12/3/09: Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Reform Act

 Posted 12/4/09
On November 12, Governor Schwarzenegger signed the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Reform Act of 2009. The legislation mandates a set of major new water policy reforms promoted by the Bay Institute and other conservation organizations. At the same time, the Governor also took the questionable step of approving an $11 billion water bond for a vote on the November 2010 ballot.
According to The Bay Institute”s program director, Gary Bobker, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Reform Act represents a significant step forward for solving the decades-long conflict over California’s water resources and saving our endangered salmon runs and other species on the brink of extinction. The Bay Institute particularly appreciates the work of the leaders of the legislative effort, in particular Assemblyman Jared Huffman and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, for their persistence and courage in pushing the complex and controversial package of reforms.
The Bay Institute was instrumental in helping to create, shape and promote the work of the independent Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force, whose comprehensive recommendations to the legislature and the Governor provided the foundation for the legislative package. Subsequently, The Bay Institute worked with a coalition of five other environmental organizations to help develop and pass the water policy legislation.
The new legislation:
  • Sets mandatory urban water conservation targets for the state, requires agricultural targets to be developed, and make it state policy to reduce reliance on water exports from the Delta
  • Requires the state to identify what freshwater flows are needed to maintain fish, wildlife and other public trust resources in good condition in the Delta and throughout its watershed
  • Establishes a new Delta Stewardship Council to create and oversee implementation of a Delta Master Plan that integrates land use, water operations, flood management, and other concerns
  • Requires groundwater monitoring (California is the only Western state that does not measure and manage its aquifers)
  • Establishes a new Delta Conservancy to acquire and restore habitat
Contrary to some news reports, the legislation does nothing to authorize or fund new conveyance facilities, such as a peripheral canal, nor make it easier for such facilities to be approved. If anything, the Reform Act raises the threshold for restoring flows and recovering endangered fish populations that any new proposed project must meet.
Overall, the new reforms are a major milestone, but much more remains to be done. Provisions to significantly strengthen the state’s efforts to control illegal water diversions and fully fund the Council’s oversight activities were dropped from the legislation, and the state’s compliance with the legislative mandates to identify Delta flows and agricultural conservation targets will need to be closely monitored by the environmental community.
In enacting the water policy reforms, the legislature and governor also approved an $11 billion water bond that in The Bay Institute’s view represents both bad policy and poor political judgment. Bad policy, because despite many worthwhile provisions it includes $3 billion continuously appropriated for storage projects (instead of requiring specific legislative approval for specific large projects) and it relies exclusively on general obligation bonds that increase the state’s indebtedness during a fiscal crisis, rather than more properly relying on user fees and revenue bonds to fund these projects (on the universally accepted principle that costs should be borne by those who principally benefit from the investment). Poor political judgment, because the chances that the voters will approve any bond – good, bad or indifferent – given the current state of the economy is highly in question, and even more so when the bond is controversial, as in this instance. Fortunately, the water policy reforms are now law, whether or not this water bond is approved.
Signing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Reform Act means that water policy has moved at least partway into the twenty-first century. Stay tuned for future updates on what more remains to be done to strengthen California’s ability to restore the endangered species and habitats of the Bay-Delta system and shift water project costs from the public to project beneficiaries.