Battle Lines Drawn on Water: Peripheral Canal, Governance and Financing Highlight State Water and Delta Hearings

statecat.pngThe legislature returned this week from their August break by taking up what is undoubtedly the most contentious topic this side of the budget, and perhaps even including the budget, water and what to do about the Delta.

Facing the legislature are five bills, packaged together to address critical issues of facing California Water and the Delta.  Tuesday was largely an informational that saw the issues laid forth.

Senator Joe Simitian, a Democrat, argued that the status quo ought to be unacceptable to all elected officials and that the five bill package needs to be seen as a package.  The key issue for him was finding a way to move water reliably and cleanly.

Said the Senator:

“When I looked into the situation 3 1/2 years ago I had the same concerns that I think all of you have which is that scientists tell us that there’s a 2/3 chance that the whole system is going to collapse in the next 50 years and that 24-million Californians will be left without water and that’s a 40-billion-dollar economic consequence. I stepped into the fray because the delta, which is the most significant estuary in the western coast, was going to hell in a hand basket and that benign neglect wasn’t serving the delta well over the previous quarter century.”

For the Senator, the issue is not one of conveyance, but a matter of figuring out how to fix the delta and our water system.  Many, including spokespeople for the Governor argued that the status quo was not acceptable.  Lester Snow, Director of Water Resources, argued, “Anyone who thinks the status quo is working doesn’t understand what’s going on.”

He went on to argue that the current bills appear to establish additional obstacles.  They delay but do not expedite solutions.  Many of them give little attention to water supply as opposed to habitat restoration.

Senator Simitian forcefully argued against the status quo, and argued that conveyance, which in his argument has not been proposed, is not necessarily the end of the world.

“I think that if we reject the package of bills before us today is a vote for the status quo. And the status quo means mass extinction of native species. The status quo means eventual levee collapse and disruption of water supplies to 24 million Californians. The status quo will result in destruction of much of California’s agricultural sector, and a $40 billion dollar plus hit to the state’s economy when those levees fail.”

The Senator continued:

“For those who argue that conveyance yet to be proposed, yet to be described, is the end to the world as we know it, I ask you to follow the science.”

Assemblymember Huffman argued on that the Delta has been named the most endangered river and one of the culprits in the demise of the Delta is a lack of governance.  He embraced the Delta Vision Process by the Delta Task Force.

The peripheral canal remains a large elephant in this process.  Some argue that will be the end of the Delta while others argue that will be its salvation, a means to prevent the flooding and overflow of the river and its islands while at the same time able to provide California with critical water during dry years.

Assemblymember Huffman, argued however that this legislation takes no position on the conveyance issue.  It does not establish a peripheral canal.  At the same time, he argued that this process could result in permanence in the conveyance process.

As he said previously:

“I’m not legislating any specific conveyance decision.  Instead, I’m trying to create a process where extensive study, planning, independent science, and a new governance entity – through an open and transparent process – can make the full range of decisions necessary to restore the Delta and address the full range of problems plaguing the West Coast’s most important estuary.”


“My bill for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta requires an independent Delta Stewardship Council to develop a comprehensive plan to get California out of the crisis we face in the Delta.  I have kept my focus on ecosystem restoration and how we save the fishery that depends on the Delta, particularly Central Valley salmon that migrate through the Delta between upstream spawning grounds and the Pacific Ocean.  AB 39 requires a comprehensive ecosystem restoration plan that aims at recovery of our fishery.  This bill would add protections for the Delta – not take them away.”

Senator Lois Wolk has long been a strong protector of Delta Interests and introduced SB 458 which will reform the local Delta Protection Commission and establish the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy.

Senator Wolk was somewhat critical of the overall package, arguing that portions did not contain local buy-in.

She said:

“There are parts of this package that will advance Delta stewardship. Unfortunately, this package currently lacks several critical components, most importantly the full participation and buy-in of the Delta community. That is a fatal flaw. But it can be fixed.”

The Senator continued:

“By strengthening the local voice on the Delta Protection Commission and creating a strong relationship between the Delta Protection Commission and the Stewardship Council, SB 458 will ensure that local concerns will be addressed that communities will be heard, and that expertise from the ground can be utilized in developing and implementing the Delta Plan.”

Senator Wolk argued that the package fails to address five critical issues.  First, it lacks adequate representation for the Delta Community.  Second it lacks adequate funding and this funding cannot only be bond funding, “iIt has to be ongoing maintenance and support of these organizations.”

Third, the Delta community cannot merely be an afterthought, but rather must be a critical component of the state’s goals.

Fourth, they must strengthen and ensure proper oversight and finally we need stronger criteria for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

Assemblymember Mariko Yamada who represents Yolo and Solano Counties, also expressed concern about the lack of representation for the Delta Community.  As she put it, “Nothing about us, without us.” 

During discussions with the Delta Community, she expressed that “There are concerns about not being included at the level that we feel we should.”

She argued that “Science and evidence are the best ways to do away with partisanship and other competing interests.  If we can all agree on the science, we can get to the rest of the details.”

AB 49 introduced by Assemblymember Mike Feuer aims to reduce California’s urban per capita water use by 20 percent by December 31, 2020.  The bill requires urban water suppliers to develop water use targets in line with these reduction efforts; at the same time, it gives flexibility to these suppliers by allowing them to determine the best way to meet their targets.  To promote greater efficiency with existing water supplies, the bill gives credit for the use of recycled water and rewards water suppliers’ past water reduction efforts.  Agricultural water suppliers will be required to prepare water management plans and implement best management practices that are already required to be used by federal Central Valley Project contractors.

Assemblymember Feuer said:

“Without taking immediate action to solve California’s water crisis, we will face severe statewide water shortages and irreparable environmental damage.  We must approach the issue with a view toward long-term results, and the water supply targets set in AB 49 will help ensure that future generations of Californians will enjoy safe, high quality water.”

AB 49 was coauthored by Assemblymember Huffman:

“Water efficiency has to be a part of any water management package.  Efficiency does more than just help existing water supplies go further; it also helps to reduce ecosystem impacts, improve water quality, increase local water supply reliability, and reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.”

Senator Pavley’s SB 229 would strengthen monitoring of groundwater use as well as water diversions from rivers and streams.

A number of groups and experts would testify on the issue of water before the joint committee.  One of the key groups was the Delta Vision Foundation, formed by the Governor, they reviewed the five pieces of legislation, and Chair Phil Isenberg told the committee:

“We found that as a set, these are strong bills and they do a good job of building on the Delta Vision Strategic Plan, but they can be better.  Our advice is simple: Do the big things right; fight about the rest”

They laid out ten major changes that would mirror their Delta Vision Strategic Plan which was released back in October of 2008.

These changes include:

•Return to the definition of coequal goals as “restoring the Delta ecosystem and creating a more reliable water supply for California.”
•Return to a Governor’s appointment for all members of the Delta Council, with Senate approval, as recommended in the Delta Vision Strategic Plan.
•Enhance the independence of the Delta Council by explicitly stating that it is independent.
•Return to the recommendations of the Delta Vision Strategic Plan regarding powers and responsibilities of both the Delta Protection Commission and the Delta Conservancy.
•Return to the recommended targets for habitat restoration, critical for ecosystem function in the Delta estuary.
•Return to the Council the authority to adopt a Delta Plan, the requirement that state agencies conform to that Plan, and give the Council authority to ensure consistency of state and local agency actions with the Delta Plan.
•Return to a general insistence that there should be an effective integration of federal agencies and activities into implementation of the Delta Plan, including exploring an option of a functional equivalent alternative to the CZMA recommendation if that better suits the needs of the federal government.
•Guarantee adequate funding of the Council and the projects included in the Delta Plan by removing the requirement for legislative appropriations of revenues generated under the authority in SB 1p.
•Make explicit that any related bond is effectively linked to the Delta Council and Delta Plan.
•Return to the recommended waivers to contracting procedures and an expedited CEQA process for the Council and Conservancy to speed action.

The issue of representation was front and center in the debate.

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Campaign Director for Restore the Delta during her testimony was particularly concerned with the oversight body created by this legislation that is felt to fail to take into account proper representation for the Delta Community.  She feared that decisions affecting the entire state could be made by an unrepresentative and unaccountable body of five.

This was a concern repeatedly raised by both Senator Wolk and Assemblymember Yamada, both of whom represent districts in the Delta.  Assemblymember Yamada argued Tuesday:

“I also do share those same concerns articulated by Senator Wolk about the make up of the stewardship council.  I am very concerned about putting in the hands of some as yet unnamed individuals and particularly giving the tipping point even more so to a Governor that I actually don’t always have too much points of agreement with currently and we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.  It concerns me frankly that we would have a 4 to 2 to 1 split as currently is presented in the pre-print bill.”

Supervisor Mike McGowan of Yolo County represented a group of leaders from five Delta Counties told the committee, “The cats have been herded and we’re sticking together.”

“We’ve been saying for quite awhile that the Delta is not a blank slate.  There are real people who live in the Delta.”

He pressed the committee to create clear funding mechanisms in order to sustain the Delta Community over the long term.  “The plan will be fatally flawed and unacceptable to us as counties unless the funding for the Delta issues are fully included.”

He also urged the committee to strongly increase Delta representation on the Delta Council to insure the interests of the counties and the communities are represented.  “We are not an interest group, we are a group of duly elected officials who represent those who have elected us.”

Contra Costa County Supervisor Mary Piepho added:

“Plan development must include significant local participation.  In addition to working from existing plans, it must address how to sustain Delta communities and regional infrastructure as change occurs.”


“The goals of water supply reliability and ecosystem restoration must be joined with protecting and enhancing the unique cultural, recreational, agricultural and socioeconomic values of the Delta.”

Critics of package such as Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA) argue that while this package pays lip service to Delta restoration, it is really a way to change the water conveyance system.

“It pays lip service to fish and Delta restoration, turns the water code upside down, places a financial and water burden on the most senior upstream water rights holders and will double or triple water rates for those least able to pay – in order to subsidize the guarantee of water to the most junior water rights holders that grow subsidized crops on drainage impaired lands on the Westside of the San Joaquin Valley; lands that when irrigated leach toxic wastes back to the San Joaquin River and Delta.”

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Campaign Director for Restore the Delta: “Restore the Delta signed onto a report with 22 other environmental organizations.  The report entitled, California Water Solutions Now, by the Environmental Water Caucus, is based on multiple scientific and engineering studies and it demonstrates how sustainable water management can provide the water needs able to serve California’s projected population, economy, and environment through 2050.”  

She continued:

“Restore the Delta agrees with leaders that continuing with the status quo for our dying estuary is unacceptable.”  However, she warned against rushing through legislation at the last moment for the sake of passage, arguing that it “could lead to the final death blow for the Delta if the wrong programs and facilities are set in place.”

On Monday a coalition of 23 fishing, public health, conservation, environmental justice and tribal organizations today unveiled an alternative report, “California Water Solutions Now.”

Nick Di Croce, Lead Author said:

“California Water Solutions Now is presented to show that, with real reforms, California can have a sustainable water future.  It’s a game-changing report. The report is unique in that it marries reduction in water usage to the ability to reduce water exports.”

Di Croce continued:

“It calls for Delta exports to be reduced by half from the recent levels in order to save, protect and restore the Delta.  The report is based on existing, authenticated studies and data produced by the Department of Water Resources, the Pacific Institute and Planning and Conservation League and is assembled in a way that tells the game charging story.”

According to a report from Dan Bacher:

“The 42-page report highlights 10 Strategic Goals and 65 specific Recommendations that can carry California into the future, and in particular describes how the state can use current supplies and existing sustainable strategies more efficiently and cost-effectively. The report also shows how we can improve our valuable river habitats, eliminate discharges from contaminated agricultural lands, and improve other water quality problems, increase regional water self-sufficiency, and provide funding for environmental agencies.”

The report argues that California “has already developed enough water supplies to satisfy our needs into the foreseeable future by utilizing existing infrastructure and existing cost effective technologies.”

It continues:

“Clearly, a well-managed future water supply to take us to 2050 is within reach with the current supplies and with an aggressive water conservation program. In addition, still larger savings can be expected from agricultural water  efficiencies, and some of this saved water could be available for urban consumption. All of the water conservation strategies discussed in this report are much less expensive than the new surface storage and conveyance projects being contemplated by state and federal agencies.”

However, in order to do that, California has to make significant changes in our water management practices.

The question of the Delta and the Peripheral Canal have moved front and center in this debate over the future of the Delta.  This figures to be a long lengthy struggle to determine the future of such a critical issue for the county, the region, and the state of California.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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5 thoughts on “Battle Lines Drawn on Water: Peripheral Canal, Governance and Financing Highlight State Water and Delta Hearings”

  1. Arggghhhh!

    I read all of this, and still do not understand the issues. There are a lot of generalities, but no specifics. Typical gov’t – put in layers of bureaucracy, that is going to cost a fortune, but doesn’t really address the problems. Even the alternative view did not give specifics. Arggghhh!

  2. martin

    I don’t know much about the merits of the water issues, but I would like all the canals and aquaducts to be considered as sites for solar PhotoVoltaic panels. The rights of way for transmission lines could be along the canal rights of way and the panels could reduce water evaporation. I think that the project should be delayed until next year while the water resource planners include some greenhouse gas reduction measures in the form of the PV panels placed over the water so that the evaporation losses can be reduced.

  3. Dean H.Gaumer

    Dear Sirs,

  4. shirley enomoto

    one of the first things the governor and state can do is return the kern water bank back to the people. isn’t water a public utility? stewart resnick, owner of fiji bottled water, and his company, paramount citrus, managed to sway control of the water into their own hands back in the 90s. while taking frequent amtrak rides to l.a. i noticed how many more hundreds, if not thousands, of acres of grapes have been planted between fresno and bakersfield. maybe he owns these too? for more information, type in resnick water bakersfield for an article in the los angeles times, written by mark arax.

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