This commentary was published in CALmatters on February 10, 2020.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has put forward a framework for managing water and habitat in the Delta and its watershed. As far as we can tell, no one is very happy with the framework—and that may be a good sign.
The framework is the product of years of effort to negotiate an agreement among water users, other stakeholders, and regulatory agencies. Details are yet to be worked out, including firm commitments for water and funding, along with critical negotiations with the federal government on how to cooperatively manage upstream dams and the Delta pumps. Ultimately, the package has to be acceptable to state and federal regulators.
The scope of this effort is vast.
Over the next 15 years, the proposal is to spend more than $5 billion on new river and floodplain habitat to benefit salmon and other native fish species.
This funding will also pay for a mix of new water projects, water purchases, and fallowing of farmland will provide additional water for the environment. Additionally, new governance and science programs will manage the water and habitat in the Delta, as well as the rivers that flow into it.
For many years and in multiple publications by the Public Policy Institute of California, we have been calling for a negotiated agreement in the Delta and its watershed. This agreement needs robust management that includes shared governance, reliable funding, strong science support, and regulatory backstops if parties fail to live up to their obligations.
These must-haves are outlined in our recent report: A Path Forward for California’s Freshwater Ecosystems.
It is also time to shift away from the traditional approach to addressing environmental concerns in the Delta, which has overemphasized a handful of endangered fishes and a single management tool: the volume of water dedicated to these fishes.
Success will require a broad portfolio of actions to manage the connections between water, land, and the many species—including humans—who rely on healthy ecosystems. The proposed framework makes an earnest attempt to take this broader approach.
A negotiated agreement will, by necessity, be imperfect and controversial. That’s because it is just not possible to satisfy all interests in the Delta. The trade-offs are real, sometimes painful, and can only be resolved through compromise.
Many Delta combatants are dug in, committed to fighting the same battles with the same arguments that they have been using for decades.
We can appreciate why many parties would want to hold out for a better deal, and absent that, turn to the courts in the hopes of getting their way. But as seasoned veterans of the Delta know well, the delay-and-litigate strategy has inherent risks because the outcomes are hard to predict.
In the meantime, the Delta and its watershed are changing rapidly—faster than science and management can keep up.
Many factors are to blame, including current and historic land and water management, the introduction of innumerable non-native species, declining water quality, the inexorable rise of sea level, and the changing climate.
This important ecosystem needs attention now, before conditions deteriorate further.
An agreement, with all its imperfections, provides some measure of certainty to water users and the environment alike.
If a coalition of interests sign on, even if reluctantly, the likelihood of success goes up, because all parties will have an interest in making the agreement work.
Perhaps most importantly, an agreement is the only way to comprehensively address the Delta’s problems. Drawn-out legal battles over how much water is allocated to the environment ignore all the other factors that affect ecosystem health.
We are not endorsing the specific contents of the Newsom Administration’s proposed framework. But we believe it has the “bones” of an eventual agreement that can be durable and binding, avoiding lengthy delays in addressing the Delta’s many problems.
The many Delta interests should persevere and try to make this agreement happen. This is an opportunity—the kind that comes along rarely—to shift from fighting about the Delta’s future to actually shaping it.