Tuesday, November 15, 2011


By Patricia McBroom

            “Water in California isn’t a problem; it’s a code word for 100 problems.” 
            Nowhere is this observation, attributed to Journalist Carey McWilliams, more apparent than in the massive 2200-page environmental report from the Delta Stewardship Council (DSC). Everything you ever wanted to know about water in California is in this encyclopedic report.  Except solutions, which have yet to be determined.
            In the meantime, the Council’s Delta Plan (the subject of the environmental analysis) is clearly aimed at reducing reliance on northern water by building up self-sufficiency throughout the southland.
According to Martha Davis, senior policy advisor to the DSC, “We want to reduce reliance on the delta through an expansion of local and regional resources.”  Davis is the primary author of chapter 4 (“A More Reliable Water Supply for California”) of the Fifth Draft Delta Plan and a former leader of the Mono Lake Committee.
Delta slough near the Mokelumne River
in fall, when the water runs low. Credit: P. McBroom
            She said that, among other requirements, the Delta Plan calls for Southern California and Central Valley water districts – all those who import water from the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta –to describe how they would deal with a catastrophic three-year interruption in water supplies from the north.
            “What will you do?” she asked, if an earthquake puts the pumps off-line for up to 36 months.
            Southern water officials may not be able to answer that question yet, but by all accounts, agencies there are racing to develop their own local water resources. They have already cut dependency on imported water to an unexpected degree in the past few years.
      San Diego’s Water Authority has cut dependency on imported water by 48% since 1991 and is on course to reduce another 10% by 2020.
      The City of Los Angeles expects to reduce its purchase of imported water by 48% between 2010 and 2035. (slide 16)
      The City of Santa Monica has cut its imported water from 85% to one third and aims to be 100% self-sufficient by 2020.
           Other districts in the south are expected to achieve by 2020 a nearly 30 percent reduction in purchases from the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) – the wholesaler that supplies 26 southern water agencies with water from the Delta and the Colorado River.
            “MWD agencies are improving local water supplies as we speak.  All have been dramatically reduced over the few years and more is the works,” said Dennis Cushman, assistant general Manager of the San Diego County Water Authority.
San Diego County Water Authority map of future MWD sales,
showing decline from projections in 2000 (orange) and 2005 (green) 
             Cushman testified recently at an assembly hearing in Sacramento, presenting the chart at right showing a 28 percent reduction in purchases by 2020.  He said that between 2010 when the chart was made and today, another 300,000 acre feet of local capacity has been created in the south.
“We are driving that blue line ever lower,” he said. “The handwriting is on the wall.  Clearly, the future is going to be one in which (Southern California’s) agencies will be providing more and more of their water though local development and conservation.”
But there are limits to how much self reliance southern California can achieve.  “The absence of local water resources is, indeed, the basic weakness of the region – its eternal problem,” McWilliams wrote in his landmark book, “Southern California: An Island on the Land.”
Half the population of the state lives in Southern California and 50% of them rely on imported water to some significant degree.  How low the new water initiatives can drive that figure is still unknown.  In the Council’s emerging Delta Plan, slated for implementation next April, all agencies that rely on water from the delta will be required to submit management plans demonstrating their moves toward regional self-reliance.  At that point, it should become more clear what the real demand is now and in future years in southern California, as opposed to current pumping or business as usual.
Central Delta lawyer, Thomas Zuckerman, an
influential voice for regional self-reliance.Council's Delta Plan
Credit: Patricia McBroom
          Nevertheless, dependency on northern water cannot be broken without more storage in the south, said northern California water lawyer, Thomas Zuckerman, an advocate of regional water development.
Zuckerman, who lives in the delta and works for the Central Delta Water Agency, is one of the more influential voices in shaping state water policy. “He is one of the most eloquent spokesmen for the people of California,” said Davis of Zuckerman.  “Very thoughtful; very common sense.”
 Zuckerman’s ideas about where to store water for southern California, however, has not won any prizes from the Delta Stewardship Council. He wants the State to recover a huge natural lake in the Tulare region that once drained the Southern Sierras.
It may come as a shock to most Californians, but the Tulare basin, now a dry desert farmed with irrigation and imported water, was once the largest lake in the western U.S., flanked by wetlands.  The rivers were tamed in the 1920s in a legendary tale of manipulation and power on the part of a wealthy grower, as told in the recent book, “The King of California: J..G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire,” by Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman.
         If the lake were recovered – representing about 200,000 acres of farmland – it could hold the liquid equivalent of about three new reservoirs, and could charge the depleted underlying aquifer as well.  It’s a grand idea, supported not only by Zuckerman, but by the 200 organizations that make up the Environmental Water Caucus.
Tulare Lake once drained the southern Sierras via four rivers.
The lake basin is visible in this map.
        “To reduce reliance on the Delta and increase regional self-sufficiency in areas that use water exported from the Delta, the Tulare Lake could be reestablished with natural inflows from the Kern, Kings, Kaweah, and Tule rivers to store about 2.5 million acre-feet of water with minimal modifications of existing berms, as proposed by the San Joaquin Valley Leadership Forum,” wrote the environmental coalition in its alternative to the Delta Plan. (page C-76) “The Tulare Lake Basin Surface Storage Facility also could store water from the San Joaquin River, Friant Kern Canal, or California Aqueduct following construction of conveyance from Tulare Lake to these locations.”
The DSC environmental report dings this idea because of the loss of agricultural land.  One wonders what role is played by a handful of wealthy landowners in the San Joaquin Valley who have the State hogtied in its search for solutions to California’s water problems.
Another idea yet to be accepted by the DSC is for the state to take back ownership of the huge underground Kern Water Bank that was inexplicably turned over to private hands in the Monterey Agreement (See Spigot's March, 2011, blog).  The bank, controlled by Stewart Resnick’s Paramount Farms, is a critical storage area for imported State (delta) water. It sells water to the southland during droughts, as well as to other buyers willing to pay the price.  By this means, water is sold to the highest bidder, regardless of public value – not a good thing for the public interest.
Thus, the Environmental Water Caucus wants the Delta Plan to “direct the Department of Water Resources to regain public control of the Kern Water Bank and dedicate the water supply for the benefit all Californians.” (page 18)
That one move alone could go far toward providing the storage that 22 million urban users south of the delta need.
Neither Tulare Lake nor the Kern Water Bank involve vast new sums of money for reservoir construction.  But they do require that State planners confront wealthy, politically powerful San Joaquin growers, making the changes that would put California on the path to a sane and equitable water policy.
            Southern California is already doing its part, said Zuckerman.  “it’s the agricultural interests in the San Joaquin Valley that are the problem.”

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


By Patricia McBroom

      Levees in California’s Delta have a bad image problem. For several years now, they’ve been called “fragile,” “decrepit,” “crumbling,” and “doomed.” One news story after another warns of a catastrophic collapse from a future earthquake, alongside scenarios showing half the delta under water – quite possibly undrinkable salt water.
When levees fail, an inland sea prevails.
Credit: Patricia McBroom
            The cost of retrofitting these critical structures, meanwhile, is expressed in extravagant terms.  “Astronomical,” said Phil Isenberg, chair of the Delta Stewardship Council, about the cost of making the levees earthquake safe.  Isenberg made the comment most recently during a televised debate on delta dilemmas, but he’s said it before, as have others. The accepted wisdom among water wonks in California is that the levees cannot all be repaired sufficiently to save the state from disaster in the event of a “big one.” Some openly recommend that the state allow major portions of the delta to go underwater, to the consternation of delta residents who live and farm there.
“Why would anyone want to save them,” a state water official was heard to say the other day about the delta levees.  “Everyone knows they’re doomed.”
But what if this public narrative is wrong – or substantially wrong? What if the levees are in better shape than described and – most importantly – can be retrofitted to withstand a big shake?
            If this is the case – if most or all of the levees can be built up to withstand an earthquake, magnitude 7 on the Hayward Fault, for a reasonable amount of money – it would change fundamentally the calculus now driving decisions about major new water infrastructure in California.
Dr. Robert Pyke: Levees can resist earthquakes and
accommodate to sea level rise.
Credit: Patricia McBroom
            The time for that kind of reassessment has arrived with publication of the second draft of an economic sustainability plan for the delta, prepared by a team headed by Dr. Jeffrey Michael at the University of the Pacific.  Little attention has so far been paid to the draft plan’s new information on levees.
            That is a mistake.
            On page 64, in a chapter devoted to delta levees, the report states unequivocally, “This study concludes that the core Delta levees can be made robust under seismic loadings for a total of $1–2 billion.”  
           Written primarily by a civil engineer, Dr. Robert Pyke, who is an expert on earthquake preparedness for dams and levees, working under contract here with Sapper West Inc. in Sacramento, the levee analysis focuses in on 460 miles of agricultural levees that need upgrades, out of a total of some 1,000 delta levee miles.
            The cost of making them seismically resistant is cheap, compared to that of building a tunnel around the Delta ($12–20 billion), or elevating the highways and railways ($10 billion) or even retrofitting San Francisco’s water delivery system from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir ($4.6 billion), the report explains.
            Not only is retrofitting the levees less expensive than other alternatives, but a good bit of the money has already been allocated in bond issues passed by voters in prior years.  California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) has been dragging its heels in releasing the bond money, slowing the repair process in an unconscionable way, considering the risks.  Officials should have even less of an excuse now, in the light of this new information.
            The key to this claim is an enlarged levee that has such a thick landside shoulder that it looks almost flat from the field.  It’s crest is very wide – 50 feet compared to 16 feet now on some levees – and it has three feet of freeboard on the waterside at the high water mark of a 100-year flood.  It's wide crest means that it can easily be built higher to accommodate sea level rise.  On most days, the proposed levee would stand 10-15 feet above the water.  It’s landside berm would extend for some 140 feet from the crest.
Design of proposed earthquake resistant levee for Webb Tract, by Hultgren-Tillis Engineers, similar to that
proposed by Robert Pyke, in the Economic Sustainability Plan for the Delta
            “Making a levee robust enough to withstand earthquake shaking is a lot simpler than retrofitting or even seismically designing a new building or bridge,” said Pyke. “Basically it just takes a wider cross-section and more dirt.”
            He explained that in an earthquake, the big fat levee would deform a bit, but “it’s unlikely that even with high water that you would have a breach.” Asked in an interview how he can be sure without data that this kind of construction would resist a breach, Pyke replied, “The earthquake behavior of dams and levees is central to my education and experience.  I’ve been an expert witness in about 20 cases in California and as far as I know, I’ve never been on the losing side, because I don’t make things up.  I don’t overstate things.”
            In any case, he added with a smile, “It’s hard to see how the levee can fall over when it’s already lying down.”
            Pyke’s claim to expertise is backed up by other civil engineers he’s worked with on multiple projects in the state.  “He’s very, very good – one of the best,” said Ed Idriss, retired UC Davis civil engineering professor who worked with Pyke on a four-man team to evaluate potential ground motion from an earthquake for the new East Bay Bridge.
            “In terms of knowledge, I’d put Bob Pyke way up there.  He’s one of the most qualified to look at the effects of earthquakes on levees."  Idriss served on the Seismic Safety Peer Review Panel for the new bridge.
            If the new report is true, however, it raises a sticky question:  How did so many other experts on the delta get it wrong for so long?  The answer appears to lie in a controversial, but nonetheless influential, report put out in 2005 by the DWR.  Titled “Delta Risk Management Strategy,” , phase 1, the DRMS report made highly sophisticated calculations of levee failure in the event of an earthquake, estimating that up to 50 breaches could occur, flooding 20 islands and disrupting the state’s water supply to 23 million people.  Such estimates were not based on new data on actual levees, and little has been collected since.  In fact, there are gaping holes in bare facts, such as how much loose sand lies under existing structures.  No one knows.
            According to Pyke, lack of basic facts leads to inaccurate predictions. “The data was just not there to do such advanced calculations,” he said. “If you lack adequate data in a study like that, it leads to greater uncertainty.  Greater uncertainty pushes up the mean results.  It’s inescapable and very common.  I caution people not to rush into risk and probability analysis unless you have enough data to do it accurately.”
            Nevertheless, the DRMS study became the basis of more calculations and more analysis by scientists at UC Davis and UC Berkeley who expanded the earthquake predictions into a full-fledged story of levee collapse – still with no new information on how the levees are actually constructed.
            To make matters more complicated, there’s every reason to be concerned.  The hundreds of miles of levees that surround about 70 islands are highly variable, ranging from good to very poor.  They’ve been unevenly maintained; they are made from different materials; some would probably breach in an earthquake if not improved as soon as possible.       
Low freeboard; easily overtopped Delta levee
            “These levees are the poor stepchild – the one critical feature in California that is still being neglected (for seismic upgrades)” said Pyke, noting that Cal Trans and public utilities in the East Bay and San Francisco have spent billions to upgrade their infrastructure.  But levee repair is lagging, even though voters have twice voted for money to fix them.
            Many would argue that the delay can be traced to the state’s preoccupation with building a multi-billion dollar “isolated conveyance” (aka, peripheral canal). If the levees can be retrofitted for earthquakes, one good reason for building the canal would be lost, and wealthy interests in the state want the conveyance – actually a tunnel under the delta.
            Conspiracy or not, it’s clear there is a powerful constituency, highly influenced  by work done by UC Davis scientists at the Public Policy Institute of California, to write the levees off – or many of them.
            Based on this new report, ordered by the Delta Protection Commission, there should be a powerful constituency now to build them up.  At the very least, state planners need to reverse gears and not let them waste away.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


 By Patricia McBroom     

        Water in California belongs to the people as a whole, under the protection of the state.  It’s not supposed to be sold for profit. But that principle has been violated for years with little recourse for those in the water world who have watched it happen. Water has been sold to the highest bidder across the state often enough that many have come to view fresh water as a commodity – something they own and should make a profit on.
        The drive to privatization received a big boost in 1995 when state water officials got behind closed doors and signed a pact with local water agencies called the Monterey  Amendment.  Within days, a large underground aquifer in Kern County fell under the control of an equally large private argibusiness headed by billionaire Stewart Resnick of Los Angeles.  Since that time, water pumped from the delta rose by more than 50 percent, leading – most observers agree ­– to collapse of its fish populations.  Not all of the water went to the now privately-run Kern County Water Bank, but a lot of it did.
        Now a group of environmentalists has launched a three-pronged legal assault on the Monterey Amendment and violation of the public trust.  Two lawsuits are moving slowly through the courts, while the third – potentially the most revolutionary – will be heard for the first time this Friday in Superior Court. (CaseNo. 34-201080000653)
            This case, based on ancient laws called the Public Trust Doctrine, could completely change the game in the delta, shutting down the pumps, if all else fails.  It also could affect everyone who takes water from the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, which is to say most of us.
          “This is potentially a very constructive lawsuit, exactly the kind that needs to be brought,” said law professor Brian Gray, an expert on the public trust at UC Hastings.  At the same time, said Gray, it’s na├»ve to think that anybody who uses, diverts or discharges into delta waters could emerge unchanged from such a basic challenge to business as usual.
            One major effect of a public trust case would be to establish minimum standards for protection of the estuary – standards that do not yet exist. “The fragmented approach, said Gray, “is rife with conflict and it clearly hasn’t worked.”  If this case works as its proponents describe, “it will be a law that establishes an environmental baseline” for recovering the health of the delta.
Slough on the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta
            Sweeping, and fundamentally simple in outline, the new case reflects the intense frustration experienced by environmentalists who have been fighting for years to control over-pumping of water from this most valuable estuary, one of only a few of its kind in the world, and by far the largest source of water in California.
         “Some of us are getting older.  We don’t have a lot of time left,” said Michael Jackson, lead attorney for the plaintiffs.  Jackson lives in the rural northern California town of Quincy and is an officer of the first plaintiff, the California Water Impact Network (C-WIN).  He’s been at this kind of work since he was in his thirties.  He is now 65.  He said a major aim of the action is to broaden the legal base on which to fix the delta, from protection of a single species, like smelt, to the entire estuary.  As for shutting down the pumps if violations do not stop, it may not be the best outcome, but “we have to ask for it,” he said.
         Along with Jackson is the founder of C-WIN, Carolee Krieger, a grandmother of mixed Polynesian background whose adult life has been spent fighting big water interests.  Like Jackson, Krieger has been at it from the 1980s, launching one legal challenge after another from her three-acre estate in Santa Barbara.  She is in back of all three lawsuits.  But the public trust case touches her most deeply.
        “Water is the lifeblood of the planet. If our generation doesn’t do this, we won’t have a California we want to live in, for our kids and grandkids,” she said.
       A descendant of the Hawaiian monarch, Kamehameha I, through her mother’s line, Krieger grew up with the notion of Aina, a Hawaiian term which means “power of the land.” 
       “I have felt strongly about this since I was a child,” she said.  “Hawaiian culture has always seen itself as a steward of the land.  You can’t own the land; you can only take care of it.”
Krieger's "cathedral for chickens" in Montecito
        And take care of it, she does, in a tropical rainforest she has created in Montecito near Santa Barbara.  Under a canopy of oak and sycamore trees that provide shade while retaining moisture, Krieger has built an Hawaiian paradise of trees, plants, flowers and birds, interspersed with her own ceramic sculptures.  She maintains a chicken coop, which her husband calls a “cathedral for chickens.” The sides of the coop rise into the trees high above while peacocks preen under its arches. “You can have wonderful gardens without a lot of water,” said Krieger, who composts everything and feeds it back into the earth. 
       Krieger got her first big taste of power politics around water in 1991 when Santa Barbara County signed on to help pay for an extension from the new California Aqueduct next to Highway 5.  The 144-mile extension was supposed to supply water from the State Water Project to the central coast during dry periods.  The hitch was that water isn’t available from the delta during droughts and when its wet, Santa Barbara doesn’t need it and can’t store it.  Now the county water agencies are selling bonds to pay off the debt because they can’t raise enough money from water use.  “That’s like using your credit card to pay your mortgage,” said Krieger.
       She said Santa Barbara was suckered into voting for the project by lies about its cost and its reliable yield in terms of water.  “That was my first taste of the corruption that is possible around water,” she said. “I knew (this deal) was bad.  I just didn’t know how bad.”
C-WIN president Carolee Krieger
        Four years later, Krieger found herself sitting alone as a volunteer in a small out-of the way meeting while water agency officials first reported results of the Monterey Agreement, one of the biggest water deals in the state.   The deal was “publicly reported” in the tiny coastal town of Buellton, but  “I was the only member of the public there,” said Krieger.  She got the word out as quickly as she could and called a meeting in her carport.  “It only takes a few of us to make a difference.  I think of that all the time. I know I am doing the right thing with my life.”
            A fierce fighter in the water world, Krieger helped launch the first legal challenge to the Monterey Amendment in 1995; then, when the courts ruled for the plaintiffs in 2000, she walked out on what she considered an ineffective settlement and formed C-WIN to lodge two more suits.  But even that was not enough.  As pumping continued and accelerated through the decade, it looked as though the alliance between state water officials and big time water contractors in Kern County and Los Angeles could not be stopped.
            (A recent example of profit-making schemes would have water from the Kern River, a notoriously unreliable source, laundered through the Kern County Water Bank, thereby becoming a reliable source – based on state-supplied delta water.(See page 39 of "Saltworks Water Demand Supply Summary report) While such transfers are badly needed for helping southern California during a drought, in this case, the transfer would allow a developer to build 12,000 new homes on a salt flat in San Francisco Bay, a plan so unsustainable that they would have to build a sea wall to keep out rising ocean levels.)
         In 2005, water environmentalists in California watched in dismay as populations of one species of fish after another crashed.  Jackson and Krieger knew they had to find a better way to make a difference and began to construct  a public trust case for the delta, something Jackson had been thinking about for thirty years. 
         Basing a lawsuit on the ancient doctrine is rare.  Only a few have been won, but when they are successful, a public trust case transforms the relationship between private and public interests in regard to natural resources.  Such a ground-breaking decision was made by the California Supreme Court in 1983 to preserve Mono Lake near Yosemite. The Court ruled that the Los Angeles Water District had to stop taking water from the streams that fed Mono because the lake was being irreparably damaged by the diversions.  The current delta lawsuit is based on that decision.
        As it has evolved since Roman times, the doctrine preserves certain waterways for use by the public, setting up a fundamental right that cannot easily be restricted by private ownership.  Such rights include use of lakes, streams, tidal lands and other natural resources linked to water.
       In the current lawsuit, plaintiffs are suing California’s water agencies: the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) and the Department of Water Resources (DWR). In their complaint, they charge that water officials have violated the public trust by allowing so much water to be pumped out of the Delta that fish and wildlife, aesthetics, recreation and water quality are being damaged or destroyed. 
       They also say that state water agencies have ignored their own regulations in allowing temperature and salinity levels to rise in the Delta and have violated California’s Constitution requiring reasonable and beneficial use of water.
      If these failures are not corrected, the pumps must stop, according to the complaint by C-WIN, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA) and AquaAlliance.
        The case will open Friday with a request from the state that the case be dismissed because it doesn’t include the Federal Government as a defendant.  (The Feds run the Central Valley Project that also pumps water from the delta).  Asked what he will do if the case is dismissed by Superior Court Judge Michael Kenney, Jackson said, “We will just have to refile it.”
       That wouldn’t be the first time and maybe not the last.  Failing is not an option for these water warriors.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


By Patricia McBroom      

            A small miracle has occurred in the water world, and none too soon. California environmental groups – at bitter odds for more than a year – have come together in a coalition document to influence the state’s soon-to-be-released Delta water plan.
A first draft of that plan is due for release in mid February – two short weeks away. The coalition of 30 environmental organizations filed its recommendations only last week.   
Delta Stewardship Council
“Breathless” hardly describes this kind of pace.  A core group of water policy wonks are slogging daily through piles of data and mountains of opinions to create a rational water plan for the 21st century. Not least of these sloggers are the seven members of the Delta Stewardship Council (DSC) who’ve been in office less than a year and are now on the verge of making their first decisions about water.  Their plan will be complete, they say, by October of this year.
Thanks to new cooperation by the environmental community, the Council now has strong support for several very important goals. Among the most important of these is a call to restore adequate flow to the Delta estuary and reduce the State’s reliance on Delta water for human uses. 
In the past decade, high levels of upstream and downstream use of this water have crashed the ecosystem, caused the near extinction of several species of fish, reduced salmon runs to near zero, sent pollution levels soaring and caused all manner of scary ecological changes.  But the extent to which restricted flows in the Delta caused the collapse or can lead to its recovery is a source of intense disagreement. Water contractors and growers have pushed to retain the same high levels of use they had before the drought of the past three years, while Delta ecologists and supporters argue that use should be cut dramatically – up to 50 percent in some scenarios, from 6 million acre feet (MFA) per year of exported water to roughly 3 million.
30 Environmental Groups joined Coalition
The coalition did not put a figure on recommended cuts.  But in asking that flow standards be guided by the best science for restoring the ecology, their recommendations add up to the same thing – big reductions in water use from the Delta, enough to choke a passel of water contractors.
“We can’t continue the status quo,” said William Jennings of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.  “We can’t take (so much) Delta water and turn the rest into a sewer and expect anything but disaster.”  Jennings, who presented the Coalition’s recommendations to the Council at a public meeting in Stockton last week, added, “We want reduced reliance on the Delta.”
              That is also what California law requires, said the Bay Institute’s Gary Bobker, in another Council meeting last week.  Legislative mandate calls for reduced reliance on the Delta, program director Bobker said.  “We are talking about how much reduction, not whether.”
              So, can California exporters get along with half as much as much water from the Delta as they took, say, in 2005?  Can exports to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California, for example, be cut to 3 million acre feet per year?
             The answer seems to be a surprising “yes” – in spite of an expected population growth in California of another 20 million people by 2050.
              It may come as a shock to people in the north, but the residents of southern California do not need any more water from the Delta than they have now. Roger Patterson of the Metropolitan Water District told a national science meeting in December that the district plans to supply its future water needs through regional self-sufficiency.   Even now, the whole of southern California takes only 20 percent of the exported water; the rest is used by San Joaquin agriculture, followed by Bay Area cities. Kern county alone uses as much water as the urban South.
              Moreover, the amount of water that can be saved through conservation and recycling is immense.  A new space age recycling plant in Orange County turns out 70 million clean gallons from waste water per day, pumping it into the ground for future use.   The plant cost $480 million and will supply 600,000 residents.
           “Coastal people use 4 million acre feet every year and throw it away.  That’s enough for 20 million people,” said Jonas Minton of the Planning and Conservation League.  “I think we can recapture half of it by 2030,” he said.
           “There is a significant body of evidence showing us that with conservation, recycling, groundwater recharge and rain capture, we can more than meet the needs of urban users in southern California and the Bay Area who receive water from the Delta,” said Minton.
            Backing up such claims is the experience of the Contra Costa Water District where water use has declined by 30 percent since the late 1980s, even while population increased by 60 percent.  Other urban water districts, including Southern California’s Metropolitan, are widely acknowledged for doing a good job of conservation.  The point seems to be that – although urban users can do more – population growth in California is not driving a crisis over water.
            That leaves agriculture, where demand comes to rest in an unappetizing mix of inefficient irrigation practices, government concessions to wealthy growers and profiteering on the part of some water rights holders.
            The story is complex.  But if current state planners can uphold the public trust on agricultural inefficiency and profiteering, the payoffs in saved water are enormous – calculated in the millions of acre feet. (One million acre feet is a huge amount of water, enough to satisfy 6.7 million households.)
             The environmental coalition has called for the DSC to establish a statewide target for agriculture that would save 1 MFA by 2020 and 2.5 MFA by 2030 using more efficient practices, like drip irrigation instead of flooding the fields.  The State Legislature didn’t have the guts to impose conservation targets on agriculture when it passed major new laws at the end of 2009.  Perhaps the Delta planners will. 
            Newly-appointed Delta Watermaster, Craig Wilson, has made a good start by placing agricultural inefficiency in the context of the constitutional “reasonable use” doctrine.  That means that wasting water in the fields equals a violation of the public trust, because California’s Constitution mandates that water resources be used reasonably and beneficially. 
             There were howls of protest from farmers when Wilson made his report to the State Water Resources Control Board in January, prompting DSC chair Phil Isenberg to remark, “They (protesters) don’t seem to recognize that the doctrine of reasonable use is constitutional.  That astounds me.  The Constitution is unmistakable on this.”  
             Even more politically unpalatable (and probably less likely to occur) is another environmental recommendation – that the state remove 380,000 acres of drainage- impaired lands from agriculture and turn the property into solar farms.  It’s a grand idea.  But it would take the lion’s share of Westlands Water District out of agriculture, and there’s no indication that these politically connected, wealthy growers are ready to trade almonds for electrons.
            Westlands also uses roughly a million acre feet per year, but in these west San Joaquin lands alongside Interstate 5, the water mobilizes natural deposits of selenium in the soil which lies over an impermeable layer of clay, causing toxic buildup in the soil with runoff into the San Joaquin River.  Most environmentalists believe the land should never have been irrigated (State and Federal officials once agreed on that point) and continue to push for having it removed.
L-R, Council members Hank Nordhoff, Randy Fiorini,
and chairman Phil Isenberg
               One can dream:  clean energy instead of dirty water.  Sounds like a winner for the public interest.
             Finally the environmental coalition called for a broadened evaluation of a peripheral canal around the delta, to include many different sizes, including the alternative of having no peripheral canal at all.  No recommendations on size, though. That is currently one of the most contentious issues in California’s water wars.
             How to balance the different elements of the public interest is the urgent task facing the Delta Stewardship Council this spring.  The 2009 legislation requires that ecological needs and delivery of water for human needs be co-equal – one no more important than the other.  Whoever decides how to balance competing interests will need the help of the water gods, not to mention a coat of political armor.  The environmentalists declined to make such a balance last week, passing the decision to the DSC.  But then, Isenberg passed it back, asking the Bay Institute to do a public trust balancing paper – quickly. 
             Bobker agreed – reluctantly.