The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. (Photo: brothergrimm / flickr)
An area of land known simply in California as "the Delta" has undergone a rapid decline and this long-term tragedy has spurred state legislators and the governor to take significant measures to save the largest estuary on the Pacific Coast.
California's Delta is circumscribed by the Sacramento-San Joaquin Rivers system. It contains more than 500,000 acres of agriculture, provides habitat for 700 native plant and animal species and supplies water to more than 25 million Californians and 3 million acres of agriculture.
Legislators this week were presented the 2009 Delta/Water legislative package, a series of bills folded into one large measure known as SBX7-1, submitted by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.
Steinberg's bill has the support of a broad coalition of public utilities, environmental groups and other key stakeholders, a tribute to his mediation skills.
The bill establishes a new legal framework for Delta management, emphasizing the coequal goals of "providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem." Moreover, it will reform the policy and governance for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. It redefines the role of the Delta Protection Commission (DPC), creates a new Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy to support efforts that advance environmental protection and the economic well-being of Delta residents and creates the Delta Stewardship Council as an independent state agency.
The new Delta Council will be required to develop, adopt and commence implementation of the "Delta Plan" by January 1, 2012, with a report to the Legislature due by March 31, 2012. The plan would promote statewide water conservation, water-use efficiency and sustainable use of water, as well as improving water conveyance/storage and operation.
The Delta Council will act to protect and restore water supplies in concert with The Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), <http://baydeltaconservationplan.com/BDCPPages/planningprocess.aspx> which was already in place, to promote the recovery of endangered, threatened and sensitive fish and wildlife species and their habitats in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. One key factor is the maintenance and restoration of earthen levees, some of which date back two centuries and could be severely impacted by earthquakes in Northern California.
To ensure enforcement of all the proposed new laws and regulations affecting the Delta, the bill spawns the creation of a new "Watermaster" position, a sort of estuary sheriff within the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB).
Directly affecting all Californians, the legislative package also features a goal of reducing water usage 20 percent statewide by 2020, as conservation is a key component in the bill.
In addition, the bill would:
* Add authority/appropriation for SWRCB to hire 25 additional enforcement personnel.
* Update and significantly change the penalties for illegal diversion.
* Provide new and increased penalties for violating water rights law and expand SWRCB's authority to enforce existing water rights laws.
Steinberg's bill has the support of the San Francisco Public Utilities District and Contra Costa Water District - two key constituencies - after they received assurances their historic water rights would be upheld.
In 2006, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger created the Delta Vision "Blue Ribbon" Task Force, which was chaired by Phil Isenberg, a former 14-year assemblyman and mayor of Sacramento. The task force and its 43-member stakeholder group met for two years, drawing on a large community of scientists who showed that the Delta was unsustainable. Many of the group's recommendations for securing California's water supply and protecting the unique ecosystem were incorporated in the 2009 Delta Water legislative package.
Legislators this week also submitted a $9.4 billion bond measure that would pay for the programs that will restore the Delta, while funding other water projects within the Golden State.
The reform measure must garner a simple majority in the legislature, while the bond measure requires a two-thirds approval vote. While California continues to teeter on the brink of financial trouble, the issues surrounding the Delta and the anticipated mitigation costs are certain to impact future state budgets.
The overarching issue affecting Delta restoration and water conservation is the prospect of a "peripheral canal" that would divert fresh water from the Sacramento River, bypassing the Delta, into a southbound aqueduct. The prospect of a canal is at the center of a long-standing "north-south" debate.
"A transportation system around the Delta has been on the table in California for over 100 years," Isenberg maintains. "You're talking a 70-year deadlock. In all the time that I've been around, this is the closest I've seen the legislature get a comprehensive set of proposals that address the range of issues (contained in SBX7-1)."
In 1982, California voters rejected a measure that would have constructed the "peripheral canal." However, lobbyists and legislators have been trying to resurrect the project ever since.
In his presentation to the joint hearing of the Assembly-Senate water and resources committees earlier this week, Steinberg said, "This process (SBX7-1) ensures there is a more coherent, understandable and inclusive process to determine what the right answers are when it comes to conveyance and the Delta."
The semantic issue of "conveyance" has prompted supporters of a canal to affirm that the bill allows for it, while environmentalists say it is not expressly included. Steinberg's press aide Alicia Trost reiterated that the canal is not specified in the package. "Nothing in the policy bill or the bond bill authorizes the peripheral canal." The policy bill acts sets up a governance structure to act as a check for the BDCP, which is expected to release its recommendations next year.
Late Thursday, however, Assembly member Alyson Huber attempted to provide clarity on the issue with the introduction of AB13, which would "prohibit the construction of a peripheral canal ... unless expressly authorized by the Legislature." In addition, the bill - cosponsored by state Senator Lois Wolk - would require the Legislative Analyst's Office to complete an economic feasibility analysis prior to construction of a peripheral canal, and secure assurances that the construction and operation of a canal would "not diminish or negatively affect the water supplies, water rights, or quality of water for water users within the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed."
A vote on this historic legislative package may occur as early as Monday of next week.