Pressure is rising to "solve" the problems plaguing the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, and there are indications that state officials may start making difficult choices during 2009.

The Governor's Delta Vision Committee issued a report in January that contains an ambitious schedule for setting policy and beginning on-the-ground improvements to the plumbing system and environment. Only a few days after the Delta Vision Committee report came out, The Nature Conservancy became the first large environmental organization to endorse a peripheral canal (or "isolated conveyance facility"), signaling a potential shift in Delta politics. State lawmakers have begun introducing bills that would implement the Delta Vision report, create a Delta Conservancy, and establish a new governance structure.

One question is whether the ongoing state budget problem will prevent lawmakers and the Schwarzenegger administration from focusing on the Delta.

"I don't know if there is going to be space and policy energy for anything else," Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) Director of Research Ellen Hanak said of the state budget. "That would be a shame because you have a lot of people motivated right now. There's a real panic about the Delta. Sometimes those kinds of crises can motivate people to move more and be willing to look at options."

The reasons for panic are plentiful:

• In December, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service enacted new rules to protect the endangered Delta smelt. The complex web of rules would maintain the 25% to 30% reduction in water pumping from the Delta that was originally ordered in 2007 by federal District Court Oliver Wanger, who rejected the Service's 2005 biological opinion that State Water Project (SWP) and Central Valley Project (CVP) pumping from the Delta does not harm the endangered fish. The new rules could impose even greater cutbacks during drought years.

• The chances of catastrophic and multiple levee failures caused by flooding, earthquake or rising sea level appear greater than estimated only a few years ago. According to the PPIC, an island in the heart of the Delta has a 99% chance of inundation by 2100. Catastrophic levee failures could halt pumping from the Delta for months or even years, jeopardizing the state's economy.

• Every environmental warning light is blinking red. In January, the National Marine Fisheries Service unveiled a draft report that concludes salmon, steelhead and sturgeon cannot survive current water management conditions. When the report becomes final in March, it could force major changes in Delta water management based on Endangered Species Act mandates.

• Although late season rain and snow could still fall, it appears California is in the midst of its third consecutive drought year. Reservoirs are only one-third full. The SWP and CVP may provide as little as 10% to 15% of allocations Such low deliveries could cost the Central Valley tens of thousands of jobs. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has announced there is a 50% chance it will ration water this year.

"There is no time to waste," concluded the Delta Vision Committee, "and we must accelerate implementation of near-term fundamental actions. Additional delay will only compound the risk to the state and its citizens."

Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), chairman of the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, said the Delta Vision implementation report has teed up the issues that lawmakers must decide. "I don't know if it will happen this year, but this is the two-year-long session to get it done. This issue is here and now," said Huffman, whose AB 39 would implement the Delta Vision report.

The Delta Vision report was prepared by five cabinet secretaries. It followed up on a governor's blue ribbon task force that examined the issues for two years and made a series of recommendations. Initially, Resources Agency Secretary Mike Chrisman said the administration could implement the report's recommendations – including construction of a peripheral canal – without the Legislature's consent. Chrisman appears to have since backed away from that position.

"In the real world," responded Huffman, "all the things that are going to have to happen for a canal to work are going to require broad consensus."

Reaching consensus on the peripheral canal has proven impossible. In 1982, 62.7% of voters rejected Proposition 9, which proposed construction of a canal from the Sacramento River to the California Aqueduct south of the Delta.  Voters in Northern California saw the peripheral canal as an evil attempt to take "their" water and ruin the Delta, while Southern California voters saw a way to provide water reliability. About 60% of Southern California voters backed Proposition 9, which was not enough to offset the 90% to 95% of voters in most Northern California counties who said no, according to Wesley Hussey, assistant professor of government at California State University, Sacramento.

"The politics need to remove the mostly north-versus-south connotations of the canal," Hussey said. "The whole state needs to have some change."

The Nature Conservancy's endorsement of a peripheral canal could help turn the political tide. Anthony Saracino, California water program director for The Nature Conservancy, said nearly everyone's understanding of the Delta ecosystem has evolved since 1982. Saracino noted that his organization has not received substantial criticism since it issued a Delta conservation strategy endorsing a canal.

"Moving water through the Delta for export is not only not a natural situation, it is one of the reasons the ecosystem is failing," Saracino said. "We need to do something to restore more natural flows."

The peripheral canal "for 20 years was off the table," said PPIC's Hanak. "It stayed off the table until we started to talk about two years ago in our report." She agreed with Saracino that a canal could be beneficial to the Delta's troubled fish because no longer would giant pumps alter the Delta's natural flows. But even without considering the fish, the current system of unstable levees poses significant water supply reliability problems, she said.

The Delta Vision Committee recommended a dual water conveyance system. One canal would bypass the Delta entirely, while the other would run through the Delta, providing water for environmental purposes at important times for wildlife and fish.

Not everyone is on board. In a commentary for the Sacramento Bee, Pacific Institute President Peter Gleick, one of the state's leading water policy analysts, wrote: "Given the enormous unknowns about the actual costs, benefits, design, rules for operation and impacts, it is grossly premature to take a position either in favor of or in opposition to, the peripheral canal."

Delta farmers oppose a peripheral canal because they fear it would doom their way of life. Others have criticized the Delta Vision Committee for backing a canal while delaying a recommendation on exactly who should operate the canal. Indeed, the governance question may be the stickiest of all.

"Anytime you work on water issues, on any big issues, there has be some element of trust," said Rita Schmidt Sudman, who heads the Water Education Foundation. "If we did have some kind of conveyance facility, how would it be governed? Whose hand would be on the tiller?" Until those questions are answered, it may be difficult to get consensus for a peripheral canal, she observed.

Hanak pointed to PPIC reports urging the state to first establish a governance and financing system, and then to begin making broad decisions. But one of those decisions, she said, should be to build a peripheral canal with flexible operating abilities.

"You can't know everything before you make a strategic decision on this," Hanak said. "It's our feeling that we have enough information to make decisions about water policy."

Ellen Hanak, Public Policy Institute of California, (415) 291-4400.
Rita Schmidt Sudman, Water Education Foundation, (916) 444-6240.
Assemblyman Jared Huffman, (916) 319-2006.
Wesley Hussey, California State University, Sacramento, Government Department, (916) 956-0646.
Delta Vision:
Public Policy Institute of California water reports: