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Reducing Reliance on the Bay-Delta

Should more water be diverted from the Delta? The state already decided this years ago with the Delta Plan, writes Kate Poole, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Written by Kate Poole Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
California drought endangered fish2
A low-flow water emitter irrigates almond trees at the Stewart & Jasper Orchards, in Newman, Calif. Like many Central Valley farmers, owner Jim Jasper depends on water pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to irrigate his crops. Rich Pedroncelli, AP

California’s drought  – or lack thereof, according to some  –  has made national headlines again, prompting suggestions from many quarters on whether we need to divert more or less water from the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary in response. Some of these suggestions reflect a basic understanding of California’s complex water system. Many don’t. But almost all of the recent debates seem to overlook one crucial and fundamental fact about California’s water future and the Bay-Delta ecosystem that serves as the switching yard for the state’s massive water projects: The state has already answered the question.

In 2009, California’s legislature reached agreement on how to resolve the seemingly endless Delta debates that dominate state water politics, and Governor Schwarzenegger passed that agreement into law. Elegant in its simplicity but profound in its direction, the agreement states (as codified in section 85021 of the Water Code):

“The policy of the State of California is to reduce reliance on the Delta in meeting California’s future water supply needs through a statewide strategy of investing in improved regional supplies, conservation and water use efficiency. Each region that depends on water from the Delta watershed shall improve its regional self-reliance for water through investment in water use efficiency, water recycling, advanced water technologies, local and regional water supply projects and improved regional coordination of local and regional water supply efforts.”

Plain and simple: In order to fix the Delta, we have to take less water from the Delta, and invest in regional water supplies for our future water security. Like the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act that passed in 2014, the passage of the Delta Reform Act in 2009 with its “reduced reliance” policy resolved a decades-long debate over how to manage a key statewide water asset for the future. And as with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, the challenge now is not figuring out what to do, but actually doing it  – following through on the statewide directive to reduce reliance on the Delta and giving it meaning where it counts, on the ground.

Of course, some water buffaloes have repeatedly rejected the idea that this law requires reducing water diversions from the estuary, employing their most creative sophistry to claim that it is only a policy, or that it addresses only “future” demands for water or that it should apply only in some far-off future.

Last month, a state court judge strongly rejected their arguments in challenges to the Delta Plan, explaining that, “The plain language of section 85021 requires all water supply needs beyond the date of its adoption to be balanced, and reduced reliance must be a part of this balancing.”

In other words, diverters need to take less water from the Delta in the future than they did in 2009 when the reduced reliance directive became law. The court’s decision also provided very helpful direction on implementing this directive, requiring the state to revise the Delta Plan to include “quantified or otherwise measurable targets” for achieving reduced Delta reliance, meaning “numeric goals that will be evaluated at a date certain to determine compliance or the measure of progress that has been accomplished.”

So what are the implications of this ruling? The Delta Plan is a long-term management plan for the Delta and the actions of public agencies must be consistent with it when implementing projects in the Delta. If, for example, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) wants to build two massive tunnels to divert more water from the Delta, the agency must demonstrate that the project will reduce reliance on the Delta and will be consistent with the plan’s targets for reducing reliance on the Delta.

Gino Celli, who farms 1,500 acres (600 hectares) of land and manages another 7,000 acres (2,800 hectares), draws his irrigation water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. How much water to export from the Delta remains a divisive issue in California. (Rich Pedroncelli, AP)

Gino Celli, who farms 1,500 acres (600 hectares) of land and manages another 7,000 acres (2,800 hectares), draws his irrigation water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. How much water to export from the Delta remains a divisive issue in California. (Rich Pedroncelli, AP)

Since DWR’s current proposal for the twin tunnels would increase water exported from the Delta over average export levels in 2009, the agency is not currently on track to demonstrate consistency with the Delta Plan. Indeed, the 25-page appendix from the 2013 Bay Delta Conservation Plan entitled “BDCP Compliance with the 2009 Delta Reform Act” does not include either the word “reliance” or section “85021” and as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) noted in our 2015 comments on WaterFix, the 2015 Revised Draft Environmental Impact Report likewise ignores the Delta Reform Act’s requirement to reduce reliance on the Delta.

In fact, the state perversely argues in those 2015 environmental documents that alternatives which substantially reduce diversions from the Delta (consistent with the best available science) are inconsistent with the purpose and need for the tunnels project, turning the reduced reliance directive upside-down.

Similarly, these clarifications should put to rest the arguments of many Delta exporters and their proxies that reducing reliance on the Delta, as required by state law, somehow does not apply to them. For example, shortly before the court issued its decision, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) rejected NRDC’s comment on MWD’s draft 2016 Urban Water Management Plan that the agency should develop a plan for local water supply investment that assumes it will receive less water exported from the Delta in the future than it has in the past. MWD responded that, “Section 85021 is a policy statement and does not require Metropolitan to reduce SWP imports.”

In broader terms, the ruling should serve as a stark reminder to policymakers that California has already chosen its path for resolving the Delta debates, and the path is to reduce diversions from the Delta and invest in more sustainable regional tools, such as improved water use efficiency, water recycling, stormwater capture and more. This is the suite of water management tools that Governor Brown endorsed in his California Water Action Plan, and that NRDC and the Pacific Institute found could generate up to 14 million acre-feet (17.2 billion cubic meters) annually in new water supplies and reduced water demands.

Ill-advised proposals from some in Congress and constant calls from water exporters about how to squeeze ever more water out of the Delta are clearly contrary to this path. As the Chronicle editorial board noted, “If anything, these efforts threaten to derail what progress the state has made toward establishing rational rules to share a diminishing resource in a warming world. The state’s Water Action Plan has set out broad priorities for water use and is letting local water interests take up the hard and necessary work of hammering out rational, reasonable water rules. What’s needed now is a statewide commitment to allocate  –  up front  – water for the environment.”

It’s time to stop rehashing the wise decision that California has already made to take less water from the overtapped Delta and invest in 21st-century water management tools as the right path to prepare for a climate-changed future that can sustain a healthy economy, environment and growing population. Let’s move beyond the tired old debate and get down to the business of implementing.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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