California delta
Photo: Adobe Stock

By Scott Hamilton, President, Hamilton Resource Economics

As Valley farmers and water managers come to terms with the harsh reality of trying to achieve groundwater sustainability, frustrations are mounting because of regulations to protect the health of the Delta and the native species which inhabit it.

At the highest level, state legislators tried to “fix” the Delta, or at least to develop a plan to fix the Delta, with the Delta Reform Act of 2009. It declared that state policy toward the Delta must henceforth serve two “coequal goals.” Starting with a) providing a more reliable water supply for California and b) protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem. The legislature saw “adequate and secure funding” as an inherent need within the coequal goals.

The Delta Stewardship Council is the organization charged with developing and implementing the Delta Plan. In developing the plan, they held nearly 100 public meetings and received thousands of comments. The Delta Plan includes 73 recommendations and 14 policies. Some of the recommendations reflect common sense. For example, the Delta Plan calls for aquifers to be used like bank accounts—to be filled up in wet times so that they may be drawn from in dry times. The need for environmentally friendly conveyance through the Delta is identified. Additionally, there is a call for extensive habitat restoration in the Delta, and there are recommendations to address the problems of introduced species and contaminants.

But amongst all that is good are some puzzling contradictions.

While the Delta Plan affirms the equal status of ecosystem health and water supply reliability, the legislature confounded the solution with the following pronouncement: “The policy of the state of California is to reduce reliance on the Delta in meeting California’s future water supply needs.” Noteworthy, that policy statement was developed before the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act was passed in 2014. Nevertheless, the proclamation needs an understanding of reality. Different estimates are set regarding the magnitude of the water shortage in the Valley, but informed estimates project a shortage of around 2 million acre-feet per year. Likely, up to 10% of that shortage can consist of capturing additional flood flows from rivers that feed the Valley but do not feed the Delta. And while efforts will continue to conserve and recycle water, the low-hanging fruit in the Valley was harvested long ago. Two choices remain: export more water from the Delta or reduce agricultural production in the Valley. Not surprisingly, the second option has very severe social and economic consequences. The task of improving water supply is at odds with being less reliant on the Delta.

The Delta Plan also recognized the need to get much better at capturing and storing the surplus water in the wettest years – but most of the high-flow water from the Central Valley flows out the Delta. So, again, there is a dichotomy in the goals. Delta water management in January highlights the current idiocy in Delta operations. Slightly over 600,000 acre-feet were exported from the Delta in January, while ten times that amount flowed out to the ocean. Certainly, there are environmental benefits to reasonable Delta outflow, but the Public Policy Institute of California indicated that were likely no detectable environmental benefits to incremental increases in flows when Delta outflows were high. While water users are required to conserve water, the value of incremental flows for environmental needs has received little scientific attention.

The coequal goal is not so equal. The state uses millions of dollars of public money on habitat restoration in the Delta – but no state money is spent on increasing the water supply from the Delta. Rather, deliveries from the State Water Projects have declined from an average of 65% of contract amounts in the ten years before the formation of the Delta Stewardship Council to 40% in the years since – a difference of one million acre-feet per year – but with no observed benefit to the endangered fish. The dilemma of improving the water supply without drawing on Delta water has exacerbated water shortages in the state. The Delta Reform Act was a blunt instrument that needs refinement – the principle of being less reliant on the Delta should only apply to dry years when the Delta ecosystem is most delicate. If the California water crisis is to be solved, it will require taking more water from the Delta in wet years in an environmentally friendly way. In wet years there is plenty of water for the environment and exports. The state leadership needs to recognize that and require changes in the following five-year review of the Delta Plan, which is slated for 2023.

Previous articleWhy Are Eggs So Expensive?
Next articleWho Then Shall We Seek