UC Davis speakers series: Critical problems for California water policy

The UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences recently presented a series of nine talks on California water policy, including one by California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird. Source: UC Davis

The UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences recently presented a series of nine talks on California water policy, including one by California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird. Source: UC Davis

By Chris Austin
California’s water future is at a critical juncture.
The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is declining, both as a reliable hub for exporting water for millions of Californians and millions of farmed acres, and as an ecosystem supporting a vast array of wildlife.

The Delta Reform Act of 2009 set a fundamentally new state water policy by mandating the “coequal goals” of water supply reliability and ecological restoration of the estuary where native fish populations are crashing.

To meet those goals, the state has proposed construction of two giant water export tunnels underneath the Delta, running 35 miles from new intakes upstream on the Sacramento River to existing export canals near Tracy.

The re-plumbing proposal in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan is highly controversial and expensive. But the costs of inaction are better understood today than they were in 1982 when California voters first rejected the proposed Peripheral Canal. Hard decisions will have to be made. Does California have the will to do it?

This past winter, the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, publisher of CaliforniaWaterBlog, invited nine top water leaders to share their insights on this question and others.

More than 50 students, mostly graduates in water sciences, attended the weekly California Water Policy Seminar Series, which also drew members of the faculty and the public. Following their public talk, each speaker engaged a smaller group of students in discussions over dinner. The Center’s video recordings of the talks are available online as are my written summaries of the presentations, posted at Maven’s Notebook. (See links below.)

The speakers were mostly optimistic, although each saw the path forward somewhat differently.

Phil Isenberg, chairman of the Delta Stewardship Council, said his hope springs in part from water contractors’ newfound acceptance of uncertainty in amount of Delta water exports. The debate over the Bay Delta Conservation Plan marks the first time the contractors have not demanded legal guarantees on how much water they would received, Isenberg said.

“I can’t tell you how odd that sounds to someone in the water world, because everyone wants guarantees, whether it’s guarantees on water deliveries or the number of salmon that pass a certain point at March 31st of every year,” Isenberg said. Video, Script, Maven’s Notebook

Felicia Marcus, a member of the State Water Resources Control Board, sees hope for compromise because “virtually all” Delta interest groups are backing off from their “all-or-nothing” positions of the past.

Felicia Marcus, State Water Resources Control Board. Source: UC Davis

Felicia Marcus, State Water Resources Control Board. Source: UC Davis

Still, Marcus said, “Egosystem management” remains the biggest challenge – “not ecosystem management or economics or politics or legislative hoo-ha, you name it, but actually just dealing with the people who happen to be in the room.” Video, Maven’s Notebook

State Natural Resources Secretary John Laird talked about developing solutions within the existing legal framework. He sees this time as a window of opportunity for reform that isn’t opened but every 10 or 15 years. One of the biggest challenges he said is public perception, particularly among older Californians.

“They think of the Delta controversies as they did 30 years ago when the Peripheral Canal was on the ballot. They’re locked into the narrative of a north-south political war…People need to understand that they’ll be paying mainly for increased reliability in water supply, not necessarily for more water.” Video, Maven’s Notebook

Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, said the new coequal goals are achievable through technology but much more expensive than the traditional single-purpose goal of expanding the availability of cheap water.

“If you want the Delta to function for coequal goals,” Quinn said, “the most important thing to do is technological; its infrastructure; it’s to isolate those two water uses, the environmental from the economic, to give yourself a standing chance to deal with risks that remain and those risks in theory should be enormously smaller. And that’s what they’re trying to do in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.” Video, Maven’s Notebook

Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin said that while the department has made headway integrating flood management, water project financing and land use planning with traditional water supply-and-demand issues, new and better water management tools are needed.

Mark Cowin, director of the State Department of Water Resources. Source: UC Davis

Mark Cowin, director of the State Department of Water Resources. Source: UC Davis

“How do you measure resiliency in a system? … How do you value ecosystem function and health? This is one of the key issues that we are dealing with in the BDCP.” Video, Maven’s Notebook

State Sen. Lois Wolk of Davis said that while broadening the representation and collaboration in water policymaking is more difficult and time consuming, the outcome is more sustainable because it enjoys wider support.

“The best and most long-lasting decisions or solutions to problems are when you have buy-in from the largest number of folks who are affected by what you are trying to do,” Wolk said, citing hard-won consensus agreements on environmental plans at Lake Tahoe, the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes and the Everglades. Video, Maven’s Notebook

Jay Lund, director of the watershed sciences center, pointed out that local governments and irrigation districts are the key to moving the state towards solutions in this era of declining state and federal capacity to fund and manage water projects.

“We’re going to have to figure out ways that induce local entities to cooperate and work together across this statewide system without having a lot of money for incentives,” said Lund, a UC Davis professor of civil and environmental engineering. Video, Maven’s Notebook

UC Davis’ Peter Moyle shared his history studying the delta smelt, his outlook on the fate of California freshwater fish and his prescription for conservation of aquatic species.

“What we have to do to make this work is shift to ‘ecological reconciliation approaches’ which is simply a way of saying that we’ve got to integrate conservation into the places where we humans live and work and play,” said Moyle, a professor of fish biology. “Trying to protect species by setting aside pristine areas is not going to work by itself.” Video, Maven’s Notebook

Tim Washburn, planning director of the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency, gave a lively presentation on the 160-year history of the Sacramento area flood control system, up to the adoption of the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan, in 2012.

Tim Washburn, planning director, Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency. Source: UC Davis

Tim Washburn, planning director, Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency. Source: UC Davis

“We are improving Folsom Dam so that it can handle much larger floods more efficiently. We are building up the resilience of the American River channel so it can take higher flows from Folsom Dam safely down through the channel. And then we are working regionally with West Sacramento and Yolo County to widen the Sacramento Bypass,” Washburn said. Video, Maven’s Notebook

Chris Austin is an independent freelance writer who covers California water issues. She publishes online at Mavens Notebook.

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