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Delta Dawn?

Wednesday, February 03, 2010


How veteran California legislator Joe Simitian ’77 waded in to play a leadership role in California’s water reform battle.

A few miles downstream from the confluence of California’s Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, their combined waters—the bounteous runoff from the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada—funnel through the Strait of Carquinez, gap in the low hills of the Coast Range. This geological chokepoint creates a rare hydrological marvel: a vast, inverted river delta—one of only a few inverted deltas in the world. It’s an immense, wildlife-rich estuary once known as the “inland sea.”

Over the past 150 years, though, the Delta’s abundant and flood-prone waters have been corralled by levees and tapped by giant aqueducts. Now the linchpin of California’s water supply, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta provides water to 25 million California residents and irrigates 5 million acres of cropland. But even as demand for the Delta’s water has grown, the supply has shrunk: The Delta has been plagued by four consecutive years of drought.

The combined effects of drought and diversion have devastated the estuary’s wildlife, especially fish populations. The Pacific smelt is on the verge of extinction, and wild salmon runs have dropped by 98 percent: from 3 million per year to just 50,000 per year. “There is, indeed, a salmon crisis in California,” Professor Holly Doremus, a Boalt Hall expert on state environmental laws, told California legislators in March 2009. “This is very obvious to anyone paying attention.” Doremus added, “This is not new. It’s as if we’ve waited until we’ve had a heart attack to seek medical attention rather than take preventive action.”

But it isn’t just wildlife that is at risk: Experts warn that the Delta’s 1,600-mile maze of flood-control levees, some dating back 150 years—is extremely vulnerable to collapse, and some estimates of flood damage from a Katrina-like catastrophe put the potential cost at $25 billion or more.

In April 2009, water shortages, ecological damage, and vulnerable levees prompted the environmental group American Rivers to declare the Delta America’s most endangered waterway. Environmentalists have long sought a solution to the situation. But just as the Delta is a geologic and hydrologic chokepoint, it’s proven to be a political chokepoint, too, defying a quartercentury of legislative attempts at water reform. Finally, in November 2009, the California legislature passed an omnibus package of water-reform bills. Designed to protect the Delta’s fragile ecosystem and improve water-supply reliability, the package included four bills to address the issues of water supply, environmental protections, groundwater monitoring, and oversight and enforcement, as well as a bond issue to fund future
water projects.

Fiscally, the most contentious piece of the water-reform bill signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger on Nov. 9 is likely to be the $11-billion bond issue that would fund future water projects. But philosophically, the linchpin of the package is SBX7 1, authored by State Senator Joe Simitian, ’77. Simitian’s bill creates two “co-equal goals,” water-supply reliability and an improved ecosystem in the crucial and fragile Sacramento- San Joaquin Delta. SB-1 also abolishes the troubled Cal-Fed program and the Bay Delta Authority, creating a new seven-member governing council to oversee future water projects and the Delta’s environmental protection. Simitian—chairman of the Senate’s Environmental Quality Committee—spoke at length with Transcript about his labyrinthine four-year journey through California’s water world.

Click the following link to access a PDF of the interview:

View the full story (Transcript)