Environmental Groups Battle Over Water Legislation

by: Rick Cabral, t r u t h o u t | Report,
Thursday 05 November 2009

The California legislature has passed a comprehensive and complex package of water legislation with twin goals of protecting the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta while providing adequate water supplies in California. While some environmental groups supported the measure, others are already planning a future impediment to implementation.

Photo: River Kayaker

The historic package, spearheaded by Sen. Darrell Steinberg, president pro tem, includes an overarching policy bill as well as a $11 billion bond measure that will fund new reservoirs, water supply programs and ecological restoration measures for the Delta. The bond measure will require voter approval in the November 2010 election.

“This comprehensive water package is an historic achievement,” said Governor Schwarzenegger, who appointed the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force in 2006 to address the statewide water issues. The task force’s recommendations formed the cornerstone of this legislative package.

“What some people are calling a ‘watershed moment’ is really a band-aid when what the Delta really needs is a heart transplant,” argues Jim Metropulos of Sierra Club California.

A hallmark of the package is the creation of a seven-member Delta Stewardship Council, an independent state agency that would develop, adopt and commence implementation of the “Delta Plan” by January 1, 2012, to promote statewide water conservation, water use efficiency and sustainable use of water. The policy bill authorizes the governor to appoint a majority of the members.

Other key components in the package include: establishing a statewide groundwater-monitoring program, increasing penalties for illegal water diversions and a significant reduction in water usage.

The legislative package would not have been approved without the support of a fragile coalition of water districts, farm interests and other conservation groups, including the Nature Conservancy, National Resource Defense Council and Environmental Defense Fund.

Ann Hayden, senior water resources analyst at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in San Francisco, says the EDF supports the legislative package because of the additional oversight provided by the Delta Council and the role it would play in “ensuring the Bay Delta planning process meets, not only the water supply and liability goals, but also the ecosystem restoration and recovery goals. That is an additional piece of oversight that we see is hugely beneficial.”

Other groups, such as Sierra Club California, see it differently. “We have a governor with only one year left on his term, yet his appointees, who basically must have no qualifications in experience, stakeholder or geographic representation, are going to affect water policy for the next six years,” says Metropulos.

The governor is on record as being in favor of a peripheral canal, which would divert fresh water from the Sacramento River, bypassing the Delta, into a southbound aqueduct headed for Central Valley and Southern California.

The Delta Council would have the crucial responsibility of ensuring that a peripheral canal would not adversely impact the Delta. Hayden insists that any plan for such a conveyance facility should provide for necessary safeguards to protect key species, such as salmon.

“Unfortunately, the governor has already said he wants to build the largest peripheral canal he can, tomorrow,” said Evans of Friends of the River. “We think it’s a de facto decision for a very large peripheral canal that can de-water the Delta.”

Leo Winternitz, Delta program director of the Nature Conservancy, admits the Delta water legislation is not perfect. “We feel it offers the best path forward for the Delta and California as a whole.”

Pointing to the decline in species, such as the endangered smelt, Winternitz noted that restoration is crucial to saving the Delta.

“We’ve got to start moving to recovery of species and not just mitigate for impacts, but actually start doing enhancements and improvements that lead toward recovery. Without restoration it’s unlikely we’ll be able to recover the list of species and without a path to recovery we’re not going to get water supply reliability.”

Another of the legislation’s touted benefits is water conservation, with a goal of reducing water usage 20 percent statewide by 2020. The Sierra Club has argued that the bill unfairly exempts some water districts and all agricultural water users from the requirement. Agriculture consumes about 41 percent of the state’s water in a normal year, while 48 percent is dedicated to environmental uses, according to the state’s Department of Water Resources.

If approved by voters, the debt service on the $11 billion bond would present an additional $700 million drain on the state’s general fund each year,” notes Metropulos. “Most of these projects should be paid for by user fees and revenue bonds.”

Groups such as Sierra Club California, Friends of the River, other environment groups, Delta farmers and Delta communities are already considering organizing a “No on Water Bond” committee, says Evans. “Things aren’t over.”

Which means the north-south debate over water usage and its impact on the Delta should be a prime election year issue in 2010.