The following is part one of a two-part series, continuing the conversation of the Delta’s complex crisis. Part two will appear on Friday, examining a set of Delta farming groups that filed a lawsuit two weeks ago to stop the peripheral canal by challenging the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

There is at least one thing that everyone involved in California’s most pressing water crisis agrees upon: The Delta is in crisis.

The agreement may end there, but a consensus seems to be emerging that one of the keys to solving the Delta’s complex problems is a new method of governance.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is the largest estuary on the West Coast and is the source of water for 25 million people in the state. It is, however, on the verge of an ecological and economic collapse.

Several fish species are endangered and the system of levees and islands are in danger of failure from earthquake and rising sea levels. San Joaquin Valley farmers and Southern California water customers have seen their water allocations severely limited this year because of drought conditions and limits imposed on Delta pumping due to endangered fish species.

In discussions with key players in the debate, a common theme emerges: Solving the compendium of problems that beset the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will require a strong and independent form of governance that must be able to balance the goals of restoring the ecosystem and creating a more reliable water supply.

Just how and when that new governance structure emerges is unclear.

Any discussion of slowing the Delta’s demise inevitably includes the question of a new peripheral canal. There is widespread agreement that some form of a canal is needed as part of a portfolio of solutions to improve water quality and rescue the collapsing fisheries.

But widespread opposition to a peripheral canal exists from those who argue that it is nothing more than a costly water grab and a potential ecological disaster.

Add to those divergent views the fact that voters in 1982 soundly defeated a ballot initiative for a peripheral canal and you have a political flashpoint that threatens to scuttle any solution.

There are those who believe that asking if you support or oppose a peripheral canal is the wrong question.

“Being for or against the canal is the wrong question,” said State Senator Lois Wolk (D-Davis), who has introduced two bills to establish a new governance structure.
“It’s easy to say your opposed, but now what? The Delta is still dying.”

Wolk’s legislation establishes a California Delta Stewardship Council that will be responsible for developing a Delta stewardship plan and ensuring proposed projects in the Delta comply with that plan. She believes the Delta crisis “is in part a crisis of leadership, a crisis of stewardship.”

“If all the resources of the state of California are focused on building a canal, the Delta will surely die,” said Wolk.  “There is more to this than just pumping water. There is a whole ecosystem. There are people who live there. There are 27 cities and five counties and very productive agriculture.”

Wolk is also among those who are worried that the current Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which includes plans for a peripheral canal, is moving too quickly and without adequate oversight or public involvement.

“When you’re going to propose a canal that size of the Panama Canal that is 48 miles long and as wide as an eight-lane freeway, there ought to be better public process involved,” said Wolk. “It will have tremendous impacts on the Delta and for that reason the legislature should have a voice and the public should have a voice.”

“Transparency will increase that voice and there will be alternatives suggested and that rush to judgment will be slowed down a bit,” she said.

The BDCP is a joint effort by state and federal officials to “to provide for the conservation of threatened and endangered fish species in the Delta and improve the reliability of the water supply system within a stable regulatory framework.”

A series of public meetings were held throughout the state in March to receive input on environmental studies that are already under way.

Ellen Hanak, the director of research and a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), was among the authors of “Comparing Futures For the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.” That report recommends developing a new framework for governance and regulation, but also recommends building a peripheral canal  “to satisfy both economic and environmental objectives.”

“You want to set up the governance mechanism to address the problems and to solve the problems,” said Hanak. “Our fear is that it will just lead to a talk shop with nothing happening. We think it makes sense to decide on a strategic direction and then set up the governance mechanism you need to do that right. That direction could be we are going to move toward building a peripheral canal, but one that will address both environmental and water supply objectives.”

There are those who argue that not enough information exists to make a decision on whether or not a peripheral canal is the right choice.

“Interest groups in California’s water debate are already racing to judgment, both pro and con,” wrote Peter Glieck in a January Op-Ed piece in the Sacramento Bee about the peripheral canal debate. Glieck is the president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland.

“While such a massive project may be a good idea, it may also be a bad idea – and the truth is that at present we don’t know what the balance will be because we don’t know what the project will look like, how it will be operated, what it will do, or whether it will be really be part of a comprehensive solution … Provide the answers to thee questions and then we can have a real debate about the pros ad cons before shovels go in the ground.”

Hanak disagrees. “Our sense is that there is enough information about a canal, not in terms of detail, but in terms of the overall economic picture and for the potential of improving conditions for the fish,” she said. “If you try to solve all those (detailed) questions at once before making a strategic decision about where you want to head, you won’t get very far.”

But Wolk believes that pushing forward with plans for a canal without legislative consensus or voter approval “would be a recipe for confrontation and failure.”

In an Op-Ed piece in the S.F. Chronicle recently, Sen. Wolk and Congressman George Miller wrote, “Our years in California water policy have taught us that you’ve got to put the right policies in place before you decide to build expensive and divisive water infrastructure. Yet the state Department of Water Resources is now spending more than $1.1 billion on canal and water project planning – off budget with no legislative oversight or public accountability – while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Cabinet has asserted that the state could break ground on a canal before the governor’s term expires.”

Part two will appear on Friday, examining a set of Delta farming groups that filed a lawsuit two weeks ago to stop the peripheral canal by challenging the DWR’s Bay Delta Conservation Plan.