $10 billion, this provides real pressure to consider alternative approaches. Finally, for the first time, the bill includes a state policy of reducing reliance on the delta -- a dramatic change of direction.

The companion conservation bill shows how we can meet water needs while reducing reliance on the delta. That bill will reduce per capita water use 20 percent by 2020 by creating targets tailored for different communities and allowing the design of programs to respond to local conditions. Agricultural water agencies are required to prepare conservation plans, to measure the water they deliver and to charge farmers based on the volume of water they use.

Water conservation is the most important part of a virtual river of new water supplies -- also including water recycling, groundwater management and capturing urban storm water. These tools can provide more water than we have ever pumped from the delta. This is where the water will come from to meet our future needs, to restore the delta and to make our water supplies and economy less vulnerable to climate change.

Finally, the groundwater bill creates a statewide system of groundwater elevation reporting. The bill does not require statewide groundwater management, reporting of pumping or quality monitoring. Nevertheless, it is an important step toward better management in a state that still has Wild West groundwater rules. You can't manage what you don't measure.

Together, these bills represent a comprehensive approach to the delta and water supply. These bills received support from many environmental groups, water agencies and business leaders. Delta communities, however, opposed the package. Those communities are understandably concerned about the current direction of state planning in the delta.

These bills are designed to reform those efforts. Ultimately, plans for the delta will succeed only with the cooperation of local residents. This will be a central challenge in implementation. There are many opportunities to meet the needs of delta communities -- opportunities that have been overlooked for years.

These bills are not perfect. They include dozens of separate compromises. We would have preferred stronger requirements for agricultural water conservation, for groundwater reporting and more enforcement authority to go after illegal diversions. However, this package includes real solutions -- not just the preparation of a plan.

Water is the lifeblood of the delta, our salmon fishery and the state's farms and cities. There is no guarantee that these reform bills will succeed. However, they point the state in the right direction. Beyond the details, after years of conflict, this package offers hope that California's competing water warriors might now climb out of their trenches and begin to work together.

Nelson is a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council.