Western Water Excerpt Gary PitzerRita Schmidt Sudman

CALFED at a Crossroads: A Decade of the Bay-Delta Program
Mar/Apr 2005


The issues surrounding the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento- San Joaquin River Delta are as complex and varied as the ecology of the estuary. Start with the fact that water is a valuable resource in California that more often than not is in short supply for the many competing demands. Combine that with a growing urban sector and the need to maintain an agricultural industry that is a significant part of the state’s economic engine. Finally, recognize the environmental impacts from the development of California, including the diversion of water, and the obligations to preserve species diversity and water quality.

Resolving the many challenges involved with the use of water would be difficult enough if pursued in a vacuum, but such is not the case. Limited revenue, political maneuvering and the unanswered questions of science all exert considerable influence, saddling negotiators with the unenviable task of crafting lasting water policy in an often-turbulent environment.

Such is the cause of the California Bay-Delta Authority (Authority), a composition of key players in the state’s water picture who have spent the last decade building the framework for dealing with what some have called California’s next big crisis: water. More than 10 years ago, major participants in the water policy arena formed a partnership to confront the problems of the Delta, including the challenge of exporting water from the system while maintaining sustainable populations of endangered fish.

Known as “CALFED” to reflect the collaboration between state and federal agencies, the effort has made significant gains in identifying and acting on a number of issues, such as ecosystem restoration, water use efficiency and water supply reliability. The mere fact that a centralized forum exists to talk about the importance of the Delta and pursue improvements is a triumph in and of itself.

“CALFED was a revolutionary idea to bring people together in order to reduce conflict,” said Sen. Mike Machado, D-Linden, at a Feb. 15 legislative hearing on CALFED financing. Machado has dealt with Delta issues extensively throughout his legislative career and chairs the newly formed Senate Subcommittee on Delta Resources.

It was with much fanfare that an accord for resolving the Delta’s conflicts was announced in December 1994. Reaching the accord was a prerequisite for solving the Delta’s more pressing problems, including those associated with water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, weakened levees and the need for more reliable water deliveries.

After considerable discussion, a 2000 Record of Decision (ROD) charted the course by which the process would unfold, creating a blueprint of statewide investments deemed vital to meet the needs of the principal participants. But controversy over some of the provisions of the ROD has lingered and continues to fuel the debate. Underlying the discourse is a belief by some that CALFED’s mantra of balanced implementation of its many components has tilted toward ecosystem restoration, causing some stakeholders to say the program has not lived up to expectations that existed at the time of the ROD.

“I think the record is mixed [though] overall, there’s certainly still support for the collaborative approach CALFED has taken,” said Dan Nelson, executive director of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority.

Opinions vary on the track record of the CALFED program. The program has been viewed by some as not a particularly strong political entity where the whole is seldom greater than the sum of its parts. Grumbling over a framework for continued funding, the federal government’s commitment and whether the program has been steered in a balanced direction are among the concerns raised by stakeholders.

“There’s a huge level of frustration, especially among agriculture, that the environmental community got theirs and now are blocking exporter desires,” said Steve Macaulay, former chief deputy director at the Department of Water Resources (DWR) and current executive director of California Urban Water Agencies.

Gary Bobker, program director with the Bay Institute, said the dissatisfaction within the water user community stems from the expectation that a significant expenditure of public funds for ecosystem restoration somehow guaranteed approval for expanded surface storage and conveyance infrastructure. Environmental restoration and water supply reliability are two of the main core programs of CALFED.

“It was a sincere belief on the part of some, but I think it was an unrealistic and unreasonable expectation,” he said.

Observations such as that irk water users, who believe the criticism contradicts the ROD commitments that describe the implementation schedule of Delta improvements. Tim Quinn, vice president of State Water Project (SWP) resources with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), said “we do have a roadmap … of making incremental progress,” but that the funding crisis facing the state means “we have to re-think the priorities of what can be done and when.”

Buffeted by the 1987-1992 drought, declining fish populations, water quality concerns and regulatory intransigence, the stage was set for crisis in the Delta prior to CALFED. The winter-run Chinook salmon’s listing as an endangered species required major changes in project operations from Shasta Dam to the Delta pumps. Numbers of Delta smelt – a tiny fish found only in the estuary – plummeted. Water deliveries were dramatically reduced or halted altogether to deal with what was referred to as the “smelt down.” The episode helped spur negotiators to the table.

“We literally had shutdowns right in the middle of the growing season, repeatedly,” said Patrick Wright, executive director of the Authority.

In addition to fostering better communication between state and federal agencies, CALFED has managed to lessen the institutional barriers that typically exist in the government bureaucracy. The increased openness differs by agency and by program, but “generally the culture is shifting [with] a higher level of coordination than ever before,” Wright said.

That said, concerns remain about the vigor of the federal government’s participation in the program and the need to “put the FED back in CALFED.” The perception is partly due to the lengthy CALFED reauthorization process in Congress that came to fruition last October when President Bush signed legislation reauthorizing federal participation in CALFED and the approval for new spending. Concern also exists that CALFED participants at times have appeared to seek resolution to their issues outside the Authority, circumventing the intention of an open, stakeholder-driven process.

Ensuring balanced implementation of CALFED’s many programs is one of several challenges facing the Authority in 2005. Chief among the pursuits is the creation of a long-term, sustainable finance plan that shifts some of the allocation from the state to the federal government and water users. Many users recognize the appropriateness of user funding to pay for the program’s water quality and water supply components but they are anxious about the prospect of lawmakers enacting a new mandate on urban water agencies to support what is viewed as CALFED’s public benefit.

Randy Kanouse, lobbyist for the East Bay Municipal Utility District, told an Authority subcommittee in January that fees are subject to “easy abuse and manipulation” in order to raise funds for a cash-strapped state government. “Our recent experience with new state fees is that they are drafted in such broad terms that they can be used to raise funds for programs having little to do with their original purpose, especially during state budget crises,” he said.

Kanouse isn’t the only person expressing trepidation over the proposal to impose a utility surcharge on urban water use, which was discussed by the Authority in December as a recommendation for the Legislature to put into budget language. Machado has in no uncertain terms expressed his outright disdain for the finance plan, saying its targets for federal contributions are unrealistic and that it assigns the public “a greater share of the costs than would otherwise be warranted.”

Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D- Santa Monica, who chairs the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water, indicated at a February hearing that much work remains before a viable finance plan emerges. “It’s impossible to come up with a funding solution unless we come up with a clear demarcation of what we mean by ‘beneficiary pays,’” she said.

Among the Authority’s noteworthy achievements is the Science Program, which is credited for vastly improving the process by which the many questions associated with habitat management are explained. The Science Program, the only program for which the Authority has complete responsibility, has released key findings regarding the influence of tidal flows in the Delta and has drawn a strategy for confronting the problem of pervasive mercury contamination. The research and findings are key components of the overarching theme of “adaptive management,” which eschews the pursuit of a rigid, inflexible regulation for one that emphasizes changes made upon the recommendations of best available science.

Some, however, question whether the pursuit of research has yielded the necessary findings upon which water operations can be pursued in the most effective manner. “I don’t think it’s a given that the Science Program has been completely successful,” said Jason Peltier, special assistant for water and science policy at the Department of the Interior. He serves on the Authority. “We have some anecdotal information that things are better, but we lack the scientific tools and understanding of fundamentally how the Delta operates to have a comprehensive picture … of how our actions are resulting in changes. We’re still in a learning mode.”

CALFED participants and interested parties realize the program’s inherent importance of bringing people and agencies together for the purposes of fully exploring the Delta’s problems, the possible solutions and the means by which to achieve results in the most mutually satisfying manner. Still, as the Authority implements many of the actions that have existed for so long as abstract concepts, the test of CALFED will come when hard decisions will have to be made to ensure the program’s long term viability.

Richard Howitt, professor of resource and environmental economics at the University of California, Davis, said the cost of CALFED’s “political acceptability” has put off a frank discussion of the more controversial aspects of managing the Delta, including the possibility of “some sort of independent transfer facility around the Delta.” Perhaps the thorniest issue of all is devising a sustainable way to fund the costly components of the program, he said.

This issue of Western Water discusses the CALFED Bay-Delta Program and what the future holds as it enters a crucial period. From its continued political viability to the advancement of best available science and the challenges of fulfilling the ROD, the near future will feature a lively discussion that will play a significant role in the program’s future.

NOTE: A complete copy of this 16-page magazine is available from the Foundation for $3. Visit our Products Page and add the March/April 2005 issue of Western Water to your shopping cart.

Editor’s Desk

World Water Day and Earth Day are events in March and April that give us pause to think about our environment. March 22, World Water Day, is a day designated by the United Nations to promote public awareness of the importance of water in our lives, especially the importance of conservation, preservation and protection of our water resources. Certainly this year, after the tsunami crisis in Asia, the people of the world are aware of the wide-spread extent of that disaster, the large number of people affected and the complications of seawater, waste material and debris that can lead to water borne diseases.

A California Water Aid campaign and web site, www.californiawateraid.org, were established shortly after the crisis began and donations contributed through that site go to the UNICEF Water and Sanitation Fund. This good effort is from the state’s water and engineering community to help rebuild and restore the communities and countries devastated by the tsunami.

Long term, sustainable water development, however, is what these countries need now that the immediate crisis has passed. The Water Education Foundation is affiliated with Water For People, www.waterforpeople.org, and often I am asked just what Water For People is doing to help with the tsunami crisis. The answer is that Water For People is not an emergency relief organization and does not have projects or staff in any of the affected areas. However, as an international development organization, Water For People will be involved in long-term, sustainable development programs in the tsunami areas. The local people contribute what they can to participate in sustainable systems, new or improved surface water and groundwater projects, and thus learn to maintain the system on their own. Water For People creates sustainable drinking water, sanitation and hygiene education programs to improve people’s quality of life and lead to a higher standard of living in those countries.

Worldwide, an amount of people equal to the people killed by the Tsunami die each month from water-related disease. I urge all of you to take some action especially in the “water and environment” months – March and April – towards creating a world where no one suffers or dies from a water-related disease.

New Web Water Events Calendar

The Foundation has launched an exciting service for you – a new web-based Calendar of Events designed to be the place to visit to find out about upcoming conferences, seminars and meeting related to water resources. Visitors to the site can look for upcoming conferences and submit information for a free calendar listing for their event. Each event includes a web-page link to the posting organization for more information.

This web Calendar of Events is the only program of the Foundation’s in which we accept advertising; ads are available for a very low rate and you can call me if you are interested in placing an ad.

- Rita Schmidt Sudman

In the News

Colorado River Water Users Discussing Drought Management Plan

The seven states that share the Colorado River continue to meet in an effort to develop a consensus-based plan for water management as they endure a persistent and severe drought. The effort was instigated last year after Interior Department officials ordered users to craft a plan for a shared drought response.

“The reality is here, the shortage is here,” Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles said in a December speech to the Colorado River Water Users Association. “We need to come together not in three to four years from now, but now.”

The Upper Basin states – Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico – and the Lower Basin states – Arizona, Nevada and California – were told to come up with a shared drought response plan by April, or else the federal government will write one.

State representatives are continuing to have discussions with the hope of finding ways to deal with the chronic problem of less water. “We’re still talking, but we haven’t identified any basis for a deal that’s agreeable to all parties,” said Scott Balcomb, Colorado’s representative to the Upper Colorado River Commission.

Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the Upper Basin and Lower Basin each are entitled to 7.5 million acre-feet a year. Lake Powell, formed by Glen Canyon Dam, serves as the Upper Basin’s regulating reservoir to meet its delivery obligations to the Lower Basin. The dramatic decline in the lake’s storage – it was just 34 percent full in late February – has officials in the Upper Basin concerned about continuing to meet the Upper Basin’s delivery obligations to the Lower Basin – especially considering how much they already have had to drawdown their local reservoirs.

In the Lower Basin, the states face the possibility that the drought could lead to a shortage declaration by Interior Secretary Gale Norton and the implementation of shortage criteria developed by Norton – who serves as the watermaster for the Lower Colorado River. The potential shortage declaration has sparked concern in Arizona because the 1964 Supreme Court decree in Arizona v. California that solidified the state’s 2.8 million acre-feet share of the Lower Basin’s water also gave California entitlement priority over Arizona in the event of a shortage. The state’s Legislature recently introduced a concurrent memorial to encourage the state’s congressional representatives to pursue federal legislation to restore Arizona’s equal priority for water.

One key point under discussion among the seven states is water deliveries to Mexico. Under the Mexican Water Treaty of 1944, the U.S. committed to deliver 1.5 million acre-feet of water to Mexico each year (plus additional supplies under surplus) with half coming from each basin. The Upper Basin states question the requirements of the mandated release of 750,000 acre-feet of water for delivery to Mexico. Questions also have been raised regarding the treaty’s clause that in the event of an “extraordinary drought” that makes it difficult for the United States to deliver the guaranteed 1.5 million acre-feet allocation, Mexico’s allotment would be reduced in the same proportion as consumptive uses in the United States. However, “extraordinary drought” has never been defined.

Recent storms have helped restore Lake Mead’s capacity to 60 percent and with the snowpack 121 percent of normal, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Bob Walsh said predictions point to 9 million acre-feet of runoff between April and July, which is 113 percent of normal, and “far better than the last five years.” Still, it is uncertain what the relatively wet year means in the context of a drought that may be the worst in 500 years. Whether this winter’s storms are a signal of a return to more average conditions, Walsh said: “I don’t think anybody knows.”

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