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Dams and Vision of Delta’s Future

Governor’s panel lays out vision of Delta’s future Report seeks ban on building in flood plains Stockton Record – 10/19/07 Hank Shaw, Bureau Chief

SACRAMENTO – The Delta of the future will look very different.

It will be marshier, with fewer farm fields. Less water will be pumped out of it, but that supply will be secure. Levees will still hold back the waters of the San Joaquin and the Sacramento rivers, but their occasional failure will no longer threaten 25 million Californians’ drinking water.

This is the emerging vision of a task force created by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year to find some way to make the West’s largest estuary sustainable. A draft of the group’s recommendations was released Thursday, and the task force is scheduled to make its final decisions later this year.

The report also proposes banning development in the flood plains of the Delta and advocates developing emergency response plans. But is this group’s work relevant?

After all, Schwarzenegger’s Delta Vision task force is just the latest of a decades-long unbroken string of study groups searching for ways to fix the failing Delta.

Earlier this week, Schwarzenegger and the Legislature missed a deadline to get a water bond on the February ballot that would have included billions of dollars to aid the estuary.

Adding to this is Schwarzenegger’s veto of Senate President Don Perata’s SB1002, a bill that would have allocated millions to the Delta from bonds voters had approved last fall.

“This bill would fund many worthy programs, and I would sign it as part of a comprehensive plan to address California’s growing water crisis. However, other critical elements were not addressed in this bill, such as storage and conveyance, and without them this bill represents the same piecemeal approach that led us to the current crisis,” Schwarzenegger said. “Throwing more money at the problem without addressing the fundamental issues to fix the Delta will only allow the crisis to worsen.”

This attitude frustrates those who say that the debate over whether to build new dams has hijacked the slow and steady process of fixing the Delta – and of determining whether to build a peripheral canal from the Sacramento River to the giant pumps near Tracy.

Farmers in the southern San Joaquin Valley and millions of residents in Southern California rely on those pumps, and the State Water Contractors are worried that without a canal – they call it “conveyance” – they may be forced into rationing.

“Given the significant issues at stake, the final version of the Delta Vision should be more explicit in its recommendations regarding the need for new conveyance facilities and ultimately serve as a catalyst for a much-needed public conversation,” said Laura King Moon, assistant general manager of the State Water Contractors.

And it is as a catalyst for legitimate debate over a peripheral canal that could prove to be the Delta Vision group’s most significant achievement.

Many Delta advocates oppose a canal, fearing that once water is shipped safely around the Delta and its marginal levees, the estuary will be abandoned. As it is now, the state and federal governments pump water directly out of the Delta and thus have reason to sustain it.

Former Sacramento Mayor Phil Isenberg, head of Schwarzenegger’s task force, said even if they do endorse in theory some kind of a canal, it would be only one of many recommendations and would be a starting point for discussion, not a final pronouncement.

“There is no such thing as a one-time solution to the water problems of California. It doesn’t exist, and it never will,” Isenberg said. “This is too complex a system.”

Isenberg says what’s surprised him – he’s a 40-year veteran of the state’s water wars – is how much the normally warring factions have agreed upon. The report includes a host of short-term and even middle-term fixes for the Delta that they all support. That’s new, Isenberg said.

“Everyone is much more focused,” he said.

The task force is scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. Thursday at West Sacramento’s City