Can We Save California's Water?

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, perhaps California's least-known environmental jewel, is the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas -- a unique ecological, economic and cultural resource. Critically, the Delta is also a source of drinking water for two-thirds of California's 37 million residents.

Currently, however, the Delta is in crisis. Its ecosystem is crashing. The extensive, aging system of levees providing both flood protection and secure water supplies is crumbling. And the complex system by which water is moved through and from the Delta is over-subscribed and currently under the jurisdiction of increasingly-skeptical federal and state court judges.

Two ominous statistics illustrate the magnitude of the crisis: first, seismologists predict a one-in-three chance of a catastrophic earthquake sometime in the next 50 years that would severely damage or destroy major portions of the levee system and revert the Delta to an inland salt sea. Second, federal flood experts warn that Sacramento -- the northern edge of the Delta -- is now officially the most flood-prone city in the nation, exceeding even New Orleans.

There is broad agreement that the Delta is in deep trouble, and that the status quo is both unsustainable and unacceptable.

But there the consensus ends. For over a quarter century, political gridlock has prevented California's leaders from fashioning a solution to the Delta's multifaceted ills. And those problems have mushroomed into an ecological, engineering and political crisis over the decades, as government leaders have failed to act.

To fill this policy vacuum, Governor Schwarzenegger appointed a Delta Vision Task Force to develop an independent vision for the Delta -- free from political intrigue and ideological baggage. The seven-member group began its work last March, advised by expert scientists and a 43-member group of stakeholders reflecting every conceivable political and economic interest. It held two weeks of hearings and received voluminous public testimony.

The resulting Delta Vision, which recommends state actions approved unanimously by Task Force members, will not be universally popular. It speaks some harsh truths, notably, that each day brings California closer to a major disaster. In conveying its Vision, Task Force members noted that "what the nation learned from New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina is the terrible price of waiting." As far as the Delta is concerned, waiting -- and avoiding bold, immediate action -- is simply not an option.

At the heart of the Task Force's Vision is the belief that protection of the Delta's threatened ecosystem and a reliable water supply for California should be co-equal, primary goals. It further notes that current diversions of estuary waters to Southern California are a major barrier to an environmentally-sustainable Delta.

Among recommendations sure to spark controversy:

  • Repairing the Delta's damaged ecosystem is likely to require reduced water diversions -- or changes in the pattern and timing of diversions;
  • New, coordinated water conveyance and storage facilities are needed to better manage statewide water resources;
  • Conservation and water system efficiency are the cornerstones of better water management;
  • Encroaching urbanization must be halted, and the region's long-term landscape should continue to be dominated by agricultural, environmental and recreational uses;
  • The decentralized, locally-dominated governing structure in the Delta must be changed, in favor of a single authority reflecting a statewide perspective.

The Task Force is now embarking upon a second, vital task: fashioning a strategic plan to implement the Vision it has presented to California's political leaders. That assignment promises to be equally daunting. But the future of the Delta, and those who depend on it, will require equally bold thinking and actions in 2008.

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