Dan Walters: Maneuvers accelerate on California water plan

05/01/2013 12:00 AM

05/02/2013 7:45 AM

Earlier this week, Gov. Jerry Brown's point man on the highly controversial proposal to bore tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta found himself in political hot water.

Gerald Meral, a veteran environmentalist who served in Brown's first governorship, was quoted as saying during a private meeting that the project, known formally as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, "is not about, and has never been about, saving the Delta. The Delta cannot be saved."

That generated a letter from nine state legislators, all Democrats and all opponents of the tunnels, demanding that Meral resign and the project be halted.

Administration officials, apparently eager to avoid further controversy, said Meral's remarks were "taken out of context" but wouldn't explain further. They were busy, ironically, making appearances before two legislative committees that were discussing the tunnels and a bond issue for Delta improvements and other non-tunnel aspects of the $30-plus billion overall plan.

However, in the context of how water is now drawn from the Delta, Meral's remarks are a tempest in a teapot.

"Saving the Delta" is not, and cannot, be a goal because, as virtually everyone acknowledges, the Delta now is an ecological mess that ill serves both wildlife, especially salmon, and water users. It is, moreover, nothing like its seasonally swampy natural state; it is now a man-made complex of agricultural islands with water flows controlled by upstream dams and diversions from its southern edge.

As a new and praiseworthy report from the Public Policy Institute of California points out, the Delta cannot be returned to its natural state. Its vital roles as coastal estuary and water source can be improved with rational, science-based management of land and water – but only if parochial interests cooperate.

That's probably what Meral meant to say, or as Meral's boss, Resources Secretary John Laird, told a Senate committee Tuesday, quoting a Mick Jagger song, "You can't always get what you want."

However, the PPIC report, which summarizes exhaustive research about the Delta and its twin roles as wildlife habitat and water source for about three-fourths of Californians, also includes new polling data from Delta stakeholders, indicating that there's little willingness among them to accommodate others.

That political knot was evident both at the Senate hearing and in another in the Assembly, where lobbyists lined up to protect their pieces of the proposed $11.1 billion bond issue.

Voters must approve it, but it's already been postponed twice because of fears of rejection. Efforts are under way to reduce its size – and that is creating a political frenzy over whose projects will be reduced or eliminated.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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