It's fascinating to watch the California Legislature's special session on water. Not only is the future of Central Valley irrigated agriculture at stake, but the long-simmering soap opera of a state divided over the notion of a peripheral canal keeps bubbling up.
The canal, many will recall, was a scheme to bypass water originating in Northern California, sending it around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and into the California Aqueduct that transports water to the southern reaches of the state. In 1982 California voters defeated a measure that would have implemented a peripheral canal.
A quarter century later, with a failed state-federal attempt at Delta management and a combination of leaking levies in the estuary and pumps that strand small fish on intake screens, Delta water management is effectively handled by a U.S. District Court judge in Fresno.
Water deliveries in this cycle of three drought years are curtailed to the point of a massive irrigation water shortage, only partially offset by overdrafting groundwater. Political jousting over water and water quality has dogged two years of attempts to break the deadlock. That's the setting for the suite of bills the legislative leadership unveiled early last week. One would create a Delta Council, formally called the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Stewardship Council in SB12, the shell bill that's been making its way through legislative committees since last December. By implication, the independent Delta Council would decide, based on environmental studies and blessings from the water and fish agencies overseeing the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, if a water bypass of the Delta happens.
Late last week, a lawmaker who is not part of the water wheeling and dealing introduced a bill that, if approved, would kill the vision of the Delta Council boosters. That new bill would block construction of a peripheral canal unless "expressly" authorized by the Legislature. We urge lawmakers to ignore this ploy and move forward with the carefully negotiated Delta Council concept.
It's time to break the deadlock, and creating a new player is one way to move forward. As an article in The Economist noted last week, moving forward depends on Californians burying "their hatchets."
The deal before the Legislature could be as significant as the water vision of legendary Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, which launched the State Water Plan in the 1960s. Only this time, there's a promise of fixing things for the fish and the Delta, as well as getting water to farmers and thirsty urban residents.