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.