Phil Isenberg: What’s Next for the Delta?

Six years ago the Delta Stewardship Council kicked off, headed by Phil Isenberg, an attorney and former state assembly member. Isenberg talks to Water Deeply about the council’s Delta Plan, its legal challenges and the near future.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
This photo was taken in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta near Rio Vista, Calif. The Delta ecosystem is the object of much political and scientific scrutiny.Mitch Lorens, Flickr

Speaking on May 18 to the Mountain Counties Water Resources Association, Phil Isenberg said, “I have learned the hardest thing in public life to do is change human behavior. It’s a lot easier to pass a law than to get people to like it and to pay attention to it.”

With 50 years of public policy experience, Isenberg knows this all too well; his lesson applies to the trials of implementing water policy in California. Beginning in the early 1970s, Isenberg served on Sacramento City Council, then went on to be mayor and a member of the state assembly.

With a jurisdiction overlapping parts of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, he became well versed in the tangle of Delta politics – something he tried to smooth out when he was appointed the first chair of the newly formed Delta Stewardship Council in 2010. After six years with the council and having played a key role in drafting its Delta Plan, Isenberg retired this spring; he currently serves on the board of directors of the Public Policy Institute of California.

He recently spoke with Water Deeply about the Delta Plan, what is at stake in the region and the route toward a more collaborative approach to solving some of California’s most crucial water problems.

Water Deeply: You served as the first chair of Delta Stewardship Council – what did the council do during that time?

Phil Isenberg: We got created by legislation passed and signed in 2009. We were set up by March in 2010. We did a lot of things, but the obligation we had under the statutory provision was to develop, adopt and start implementing a Delta plan.

For the first three to three-and-a-half years of our existence, that was probably the main focus of our effort. We did a legally enforceable plan, which is what the legislation called for.

Then, within 30 days of our adopting the plan in 2013, we got sued by 27 parties who said we went too far, or we didn’t go far enough. The court decision just came down in May of this year, validating the council’s authority in many ways, and telling us to go back to the drawing board and be more specific on water flows and conveyance facilities.

Water Deeply: Based on the fact that so many different parties decided to sue, what does that tell us about the feasibility of finding solutions and enacting some of them to get some stuff done in the Delta?

Isenberg: It’s going to be hard. It’s going to take a very long time. It’s going to take a lot of money. It requires a combination of carrot and stick; of course, everybody in society prefers to receive carrots for doing good things and nobody wants to be told what to do. But it’s the judicious application of both that is probably the most important thing for society.

Water Deeply: Gov. Jerry Brown has two proposed projects, California Water Fix to build new conveyance and California EcoRestore to focus on habitat restoration in the Delta – how do those efforts differ from what’s in the Delta Plan?

Isenberg: Water Fix is a proposal of the administration, not a regulation. It will have enforceable elements, but those enforceable elements are largely centered around the contract that is signed with water contractors who want to receive water through the new Delta facility.

The Delta Plan has 14 regulations and about 70 recommendations. I guess it’s probably fair to say it is the first step toward a legally enforceable water system for the state, as opposed to the very fragmented, locally controlled system that we have had for 150 years.

Water Deeply: Ecologically, what is the state of the Delta right now?

Isenberg: Well, it’s a healthy ecology but it’s not the one we want. On the scientific side, it’s one of the things that has most interested and surprised me. Because the political debate is, “The Delta is awful. There is nothing good about it. It is almost totally destroyed or will be totally destroyed in the future.”

But it’s much more nuanced than that. What we call endangered species are really society’s favorite species of birds and fish and we are stuck with a system that nature seems to change willy-nilly, partially in response to human behavior and also on its own terms.

It looks like some of the Delta’s protected species are going to disappear. Nobody’s quite sure how you stop it, if you actually want to stop it.

It’s a muddle and it’s a mess and one of the imponderable issues in the water arena of California is, What do you do with the Endangered Species Act? All of the scientists will tell you it’s an ecosystem, it’s not a single species to be followed by another species. You can do things to benefit one category of salmon that might hurt another.

It’s a mess, but one of society’s making and it’s a mess of the kind of stuff we’ve faced before and we will always face in society. How you do it, I suppose, is you address it heads-up and be honest with people about what the consequences are and what the costs are going to be, knowing full well that most people aren’t paying attention and think that politicians are elected to solve all these problems.

Water Deeply: Looking at the big picture of water issues in California, what do you find most concerning about where we are right now?

Isenberg: Everybody wants to avoid reduction of water to themselves, and they think that can happen if other people make cuts or the environment doesn’t get water or something like that.

A lot of really smart operators understand that doesn’t make any sense, but their customers, their water board members, somehow insist that their needs come before everybody else’s. That attitude – and Donald Trump is just the latest example of it – hasn’t worked, can’t work, won’t work.

Water Deeply: So, how do we get people to be a little bit more collaborative?

Isenberg: Well, this is no particular secret, it’s just one that people have trouble accepting. We’ve all got to be prudent in our use of water. We use more water than we need to for a whole lot of purposes and we tend to think that’s okay.

The latest episode this year, which is still the fifth year of the drought, everybody says, “Well, it rained a lot up north, so we don’t have to do anything any more.” That’s a classic comment from people who believe that if they’re satisfied, then everything else is okay. That’s the “me first” attitude that corrupts the policy debate.

Water Deeply: Which areas should we be focused on for being most prudent?

Isenberg: Continuing the urban conservation is easier to do than most other things but it just doesn’t get you as far as you need to go. The large savings are going to come from changes in agricultural operations, and boy, that’s pushing rocks uphill. That’s very difficult to do.

Witness the fact that it took us 150-plus years as a state to have a relatively modest state enforcement of underground water use that has yet to be fully implemented, because a lot of people don’t like the consequences of not having all the water they want every day they want it.

There are things that you need to do on the environment and other areas, but they are equally complicated, difficult and painful.

Water Deeply: Overall, are you at all optimistic about our water future here in California?

Isenberg: Over time, sure. There will be money from the state but it’s not going to be everything and over time it will be okay. I consider myself either an optimistic pessimist or a pessimistic optimist, depending on the day of the week.

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