By Tim Hunt
High-stakes water battle continues in the Delta and courtUploaded: Feb 25, 2020
Solving California’s structural problem with its water distribution system has frustrated Governors Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Brown during both of his stints as the state’s chief executive.
Schwarzenegger launched a blue-ribbon committee that included various stakeholders to start addressing how to move water from the Shasta and Oroville reservoirs through or around the Delta and its endangered fish species and ancient levies. One of the key recommendations was using tunnels under the Delta to transport water instead of sending the water through existing channels running north to south and upsetting the natural east-west flows of the rivers that flow into the Delta. A conveyance around or under the Delta has been part of the overall State Water Project plan since the 1960s. The through-Delta channels were never planned as the permanent solution, although, even with a new plan, they likely will remain in use.
Gov. Brown pushed hard for those tunnels and never got to groundbreaking stage. Now Gov. Gavin Newsom is taking a different approach, hoping he can build a voluntary agreement between the various parties that would finish negotiations started by Brown and his team.
It’s a huge challenge because parties have diametrically opposed goals. Delta advocates want more water flowing through and out into the Bay, while agricultural interests and water agencies want more reliable water supplies. We care about this because the Livermore Valley’s wholesale water agency, Zone 7, in a typical year imports 80 percent of its water from the Delta through the state’s pumps. In the Bay Area, about 2.7 million people are drinking water exported from the Delta.
Newsom has dramatically scaled back Brown’s plan to single smaller tunnel that he presumably hopes will lessen complaints of a “water grab.” Newsom also proposed a science-based program to manage pumping and its effect on fish.
With fanfare while in Bakersfield last week, President Trump signed an Interior Dept. order that will allow the federal pumps to move more water south for agricultural interests. That fulfilled a campaign promise made in 2016 and reflected new federal biological opinions about Delta fish.
The order and the underlying opinions immediately were challenged in federal court in San Francisco as California continue to battle the Trump administration on many fronts. State Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office has filed more than 90 suits in the last three years.
One irony is that both the state and the feds are proposing science-based management in place of the current system that runs by calendars without regard to Delta conditions.
The bottom line: stay tuned for more of the high-stakes water battles. Here’s hoping cooler, rational heads prevail—an outside hope.