Coalition gaining momentum to solve California’s water woes

150 150 Justin Ewers

Farmland in Delta region. (Photo credit: Doc Searls via Flickr)

For California’s usually divisive water politics, this may end up being an October to remember. Only a few months after Gov. Brown announced plans to proceed with a $14 billion tunnel system that would divert water through the Bay Delta—a proposal that immediately reignited the long-running water wars between the state’s rural and urban areas—the last few weeks have seen some of these same groups coming together around a plan to solve the state’s water crisis.

The first signs of progress appeared last week in Martinez, where a State Senate committee unveiled a list of short-term water projects supported by a surprisingly diverse group of Delta stakeholders. Avoiding the divisive subject of the governor’s canal, a loose-knit group of farmers, environmentalists, and water providers calling themselves the Coalition to Support Near-Term Delta Projects spent the day highlighting their support for a shorter-term collection of 43 projects—ranging from levee improvements to ecosystem restoration. 

“These stakeholders don’t always see eye-to-eye, yet they were able to achieve consensus on 43 promising projects that will improve conditions in the Delta over the next 10 years,” said State Senator Lois Wolk (D-Davis), who represents four of the five counties in the Delta and also chairs the State Senate’s Select Committee on Delta Stewardship and Sustainability.

Instead of battling it out over the governor’s proposal to build a canal around the Delta—a project that would take more than a decade to complete—the groups have spent the last six months discussing what they can agree on in the short-term.

“For the first time we are focused on what common purpose we have, rather than what divides us,” said Wolk. “The consensus is there on these near-term projects. Let’s get them done.”

A broad coalition

In the weeks following the event in Martinez, there have been signs that the Delta group’s work is only the beginning—and that an even broader coalition is forming around a set of politically viable, short-term solutions to the Delta’s water crisis. 

This broad-based group, which includes the five Delta counties and the seven neighboring counties of the San Joaquin Valley, has also spent the last several years working to find common ground on the state’s water issues. Combining the work of two groups, the Delta Counties Coalition and the Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, this coalition has been working with 12 county governments from Yolo to Kern to create a “candidate list” of more than 20 water projects that can be completed in the next 3-5 years. (After the first California Economic Summit this spring, members of the 12-county group also joined a Summit Action Team focused on modernizing the state’s water infrastructure.) 

Unlike the projects unveiled last week in Martinez, these projects aren’t limited to the Delta. Instead, they take a more comprehensive approach to tackling the challenge of maintaining the Delta ecosystem, while also providing Californians with a reliable source of water. 

The group’s project list, which has not yet been made public until it is reviewed by the boards of supervisors of all 12 counties, is spread out over almost 300 miles, from Tejon Pass in Kern County to the northern edge of Yolo County. After preliminary vetting by technical advisors for all 12 counties, the candidate projects are also carefully inter-linked so they include complementary efforts like water quality, water supply reliability, levee protection, ground water recharge, and habitat restoration.

The distinguishing feature

What truly distinguishes these projects, however, is the political coalition standing behind them. After years of building relationships and trust between supervisors and technical advisors from each of the 12 counties, the lists of projects are moving forward this fall. They are currently being reviewed by each county’s supervisors, who will make the list public after they are approved. 

The fact that county leaders in such a large, diverse area could move forward collaboratively to recommend implementation of substantive candidate projects really augers well for how water policy can move forward in other parts of California,” said Jim Tischer, program specialist at Fresno State University’s California Water Institute.

After being involved for three years in the 12-county effort, Tischer believes the counties’ involvement is critical to moving these projects forward.

“Counties have major executive responsibilities to set priorities for the public good, prepare balanced budgets, and oversee implementation. In the past however, they’ve had lesser roles in setting water policy—that’s typically left to water district managers.”

The 12-county effort could represent a working political mechanism the state can rely on to tackle water and other resource issues across California.

“The key here is having a proactive process focused on achievable outcomes,” says Tischer. “These projects—and the 43 announced last week—none of them achieve their full benefit unless they are linked with others and are implemented in a timely manner according to previously established upon priorities.”

A path forward

Of course, that process also depends on funding, but there, too, both the Delta effort and the 12-county group may have a path forward. The state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office recently identified $582 million in unappropriated funding from Propositions 50, 84, and 1E that could be utilized for Delta projects. The LAO also estimated that the state is holding onto $1 billion in unspent bond funds already appropriated to state agencies that could be used for the Delta projects.

With enough political support behind them, in other words, many of these projects could proceed forward—and greatly benefit the Delta and San Joaquin Valley—no matter what final action state leaders take on a peripheral canal. Indeed, the projects from both groups are vital first steps to building a more sustainable water system for California.

“There’s much more to be done than just build a canal,” said Tischer. “And even if we do build one, all these other things have to happen anyway—the levees need to be strengthened because of global warming and cleaned out. Water conservation has to happen. Invasive species have to be dealt with. We need conveyance between both sides of the Valley; flood protection; groundwater banking. You can’t prepare California for the next 30 years with what we have in place right now.”

Unlike years past, this time it appears there are groups in California aiming to do something about it.


Justin Ewers

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