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Press Release · April 29, 2013

Steps Toward a Healthier Delta

New Approach, Institutional Changes Can Yield Better, More Cost-effective Results for Ecosystem

SAN FRANCISCO, April 29, 2013—With California at a critical juncture on policy for the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, a new report lays out steps the state can take to improve the health of this important ecosystem. The report, released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), recommends comprehensive, science-based management of the multiple sources of stress on the ailing ecosystem. It also recommends improvements to the highly fragmented system of oversight that now involves dozens of federal, state, and local agencies.

The report emphasizes that there is no simple fix for the Delta’s ecosystem. Instead, it lays out an approach likely to achieve better environmental results than current efforts, while containing costs—which are likely to exceed several hundred million dollars annually.

PPIC releases the report as the state prepares to adopt the Delta Plan, the long-term planning tool for meeting the dual goals of improving the environment and ensuring a reliable water supply. A second high-profile effort, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), is under negotiation. The draft BDCP proposes construction of a new tunnel or tunnels to divert water from the Delta accompanied by multibillion-dollar investments to improve Delta habitat. The PPIC report says that both of these efforts are promising but that neither offers a sufficiently comprehensive approach to addressing the many sources of stress on the ecosystem. Moreover, the plans offer only limited guidance on addressing future challenges such as climate change.

The report’s authors drew on scientific, economic, and legal perspectives on the Delta’s problems and potential solutions. They also conducted two confidential surveys—one involving scientific experts and a second focused on federal and state policymakers and Delta stakeholders. The stakeholders surveyed included representatives of agencies that export water from the Delta, Delta advocates, environmental advocates, fishing interests, and agencies that divert water upstream or discharge pollutants in the watershed.

Survey respondents were asked about the role of five types of stressors on the Delta’s native fish: discharges of contaminants, fish management practices, alterations in water flow, invasive species, and alteration of the physical habitat. The scientists and stakeholders generally agreed that all five stressors contributed to the decline of native fish.

Asked to rank the most promising actions to improve conditions for native fish, most of scientists chose actions that would improve water flows and habitat in the Delta and upstream. These include introducing more variability in water flow, reducing water exports, expanding seasonal floodplains and tidal marshes in the Delta, improving upstream spawning and rearing habitat, and removing selected dams. There was a lack of consensus on the construction of a canal or tunnel, reflecting uncertainty about the size of the project and how it might be operated. Stakeholder groups were broadly aligned with the scientists in their rankings—but they tended to choose actions that would shift financial burdens to others. The report’s authors found the level of agreement heartening.

“Despite years of heated debate, there is broad agreement on the nature of the problem and some agreement on the solutions,” says report coauthor Ellen Hanak, senior fellow and co-director of research at the Public Policy Institute of California. “That suggests the potential for more constructive discussion. But no agreement can be effectively implemented until we address our fragmented water management system.”

The consequences of fragmentation are considerable—including costly delays, gaps in oversight, and conflicting mandates. The fragmented management of invasive species, for example, means that numerous entities have a role in prevention but no entity is responsible for coordinating efforts. And, while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposes removing vegetation from levees to control floods, fisheries agencies promote vegetation to provide shaded habitat along river edges.

The authors propose several institutional changes, most of them achievable without new legislation. These changes would provide consistent planning, more integrated and accountable management, and more comprehensive regulatory oversight. The authors also recommend the creation of a Delta science joint powers authority that would pool resources, share data, foster broad consensus on scientific results, and link science to management decisions.

As the PPIC report notes, much of the cost of improving the Delta will be borne by stakeholders and the general public—both businesses and households—through fees or new state bonds.

“The case for more funding will be easier to make if policymakers and managers can show that the money will be spent in an integrated, cost-effective manner,” says coauthor Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California at Davis and PPIC adjunct fellow. “We need a statewide conversation about the value of the Delta, not just as a source of water but as a place of natural heritage for future generations.”

The report’s other authors are John Durand, a doctoral candidate in ecology at UC Davis; William Fleenor, research engineer in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at UC Davis; Brian Gray, professor at the UC Hastings College of Law, San Francisco; Josué Medellín-Azuara, research scientist at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences; Jeffrey Mount, professor emeritus in geology at UC Davis and a partner in Saracino & Mount, LLC; Peter Moyle, professor in the Department of Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology and associate director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis; Caitrin Phillips, research associate at PPIC; and Barton “Buzz” Thompson, the Robert E. Paradise Professor in Natural Resources Law at Stanford Law School and the Perry L. McCarty Director of the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford.

The report is titled Stress Relief: Prescriptions for a Healthier Delta Ecosystem. This publication and five related reports are supported with funding from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.


PPIC is dedicated to informing and 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. As a private operating foundation, PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.