The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the most critical link in the state’s complex water system, provides drinking water to 25 million Californians and supports a $37 billion agricultural industry. Burdened with increasing demands and a startling decline in it fisheries and ecosystem, it now faces an unprecedented environmental crisis.

The critical question facing state water officials is this: Can the recently completed Delta Vision process save the 1,000-square-mile estuary at the confluence of the state’s two largest rivers from the verge of collapse? 

A Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force appointed by Gov. Schwarzenegger completed a two-year process last year and the Governor’s Delta Vision Committee issued its own implementation report at the end of 2008. The two groups agreed on a vast majority of the goals for the Delta, including the concept of two coequal goals: “Restore the Delta ecosystem and create a more reliable water supply for California.”

Administrators, policy makers and public officials will play a key role in what happens over the next two years as water officials take the next step in the Delta Vision process. The Governor’s Delta Policy Group, which has yet to be established, will be charged with developing agreements on governance, environmental restoration and protecting a reliable water supply for the state.

Officials in the five Delta counties, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Yolo, Solano and Contra Costa, whose constituents are directly affected by the Delta, have been paying close attention to the process. But whether your home is five or 500 miles from the Delta, the outcome of the process will affect most Californians.

“Even though a county may be many miles away, it should be interested in how the Delta Vision process concluded,” said Jeanie Esajian, spokesperson for Delta Vision. “And they should be watching and weighing in on how these conclusions take the form of legislation that may be winding its way through the legislature this year … what does it say? How will it affect them?”

Among the recommendations by the Delta Vision Committee and the Blue Ribbon Task Force is a new version of the controversial peripheral canal, last defeated by voters in 1982. The committees are recommending a “dual-conveyance” system through and around the Delta to protect water sources, agriculture and the environment. How this and other elements of the Delta Vision plan are implemented will depend on how successful negotiations are in developing a new governance structure.

Phil Isenberg, a former 14-year member of the State Assembly and ex-mayor of Sacramento, chaired the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force. “We found that there are at least 200 government agencies that have some authority in or around the Delta,” he said. “That illustrated the old saying about government; ‘Everyone is involved, but no one is in charge.’”

One of the directions from the Governor was to “develop a strategic plan for sustainable management,” said Isenberg.  “The thing that is fundamentally important is that the current government structure on water is not working. That notion that 200 government agencies can muck around in the Delta is a total failure. It cannot succeed.”

The fact that both the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force and the Delta Vision Committee agreed on coequal goals of ecosystem restoration and a reliable water supply is significant, said Isenberg. “Thirty, twenty or even ten years ago, there would not have agreement on that,” he said. “The fact that there is agreement is a fundamental shift in attitudes and the status quo. Will interested parties be in conflict? Yes. Will those goals be in conflict? Yes. But the successful resolution of that will allow us to get through the next 50 or 100 years.”

Restoration of the Delta ecosystem is driven largely by the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which lists several species of fish as either endangered or threatened, including the Delta smelt, several types of salmon and sturgeon. The listing of fish under the ESA has led to reductions in water deliveries to water customers in the Central Valley and Southern California. A parallel effort by state and federal officials to restore the ecosystem is also under way.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) will identify “a suite of conservation measures, including conveyance and habitat restoration” to protect the Delta’s declining fisheries. The BDCP has scheduled a series of 12 meetings in March throughout the state on an EIR/EIS for the Delta.

While not part of the Delta Vision process, the BDCP will identify the activities in the Delta that need to be regulated as part of the ESA.  It is an attempt to take a broader view of protecting endangered species, according to Karla Nemeth, outreach and communications manager for BDCP.  “What is different (now) is in the past we managed fish species separately,” she said. “This kind of process allows for a holistic approach. In terms of the regulatory process … people throughout the state absolutely need to pay attention because this is the future of their drinking water supplies.”

For two years, Isenberg and the members of the Task Force held public meetings throughout the state soliciting public input on the future of the Delta. Bob Whitley chaired the Contra Costa Council’s Delta Task Force, which contributed to the process. “From a public officials’ point of view, the Delta Vision process and discussion really comes down to a change in the way water resources are managed as they flow through the Delta,” said Whitley. “It’s very clear to me that change is needed. The existing system has failed for a number of reasons and change is imminent. It’s all a matter of what it is going to look like.”

The Delta crisis has a parallel on the national level, he said. “In many ways it’s a parallel to the financial crisis,” he said. “The water system that flows through the Delta has failed, much as the financial system has failed. What is the role of government in regulating these systems? This is not a black or white, water or no water discussion. The outcomes will be crucial to the majority of California. Public officials should recognize that this is all about change.”

That change has to start with some very old assumptions, said Isenberg. “Part of the problem is in California we have spent 150 years promising everything to everyone,” he said.  “What Californians and in general and public administrators have to know is that the water supply in California is static … it is not growing.”

Isenberg cited another example of water limits. Water rights in the Delta outnumber the annual flow by a factor of 8.4, he said. “The water that has been promised exceeds the supply,” he said. “This is an area that cries out for a form of rational and persistent management of a finite resource. The problem is it conflicts with economic, regional and personal interests.”

Barry Dugan has written extensively on water issues throughout the state of California at the local and statewide level in nearly 25 years of reporting on local government.