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May 27, 2013
Editorial: Delta Plan sets the stage for broad sacrifice


(May 27 -- By the Editorial Board)

Many trees died to produce the environmental impact report for the Delta Plan. That's because hundreds of groups and individuals from across the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed felt compelled to send in reams of comments to the Delta Stewardship Council. None could be considered love letters.

Judging from these comments, the verdict on the final Delta Plan falls into two categories: 1) The plan is impossibly vague and couched in generalities, or 2) The plan is a regulatory overreach that potentially threatens many of the water users and other stakeholders in the Delta.

As it turns out, both of these responses are accurate. The Delta Plan is a work in progress, a set of principles instead of firm prescriptions. And if California remains committed toward building on these principles, it could well shake up the status quo in the Delta, requiring sacrifices from all involved.

Just to be clear, the Delta Plan is a separate blueprint from the locally disputed Bay Delta Conservation Plan. The latter is a six-year effort by water contractors that want to obtain 50-year permits to export water while still harming certain imperiled species. Part of the BDCP involves construction of two tunnels to divert water from the Sacramento River and to reduce pumping from the south Delta.

The Delta Plan, by contrast, was mandated by the Legislature as part of the 2009 Delta Reform Act and was aimed at resolving wider disputes over water management. That law made clear that "the policy of the state of California is to reduce reliance on the Delta in meeting California's future water supply needs." It called for "a more reliable water supply for California" while "protecting, restoring and enhancing the Delta ecosystem."

Headed by former Sacramento mayor and lawmaker Phil Isenberg, the Delta Stewardship Council conducted nearly 100 public meetings and produced eight drafts before finalizing its plan on May 16. The final plan reduced the number of regulatory measures from previous versions. Nonetheless, it includes 14 enforceable polices and 73 nonbinding recommendations, with these general goals:

• Investment in local and regional water supplies and water use efficiency to reduce reliance on the Delta. The plan calls for improved conveyance, although not specifically the preferred BDCP proposal now under review.

• Protection and restoration of the Delta ecosystem, with an emphasis on six high-priority locations.

• Prohibition of encroachments on floodways and floodplains, with a plan set for 2015 to guide Delta flood protection investments.

We wish the Delta Plan had been stronger in some areas. It should have made clear that, if California is going to turn proposals into reality, lawmakers must create a fee structure to pay for investments in water supply, conservation, habitat restoration, flood control and other Delta improvements. California can't keep depending on bonds to pay for projects that beneficiaries should be covering.

Still, the Delta Plan helps broaden the conversation about the Delta, and makes clear that all of us in the watershed, to varying degrees, are part of the problem, and the solution. "The Delta," the plan's executive summary states, "is a zone where the wants of a modern society come into collision with each other and with the stubborn limitations of a natural system."

The Delta Plan prods us to examine those human wants in the face of natural limitations, with the recognition that the stewardship council retains regulatory power to block actions deemed inconsistent with the Delta Plan. The council's task now is to build upon its baseline, coming up with firm policies that are fair, reasonable, based in science and in conformance of the law.


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