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January 24, 2013

Editorial: Can governor broker a water peace treaty?

Gov. Jerry Brown is sure to highlight water in his State of the State address today. Less clear are the answers to two key questions:

Gov. Jerry Brown is sure to highlight water in his State of the State address today. Less clear are the answers to two key questions:

How much political capital is the governor willing to expend to resolve some long-standing water conflicts in California?

In particular, how does he propose to break through the impasse over the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that appears headed toward another epic legal battle?

Water is crucial to California's economy and environment, and both are threatened if the state does not plan for its future. Climate change portends a future of extremes – deluges and floods some years and droughts that could last decades.

California must change how it uses, stores, protects and moves its erratic water supply. Unfortunately, nearly all of the debate of recent years has been focused on "moving" supplies – construction of new tunnels through the Delta to ship more water south.

No doubt, California can't continue to be so reliant on massive pumps and decrepit levees in the Delta. There's an argument to be made that, in a warming world, the state needs a new conveyance system that will allow extra exports during wet periods, and reduced withdrawals during dry ones.

Yet the plan the governor has endorsed – two massive tunnels capable of shipping 9,000 cubic feet per second around the Delta – is problematic on several fronts. Three big intakes are proposed, which could harm salmon and other migrating fish. Such a massive construction project could harm the farm economy of the Delta.

The other big question is whether water exporters can afford such a mega-project. The governor's position has been to build first, and settle questions about costs and water yields later. As we've stated previously, that seems to be a recipe for disaster.

Last week, a mix of environmental groups and water agencies proposed an alternative. They want state and federal officials to study a smaller conveyance facility – a single tunnel capable of moving 3,000 cubic feet per second. Since a small facility would be cheaper to build but yield less water, they proposed increased investments in south-of-Delta water supplies, including new storage to capture water during wet periods. Their plan also includes levee upgrades in the Delta, habitat restoration and improved water integration of operations among California's myriad water agencies.

It's unlikely the Brown administration and proponents of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan will embrace this alternative. Some water contractors may question why they'd invest in a smaller facility that may not meet their needs. Some may question why this option is coming so late in the process, just as BDCP is preparing to release a draft environmental report.

We'd urge the Brown administration to at least study this alternative. It may not pencil out. It may have shortcomings not readily apparent. But a "full-steam-ahead" approach by Brown is likely to be met by a "full-steam-ahead" court battle resulting in years and years of litigation.

The Delta may not have decades to wait. The governor is in a unique position to broker a compromise. Such a brokered deal may not satisfy all stakeholders or potential litigants, but it could move us a step closer to the state's goals of restoring the Delta's ecosystem and creating more reliable water supplies.

It would also free us up to focus on water challenges unrelated to the Delta, of which there are many.

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