Western Water Excerpt Sue McClurgRita Schmidt Sudman

CALFED and the Delta Fix
January/February 1999


Balance between ecosystem restoration and water supply reliability is key to a Bay-Delta solution. Everyone agrees on this concept. But the demands of the competing interests can tilt the scales. So, too, can the member agencies’ conflicting missions. For more than three years, the joint state-federal CALFED Bay-Delta Program has been searching for equilibrium among the Delta’s complex problems and its contentious stakeholders. In December, it released its latest blueprint for resolving the Delta dilemma — the Revised Phase II Report.

While not the final “fix” many involved in the process had hoped for, the $4.4 billion Stage 1 plan is described as a significant milestone in the continuing quest to forge a consensus-based solution. It represents months of work by CALFED staff to respond to and incorporate comments received on its March 1998 draft programmatic environmental impact statement/report (EIS/EIR). It also reflects months of negotiations among disparate stakeholders over how to best address the Delta’s water supply and water quality problems, restore its ecosystem and improve a century-old levee system.

“The stakeholders labored hard to get to this point,” said Lester Snow, executive director of CALFED. “There is still a lot of work to do. This is a significant milestone and a tribute to all the work the stakeholders have done.”

With this report, CALFED reaffirms its commitment to a staged-solution for Delta conveyance. During the first seven years, steps would be taken to improve the existing through-Delta conveyance system by widening key channels, installing new fish screens and boosting pollution prevention programs. Only if these efforts prove not to provide enough fish protection and drinking water quality improvements would CALFED proceed with other programs, including the possible construction of an isolated channel around the estuary. An isolated channel remains a controversial topic 17 years after the 1982 defeat of the Peripheral Canal ballot package.

While the staged approach has helped reduce conflict over some aspects of CALFED’s proposed Delta solution, other issues remain unresolved. There still is considerable debate over the role of more storage vs. water use efficiency measures, and how to pay for the program, which could end up costing $10 billion over its 30-year implementation.

As detailed in the CALFED report, the Delta’s complexity makes it difficult to develop a consensus-based solution. No action can be taken in isolation, and a major goal is to increase the flexibility of the existing system. Without more options to manage the system for all uses, according to CALFED, conflict will only increase over the Delta’s dual roles. The revised report discusses the need to further develop concepts such as assurances, adaptive management and linkages, which have been proposed to help build trust in the ultimate solution. It also includes an innovative program to establish an environmental water account, identifies a list of additional ecosystem restoration and research projects, discusses how to develop an active water transfers clearinghouse, and sets goals for drinking water quality.

Even as CALFED worked in the final weeks of 1998 to balance the scales, the disparate stakeholder groups hardened their positions. Environmentalists printed bumper stickers and mailers extolling “No More Dams.” Business groups and water suppliers renewed their call for increased storage within the system. Counties largely dependent on agriculture passed local laws to protect farmland from being converted into wildlife habitat. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) released a policy statement in which it reiterated that an isolated canal is the best technical solution to improving drinking water quality.

Newspaper editorials and op-ed pieces, meanwhile, stressed the need for balance and consensus — with each side seeing something in CALFED’s proposal that was unbalanced, at least from their perspective. In addition, the change in state administrations introduced a note of uncertainty into the ongoing process. Former Gov. Pete Wilson, who played a major role in the formation of CALFED, was a close ally of farm interests and a strong advocate of increased storage. Gov. Gray Davis has voiced support for the CALFED process, but he has closer ties to the environmental community than Wilson, and its leaders were quick to convey their concerns about the process to Davis.

In the end, the urban and agricultural water communities, along with business groups, supported the revised CALFED report, with more than a dozen organizations speaking in favor of the document at its December release. “The plan offers a creative and flexible approach to continuous improvements for all interests in the Bay-Delta watershed, using a balanced set of water management tools,” said Steve Hall, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies.

Most environmental and fishing representatives opted not to share the stage to endorse the proposal, mainly because of their continuing opposition to CALFED’s support for some new storage. These groups maintain that water demands can be met through aggressive water recycling, conservation and transfer programs. “CALFED has made impressive progress in the past year on ecosystem restoration, water use efficiency and other issues,” said Gary Bobker of the Bay Institute of San Francisco. “But to move ahead on expensive and potentially environmentally damaging surface storage projects before the need for them has been demonstrated, and when cheaper, more environmentally friendly alternatives exist, undermines the integrity of the whole program.”

But even with these disagreements, the historic 1994 Bay-Delta Accord remains in place — albeit through a second one-year extension — and all the competing stakeholder groups still are engaged in the effort to draft a long-term solution.

“We’re not there in terms of how all these pieces relate and in all the data we need to assess the whole system, but I believe we can get there,” said Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who personally conducted many stakeholder negotiating sessions leading up to the report’s release. “The storage issue remains open, but we can get there and I hope everyone stays at the table.”

Since release of its revised report, CALFED has conducted a series of public workshops around the state to explain the document and allow for more informal staff-stakeholder dialogue. This input will be considered in preparation of the revised draft programmatic EIR/EIS to be released in June 1999, which will be followed by a formal public comment period. Approval of a final EIR/EIS and a record of decision are expected by June 2000, after which implementation and subsequent environmental review for site-specific projects will begin.

CALFED staff also has continued its work on refining elements in its proposal, but decision-making on major issues has reached something of a hiatus, mainly because of the change in state administrations. Davis filled cabinet-level posts overseeing water and environmental resource issues early in his administration, but as this issue went to press, he had just named Thomas Hannigan as director of the state Department of Water Resources. Hannigan must be confirmed by the state Senate, and other key department heads remain to be appointed.

This issue of Western Water provides an overview of CALFED’s Revised Phase II Report. For further background on the Delta and CALFED, please refer to the March/April 1998 issue of Western Water, the Foundation’s Layperson’s Guide to the Delta, revised in 1998, and the recently updated video Setting a Course: The California Bay-Delta.

By Sue McClurg

A complete copy of this 16-page magazine is available from the Foundation for $3. Visit our on-line store and add the January/February 1999 issue of Western Water to your shopping cart.

Editor’s Desk

“Another article on the Bay-Delta problems?” said a trusted water source in a weary voice. “I’m so tired of the subject, I haven’t reviewed Sue McClurg’s article.” Resolving Bay-Delta problems, though often tedious, is the cornerstone in a successful state water program and commenting on review drafts of Western Water articles is one of the ways we get feedback from key stakeholders involved in the process. We appreciate the many comments we receive. Sometimes these comments help us catch technical errors. Often we get further clarification on statements and issues. Of course, we also get editorial and factually incorrect comments we don’t accept. But overall the comments from technical experts and stakeholders are useful in giving issues of Western Water some shelf life.

Over the last several years we’ve produced a number of articles, booklets, television documentaries and public meetings concerning what to do to solve Bay-Delta water quality, environmental and water reliability problems. Looking for solutions to these water problems through the CALFED process has involved interested members of the public in hundreds of meetings, required thousands of hours of work from staff and stakeholders, and produced volumes of reports.

Now is not the time, however, to give up. As Sue McClurg explains in this issue of Western Water, the latest blueprint for resolving the Delta dilemma recently was released and it deserves examination. And Sue has reduced those many volumes of testimony, discussions and reports to a mere 10 pages of this magazine. For those of you interested in this vital issue — and we all should be involved and care about it — the information is condensed here. So don’t lose heart!

Groundwater is another issue we’ve been spending some time on. If you saw the movie, A Civil Action, you saw how destructive groundwater contamination can be since we depend on safe drinking water. Television producer Sue Pearson Atkinson and I are just finishing two short videos on California’s groundwater quality concerns and conjunctive use plans. Yes, we do show groundwater on video. It is a challenge and good graphics certainly help.

We’re dedicating these two videos to a bright young water attorney with Hatch and Parent, Kevin Neese, who recently died. We worked with him on many groundwater education projects and will miss his guidance and enthusiasm.

To experience this hidden resource firsthand, be sure to make plans to come with us on our fast-paced, two-day Groundwater Tour, April 22-23. Although we travel in northern California, the tour focuses on state-wide issues of groundwater use and management. With news of ever increasing contamination sites, taking good care of our groundwater basins is everybody’s job.

Rita Schmidt Sudman

In the News

Colorado River Water Wars?

In two months, California’s effort to reduce its use of Colorado River water has gone from an apparent peace to a potential war as the parties face-off over rights to this limited supply.

Under pressure from the other six Colorado River states and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to cut river use by up to 800,000 acre-feet, California parties had pieced together a plan to conserve water in agricultural areas and transfer that water to urban areas. In effect, this would recognize the water rights of the past — the irrigation districts hold first right to the lion’s share of the state’s Colorado River apportionment — and the realities of today — urban southern California is a $500 billion annual economic and political powerhouse.

In December, Babbitt heralded a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Imperial Irrigation District (IID) and Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) as one of the last major pieces of the state’s plan. (See November/December 1998 Western Water.) He characterized 1998 “as perhaps the most significant year on the river in many decades, for we are on the threshold of resolving some of the most intractable and elusive issues.”

With California close to a unified approach to reduce its water use, Babbitt declared that he was ready to deal with the interstate issues of water banking and river reoperation — major steps in ensuring a reliable water supply for urban southern California. (Babbitt serves as water master on the lower Colorado River and was a major force in negotiations between IID and CVWD.)

Flash forward two months to a Feb. 10 letter, short and to the point. “It appears to me that the parties, having come so close to agreement in January, are now drifting apart,” Babbitt wrote, informing IID, CVWD and other California Colorado River parties that he was withdrawing from his role of mediator. “I truly hope this does not signal the onset of yet another Western water war.”

The reference to war stems from a January request by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) for Babbitt to re-open the 1931 agreement that divides Colorado River water among the state’s users. Under the 1931 California Seven Party Agreement, first rights to the state’s 4.4 million acre-feet basic apportionment go to Palo Verde Irrigation District, IID and CVWD. Next comes MWD, which now includes rights once held by the city of Los Angeles and the city and county of San Diego. With the state historically using as much as 5.2 million acre-feet a year, MWD’s supply is most at-risk from any requirement to cut back to 4.4 million acre-feet.

MWD questions whether the 1931 agreement is in the public’s best interest. “Your proposed MOU would leave urban southern California with assurances of only half the water it needs … in the long run,” Board Chair Phillip Pace wrote in a Jan. 25 letter. “And the MOU would leave IID as the only California party able to sell Colorado River water to urban users if and when it chooses with the freedom to extract the highest possible monopoly price.”

Babbitt told MWD he lacked the authority to revisit the 68-year-old agreement, and urged the district to support the water conservation and transfer arrangements in the 4.4 plan.

The irrigation districts greeted MWD’s request as a threat and promised to fight to retain their water rights. “This is not the first time they’ve tried to grab our water,” IID Board President Bruce Kuhn said in a press release. “But it is time to put our foot down. Our water is the key to our community’s future.”

Interior-led negotiations on the IID-CVWD MOU had been scheduled to resume Feb. 11.

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