Delta “chicken” – A tragedy

Jay Lund, UC Davis, Ray B. Krone Professor of Environmental Engineering

Don’t try this at home. (Photo: COSEE Great Lakes project)

Few dispute the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta’s poor and deteriorating condition—for native fishes, many landowners, and water users locally and statewide—and the subsequent need for major changes in Delta policy.  Most parties understand that without a credible comprehensive solution, continued deterioration will become more costly, especially if there is abrupt change from an earthquake or flood.  There seems substantial consensus that current policies only ensure that everyone will become worse off together.

Over the last 15 years, two major state and federal processes have gathered stakeholders to negotiate a solution.  CALFED failed in this; the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) is struggling.

If everyone agrees that Delta conditions are bad and worsening, why do stakeholders have such difficulty negotiating a solution?  Shouldn’t everyone in a leaky life boat agree to bail?

Alas, individual Delta interests often benefit more from shifting the responsibility to others than from agreeing to a mutually beneficial long-term solution.  Water exporters blame Sacramento wastewater dischargers; Sacramento wastewater dischargers blame water exports; local farmers blame all other water users; all other water users blame each other; environmental interests blame everyone. Everyone seems to blame someone else.  In truth, all these parties, and many other land and water users throughout California, share responsibility for the Delta’s decline and the failure to reverse it.

If a stakeholder can shift even 1% of the overall cost of a $20 billion Delta solution to someone else, that party saves $200 million. So individual interests often have substantial incentive to shift responsibility to others, even if this delays a solution, risks disaster and increases costs overall.

In game theory, this situation is called a “game of chicken,” named after the stereotypically futile game of adolescents driving fast towards each other, with the first driver to swerve being labeled “chicken,” even though swerving averts the likely death of both parties. In the Delta, if delaying a solution shifts responsibility to others more than it increases the final solution’s overall cost, then the delay is selfishly worthwhile (unless a major earthquake occurs first).

One “wins” a game of chicken by being stubborn and uncompromising, unless everyone else is similarly uncompromising – in which case everyone loses.

Of course, there is more complexity to real problems than this simple explanation, but “chicken” aspects of finding and funding a Delta solution seem fundamental.  Stakeholder statements often have the flavor of drivers publicly discarding their steering wheels, cutting their own brake lines, gluing their accelerators to the floor, and throwing dissenters (and opponents’ loved-ones) into the back seat – trying to “win” at chicken.

Breaking up today’s game of chicken probably requires the equivalent of the state police arriving to end the game, or at least change it.  Leadership by state and federal governments seems needed to find a more effective way to resolve the issues.  The alternative will likely be tragic.

Further reading:

Lund, J., E. Hanak, W. Fleenor, W. Bennett, R. Howitt, J. Mount, and P. Moyle (2010), Comparing Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, February.

Madani, K. and J. Lund (2011), “California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conflict: from Cooperation to Chicken,” working paper, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences web site.  [Now published in the ASCE Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management, Vol. 138, No. 2, March/April 2012, pp. 90-99,

Suddeth, R., J. Mount, and J. Lund (2010), “Levee decisions and sustainability for the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta,” San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science, Volume 8, No. 2, 23 pp, August.

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