Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) put the dilemma simply: "The question is, how do you ensure that two-thirds of the state has a reliable supply of clean water while at the same time acknowledging and addressing the fact that from an environmental standpoint, the delta's gone to hell in a handbasket over the last five years?" Simitian has taken a leadership role in crafting legislation to reform the broken system.
"I just think that things have come together at this particular time to suggest that there ought to be a sense of urgency about all of this," Simitian added during a recent conversation with the Guardian. "But I worry that inaction is always the default mechanism, and in a conversation such as this one, I don't think we can afford inaction very much longer."
Right now five bills are pending in Sacramento. Backers say they strive to meet two "co-equal goals" that in the past have proven to be at odds: more reliable delta water deliveries, and a restored delta ecosystem. Simitian's bill would create a Delta Stewardship Council, a powerful body authorized to approve spending for a new system for moving water through the delta that could include a new version of the much-maligned peripheral canal, a hydraulic bypass diverting freshwater from the Sacramento River around the brackish delta to ship south.
A bill introduced by Assembly Member Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), who heads the water committee, would require a 20 percent reduction in statewide urban per capita water use by 2020. Other objectives in the legislation are to firm up ecological protections for the delta, reevaluate the state's system of water rights, and establish new water-use reporting requirements.
"Is there a win-win here? I think there is," Simitian told us. "But only if you look at this from sort of a big-picture, comprehensive standpoint, which is why we've got five different bills that seek to make sure there's a balancing of interests. One of the things we've talked about was the co-equal goals of a reliable supply of clean water with delta restoration. And that's going to require not looking at any one of these issues in isolation, but taking it all together."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has made it clear that he believes building a peripheral canal is the best plan. Variations of this idea have been proposed since the 1940s, but in 1982, Californians voted it down at the ballot (with an overwhelming majority of Northern Californians voting no).
Some groups perceive this as a water grab for Southern California and agribusiness, and delta interests say it would cripple both delta agriculture and the estuary by increasing salinity levels from seawater and preventing the delta from being flushed out by natural freshwater flows. Cost estimates for that project range from $10 billion to $40 billion.
Schwarzenegger has also threatened to veto any package proposed by the Democrat-controlled Legislature that doesn't include bonds for new dams (in their current form, the bills do not). A bond bill would require a two-thirds majority, while the proposed water bills would only need a simple majority vote to pass.
"I think it's helpful for the governor to weigh in and share his opinions," Simitian noted cautiously. "However, I did not think it was helpful for the governor to simply draw a line in the sand."
The proposals are being met with skepticism from all sides. Many environmentalists who've gone to battle over water policy issues for years have little faith, saying the proposed Delta Stewardship Council would cater to the governor's agenda because he would have the power to appoint four out of seven members.