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Press Release · February 7, 2007

Deteriorating And Deadlocked… The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Is A California Disaster-In-Waiting

Current Delta Policies and Infrastructure Unsustainable for Nearly All Interests; Rethinking “Freshwater Only” May Be Best Hope for Environment, Future

SAN FRANCISCO, California, February 7, 2007 – California’s critically important Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is on a dangerously unsustainable path, according to a study released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). A vital natural resource and major supplier of the state’s urban and agricultural water, the Delta could become an environmental and economic disaster due to changing conditions, deterioration, and increasing vulnerabilities to its system of levees. Moreover, one of the study’s crucial recommendations calls for “correcting” a longstanding state policy that, to many, is sacrosanct.

In the past three decades, politics and controversy surrounding the Delta have incited near-epic battles between environmental, agricultural, urban development, local, and other interests. But, ironically, as the study’s in-depth analysis makes clear, the forces driving the Delta’s future are well beyond their control. Subsiding land, rising sea levels, earthquakes, climate change, invasive species, and urbanization are all increasing the risks and consequences of a sudden levee collapse and steadily degrading the Delta’s overall performance.

And the magnitude of an unexpected collapse is staggering. The cost of a single episode of Delta failure could reach $40 billion and would cause severe disruptions to California’s water supply. Furthermore, left uncorrected, the costs and problems created by the Delta’s general deterioration will only escalate. The study – authored by recognized experts in environmental and civil engineering, water policy, fish and conservation biology, geology, and resource and agricultural economics – finds that there is a dire need to develop new and innovative management policies to sustain the Delta, and analyzes and evaluates a range of options.

However, the study’s most central conclusion could be a hard pill for many to swallow: The perception that the Delta is a naturally stable freshwater system – and should be maintained as such – is wrong. In fact, in its natural state, the Delta was subject to strong tidal cycles and other fluctuations in water quality. Only parts of the Delta were mostly fresh year-round; others were naturally brackish (salty) either seasonally or during dry years.

“The belief has been that we’re defending the environment by maintaining the freshwater system, but that is actually incompatible with giving the Delta’s native species and ecosystem a fighting chance to survive and prosper,” says PPIC program director Ellen Hanak, who co-authored the study with University of California at Davis researchers – professor Jay Lund, research engineer William Fleenor, professor Richard Howitt, professor Jeffrey Mount, and professor Peter Moyle. Protecting the Delta’s native species has been a legal stipulation since the Endangered Species Act was applied in the late 1980s and if greater fluctuation in salinity and water quality were allowed to return – that is, if the Delta were not preserved as a homogeneous freshwater body – it would better support the native ecosystem and species. These species do not adapt as well as invasive ones to the Delta’s artificial environment.

This recommendation challenges a long held, fiercely protected notion – and if implemented, would reverse a state policy that has been in place since 1930. According to Hanak, “One of the biggest hurdles for policymakers will be to correct some basic misconceptions about how the Delta operates. If that can be done, it will help lift the political and institutional barriers that have made newer, more sustainable management strategies unattainable.”

That said, the authors candidly acknowledge that satisfying all of the Delta’s stakeholders is highly unlikely; and they make “mitigation alternatives” a specific part of their recommendations. The report argues that interests whose land or water concerns cannot be directly met might be fairly compensated by financial or other means. “We can’t reasonably expect everyone to get what they want – tradeoffs are inevitable,” says Hanak. “The approach should be the one that gets the best overall results and reasonably compensates losers.”

The study Envisioning Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta makes compelling arguments for transforming and thus, renewing, the Delta. Key additional findings and recommendations:

  • Although changes will result in some significant costs and dislocations, most users of Delta services can adapt economically. Still, any equitable solution must fairly consider losses and displacements.
  • Strong political and institutional leadership is needed to address the Delta crisis. Case in point? Since mid-2006, the body responsible for coordinating CALFED, the Delta’s joint federal and state program, has been operating without independent authority or budget.
  • Stakeholders will need to consider ways other than strictly preserving the freshwater system to nurture a healthy long-term future for the Delta’s ecosystem, agriculture, and water supply.
  • Scientific work in the Delta needs to be refocused. Levee replacement, experiments in adapting the ecosystem, flood control, and island land management should be key components of a new problem-solving framework.
  • Direct beneficiaries of the Delta should be primarily responsible for financing solutions and should make up-front commitments. Public funds should be reserved for the truly public components of any investment. Moreover, in the wake of a natural catastrophe, an effective funding mechanism will be essential to avert financial disaster for state and local interests.

The Public Policy Institute of California is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett.