Leaders must take bold action to secure safe water supply for all

An estimated 250,000 acres of almonds, fully one-third of the state’s planted acreage, have been affected by recent lawsuits related to the endangered Delta smelt and winter-run salmon in the Sacramento River.

With reservoirs statewide reportedly at only about one-third of capacity and additional demands for urban and environmental surface water allocations on the horizon, even a normal rainfall year in 2009 and beyond will not alleviate the current crisis.

The water woes affecting all users in California will only be alleviated by long-term vision and bold action by water officials and politicians in the state. These are near-term issues that require long-term solutions, willing leadership and significant investment to protect both ecological and human uses for water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Three studies released over the past several months have put plenty of ideas on the table for solving the state’s water crisis. All three studies, with their attendant proposals, are sure to play a role in how water policy and infrastructure is developed over the next several years.

Two of those studies recommend, in the context of multiple necessary steps, building a peripheral canal around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to improve Delta health and preserve the critical flow of surface water to urban, environmental and agricultural users. A third study says that farmers can grow more food, more profitably, if they switch to water-saving crops and change their irrigation strategies.

The first of those studies, the Delta Vision Strategic Plan, released by Gov. Schwarzenegger’s blue ribbon panel in January 2008, offers a 12-point integrated solution for managing the Delta as a sustainable ecosystem that would support environmental and economic functions critical to the people of California.

The report concludes that the Delta’s ecosystem is “not sustainable over the long term” and calls for several integrated actions that must be taken in the very near future to counter severe threats to the Delta and Suisun Marsh.

Those actions focus on preparing for disasters in or around the Delta, protecting its ecosystem and water supply from urban encroachment, and starting work soon on short-term improvements to both the ecosystem and water supply system. The Delta Vision Plan calls for a dual-conveyance system from the Delta that includes a peripheral canal, but retains the option of pumping water from the Delta.

More information on the Delta Vision Strategic Plan can be found at http://www.deltavision.ca.gov/DeltaVision-DraftTaskForceVision.shtml.

A second report issued in July 2008 by a multi-disciplinary academic team from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) and UC Davis also called the current scenario in the Delta unsustainable, and said a projected sea level rise, crumbling ancient levees, larger floods, and high earthquake potential will inevitably result in a dramatically altered Delta environment (increased salinity).

The PPIC-UC Davis team said building a peripheral canal to carry water around the Delta is the “most promising strategy” to balance two critical policy goals: reviving a threatened ecosystem and ensuring a high-quality water supply for California’s residents.

It concludes that while a peripheral canal and “dual conveyance” provide similar benefits to the Delta, the dual conveyance is the more costly solution.

The full PPIC report can be found on the Web at http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_708EHR.pdf.

A third, more controversial, study issued in September 2008 by the Pacific Institute of Oakland, a think tank focused on environmental issues, concluded that California farmers can grow more food and fiber with less water by shifting to less water-intensive crops and adopting advanced irrigation management techniques, thus requiring less water exports from the Delta. This report focuses on how to reduce agricultural water usage, rather than what infrastructure should be developed for the Delta.

The report “More with Less: Agricultural Water Conservation and Efficiency in California – A Special Focus on the Delta,” said growers should be encouraged to focus water resources on high-value crops, rather than expending water on low-value crops such as rice, cotton, corn, wheat and alfalfa. It also provides policy recommendations to encourage the use of more efficient irrigation systems.

It does not account, however, for market realities and economies that dictate what crops are grown in California; nor the fact that California farmers have already made great strides in water use efficiency the last 20 years. The report can be found on the Web at http://www.pacinst.org/reports/more_with_less_delta/index.htm.

While all three of these studies offer starkly different visions for the future of the Delta and the state’s water supply, they at least offer food for thought for those tasked with making the bold decisions needed to protect the ecosystem of the Delta and secure a safe and abundant water supply for all Californians – including the 250,000 almond acres being affected by current water shortages, policy and lawsuits.

TAGS: Legislative
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