Despite billions of dollars spent, state still searches for ultimate answer
By TIM HEARDEN
Like many farmers in California, Ross Shoop wonders how much water he'll get for his pasture this year.
The Corning, Calif., turkey farmer draws water from the Tehama-Colusa Canal System, whose federally contracted water allocations have been drastically scaled back during drought years.
"In the district we're in, one year we got 10 percent" of normal deliveries, Shoop said. "We just allocated the water and tried to do the best we could ... You've just got to do with what you have."
Local, state and federal agencies have spent more than a decade and billions of dollars pondering ways to help provide water users like Shoop a more reliable supply while fixing environmental problems wrought by the state's overburdened water system.
Much of their attention has centered on the beleaguered Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, for which then-Gov. Pete Wilson and then-U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt thought they'd found solutions when they introduced the accord that formed the CALFED Bay-Delta Program in 1994.
More than a decade and $4.2 billion later, CALFED gave way to a new coordinated effort -- the Delta Vision and Bay Delta Conservation Plan, under which a proposed peripheral canal system is being hotly debated.
Still farmers and city dwellers alike worry about their water, and ecosystem problems with the Delta seem to be getting worse. But Timothy Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, maintains the multiagency efforts so far have hardly been a waste.
"I would argue there was a lot accomplished with CALFED" before the program was largely scrapped and replaced in 2009, Quinn said.
For one thing, it stopped disparate groups from battling in court, he said.
"All the interest groups were in the same room trying to agree," said Quinn, who was the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California's point person for the Delta during the CALFED years.
Increasing demands on water from California's burgeoning population and degradation of the environment combined to push improvements to the state's vast water system to the top of policymakers' wish lists.
In the center of the water network is the Delta, from which 15 percent of water delivered to Californians directly comes and from which at least 45 percent indirectly comes, according to Jay Lund, a University of California-Davis water expert.
With impacts from water pumping to invasive species pushing the Delta's ecosystem to the breaking point, the number of species listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act in the Delta has doubled since 1989, and many more are in trouble.
"People talk about the Delta smelt, but there are 31 species listed," said Lund, an author and director of the university's Center for Watershed Sciences. "What you should worry about are the 69 in line to be listed."
A consortium of 12 state and 13 federal agencies, the CALFED Bay-Delta Program was created with goals of improving water quality and fish and wildlife habitat, reducing the gap between water supplies and projected demand and reducing the risks from deteriorating levees.
After more than five years of planning, CALFED began to implement projects guided by a "Record of Decision" which was written in 2000. The California Bay-Delta Authority was created by statute in 2002 to oversee the projects, which were to proceed over 30 years.
Of the $4.2 billion spent on CALFED in its initial six years of operation, more than $2 billion were state funds, including sizable chunks from California's general fund. CALFED funded hundreds of projects to help fisheries, including key salmon habitat improvements in tributaries of the Sacramento River, Quinn said.
CALFED falls short
However, independent reviews of CALFED in 2005 found that its governance structure was not working well, that responsibilities for the state and other entities were not clearly outlined and measures to track performance were lacking, according to a 2006 report by the Legislative Analyst's Office.
Further, ambitious water storage projects outlined in the Record of Decision were never implemented, such as a plan to begin raising Shasta Dam by the end of 2004 or to build the Sites Reservoir to add up to 1.9 million acre-feet of storage in the Sacramento Valley.
"There were a lot of questions about how effective the authority really was in terms of being able to prod agencies and stakeholders," said Keith Coolidge, executive manager for external affairs for the Delta Stewardship Council. The council was formed to shepherd improvements in the Delta ecosystem and access to water.
"There were a variety of factors including changes in state and federal administrations," Coolidge said. "It really sort of led to some questioning about, 'Was that an effective structure?'"
In 2006, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger created the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force, a panel of experts charged with recommending Delta solutions. The panel's work was finished in 2008, and lawmakers crafted legislation that adopted many of its recommendations.
That legislation, which became law in November 2009, included a more centralized governance structure for the Delta, which all sides agreed would help to streamline approval of a plan to divert Delta water with a huge canal.
The canal would take water from the Sacramento River before it enters the Delta and convey it south, theoretically minimizing the environmental impacts of Delta pumping.
The legislative package also included an $11.1 billion infrastructure bond to pay for a wide variety of water management, conservation and storage projects. The bond is slated to go before voters next November, although some lawmakers have discussed postponing the vote until 2014.
Officials are considering 10 alternatives for a new water system, and water districts have already spent $140 million on tasks such as preliminary engineering and design, environmental documentation and hundreds of meetings. They have agreed to fund an additional $100 million.
Guided by the U.S. Department of the Interior and Bureau of Reclamation and the state Natural Resources Agency and Department of Water Resources, the plan also includes a comprehensive habitat conservation effort in the Delta region, Coolidge said.
After environmental and technical reviews are completed this year, two rounds of public meetings will be held and a final plan is slated to be unveiled early next year. Ongoing landowner "coordination and outreach" will also take place.
The idea of building a massive new water system in the Delta has pitted traditional allies against each other, as some farmers say proposals for a new canal or tunnel that would carry river water to other farms and cities in the south could ruin their land. In the 1980s, voters overwhelmingly defeated a similar proposal.
The way Delta planning has proceeded has also drawn complaints. University of California community development advisors warned last fall that residents around the Delta feel left out of the decision-making process.
In discussions with UC Cooperative Extension advisors, residents repeatedly said experts and policymakers gave their points of view at public meetings about the plan, but they didn't seem to absorb the public's perspective.
"I hear that from (residents) directly and I understand," Coolidge said. "For years folks in Sacramento have drawn lines on the map and tried to figure out a Delta solution without really understanding every line crosses someone's farm, someone's house, someone's access road. We get that, so it's going to have to be a collaborative process."
'Era of reconciliation'
Proponents of the Delta and statewide water fixes were encouraged in December when a poll by the Field Research Corp. found that 3-in-4 voters are concerned about water. In addition, 62 percent said spending billions of dollars in a state bond package would be worth it to ensure reliable water supplies, according to the water agency association, which commissioned the survey.
"You still have a significant majority saying they are concerned about water, even though there are huge concerns about the economy today," Mark DiCamillo, senior vice president of Field Research, said in a statement.
The notion of raising Shasta Dam is still on the table. Recently a federal study determined it would be feasible to raise the dam by 18.5 feet, which would provide another 636,000 acre-feet of storage without interfering with the Interstate 5 bridge over Shasta Lake. Such a measure would need to be funded by Congress.
"On wet years, we're going to fill that up," Shasta Dam tour supervisor Tami Corn said of the added space. "It's not going to be every year, but in wet years we're not going to have to dump."
UC-Davis' Lund told a luncheon audience in December that he hopes the state is entering "an era of reconciliation where we all realize we can't get everything we want, but if we work together we can get some of what we want."
It's an era that Coolidge and others are trying to foster.
"We're all working toward a better day when there is certainty on the amount of water you can take out of the Delta under different conditions -- a wet or a dry year -- and allow water managers in urban and agricultural areas to plan for whatever additional supplies they'll need," Coolidge said.
"CALFED was born of a seven-year drought in the late '80s and early '90s, and the council was born of the drought that was in 2007 through 2009," he said. "Just because it was a wet year last year ... it doesn't mean the basic underlying infrastructure (of the) water system or the ecosystem of the Delta are fine. It means we can maybe patch over it one more year, and in the end the crash will be even more spectacular. We really need to avoid that."
Bay Delta Conservation Plan: http://baydeltaconservationplan.com
Delta Stewardship Council: http://deltacouncil.ca.gov
Association of California Water Agencies: www.acwa.com