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Happy 10th Birthday to California’s Most Ambitious Water Project

Ten years ago, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan – known now as California WaterFix and EcoRestore – was launched. It is a reminder of the ability of diverse interests to find common ground, writes Tom Philp of the Metropolitan Water District.

Written by Tom Philp Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes
California delta
A boat cruises down the Delta Cross Channel between the Sacramento River and Snodgrass Slough near Walnut Grove, Calif. In an effort to stabilize the Sacramento River Delta's fisheries and water supply, California WaterFix proposes building a tunnel to transfer water from the Sacramento River near Clarksburg to the Clifton Court Forebay near Tracy.Rich Pedroncelli, AP

It all began 10 years ago to the day.

There were high hopes for a new era in California water. Environmental groups, agriculture, the state, the feds and big urban districts like Metropolitan all signed on the dotted line. They all agreed to plan for a new and comprehensive way to manage the water system and ecosystem of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The effort was to be known as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Until, of course, it later became known as California WaterFix and California EcoRestore.

Ten years. A quarter of a billion dollars in planning. An estimated million hours of meetings and analysis. Every schedule has been wrong. So has every pronouncement of its death. It lives.

Ten years ago, the movie “Crash” won the top Oscar. My soon-to-be-teenage son was angling for a flip phone. George W. Bush was in the White House. Arnold Schwarzenegger was smoking cigars in a makeshift Capitol tent.

In the Delta, fish species were dwindling to worrisome levels (which now seem like the good old days). Water agencies like Metropolitan were looking for some way to shore up the reliability of supplies. Environmental groups were looking for actions above the bare-bones survival of species. Regulators seemed open to some new path. So on October 6, 2006, they all signed a planning agreement. Read every word. In hindsight, it was remarkable how much mutual recognition of the shared challenges we had back then.

Do we still now?

Save for two wet winters, California has been in a crushing drought for the past decade. Climate change has completely altered the conversation. Rising Delta water temperatures could doom the smelt in ways not appreciated back then. Rising water temperatures behind Shasta Dam now threaten the ability to provide cool waters downstream for salmon to successfully spawn. We face a new common “adversary.”

And let’s face it. Perpetual planning is beyond a buzz kill.

Getting “shit done,” as the governor uttered back in 2012, now requires a 2081 permit from his California Department of Fish and Wildlife to show how California WaterFix complies with the Endangered Species Act. It requires two voluminous biological opinions for smelt and salmon from two different federal agencies. And a 404 permit from the U.S. Army. And a permit from the State Water Resources Control Board. And as icing on the process cake, a Consistency Determination by the Delta Stewardship Council.

The result: It appears sadly probable that a federal administration can be in office for eight years and never achieve a true podium moment of actual accomplishment. And be nothing more than an asterisk in planning history.

Sigh.

California WaterFix and EcoRestore can seem like a mood ring. There are many days when things from the inside look dark and ominous. So much acrimony. So great a challenge.

Yet there are the intoxicating days of hope.

Inside California water are individuals and agencies and stakeholders of great and worthy missions. There is tremendous capacity to find common ground.

Something led all those water warriors and government agencies to sign on that dotted line 10 years ago to work toward a noble solution. Somewhere, that spirit of shared objective is hopefully alive and well.

And on that note, California WaterFix and EcoRestore, Happy 10th Birthday. With one caveat: Please don’t turn 11. A decade of process without conclusion is plenty for all of us.

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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