The package of water legislation approved by state lawmakers and signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger earlier this month may be the most ambitious attempt yet to address the troubled Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. However, the legislation angers and worries many interests in and around the Delta, including local government leaders concerned about their ability to approve development.

The centerpiece of the Delta bill – which was one of five pieces in the water legislation package – is creation of a new Delta Stewardship Council. In addition to preparing a comprehensive Delta plan by January 1, 2012, the council will have broad oversight of Delta planning and resource management. Initial drafts of the legislation, SB 1 X7 by Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), roughly modeled the stewardship council on the Coastal Commission and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission – two state entities with the authority to make land use and resource protection decisions. In the end, the Delta Stewardship Council was not given land use authority. However, local governments fear the council could evolve into a Coastal Commission-like body, and Delta interests complain that they were given only one guaranteed seat on the seven-member council.

"Nobody knows what it means at this point because there is no funding for it," Rio Vista Mayor Jan Vick said of the stewardship council. Still, she pointed out that the Coastal Commission and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission accumulated power over time, and the new Delta council could follow the same path. "It could impact all of the communities in the Delta on local land use," she said.

With an entirely different perspective, Rick Frank, executive director of the Boalt Hall Center for Law, Energy and the Environment and a member of the governor's Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force, said the "biggest shortcoming" of the Delta legislation concerns land use. For Frank and the Delta Vision task force, the need to shift some land use control away from local governments is a matter of public safety. In its 2008 report, the Delta Vision task force complained of "encroaching urbanization" in an area threatened by crumbling levees, rising sea level and ever-bigger flood flows attributed to climate change. Delta Vision recommended restricting development in and around the Delta to preserve floodplains (see CP&DR Environment Watch, February 2008).

The politics of the Delta prevented the land use issue from getting the attention it deserves, Frank said. But he endorsed the overall water package and Delta legislation as a major step forward.

"At one level, I'm quite pleased with it. Virtually all the core policies in the Delta Vision plan are incorporated in the legislation," Frank said. "It's far from perfect. But it's a significant improvement over the status quo."

The stewardship council will be composed of four governor's appointees, two people appointed by the Legislature and the chair of the existing Delta Protection Commission. The new council must adopt a new Delta plan by the start of 2012, based at least in part on recommendations of the Delta Vision reports. Local general plans would have to be consistent with the new Delta plan, as would some infrastructure projects. The council will make consistency decisions. The council is also supposed to consider the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, a habitat conservation plan due to be released in early 2010, as well as Department of Water Resources recommendations for coordinating flood control and water supply operations.

Besides creating the stewardship council, the Simitian bill does many other things. It:

• Codifies the "co-equal" goals of "providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring and enhancing the Delta ecosystem." The concept of co-equal goals has been embraced by the Delta Vision task force and other entities studying the Delta.

• Shrinks the existing Delta Protection Commission from 23 to 15 members, primarily by reducing the number of state appointees, and requires the commission to prepare a "regional economic sustainability plan." The commission was also given until July 1, 2010, to recommend whether the Legislature should expand the Delta's primary zone, where development is severely restricted and over which the commission has land use appeal authority.

• Creates a new Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy as the primary state agency to manage Delta ecosystem restoration. Funding will come from Propositions 84 and IE, the recent water and natural resources bond measures.

• Establishes a "Delta Watermaster" to enforce State Water Resources Control Board decisions regarding necessary freshwater flows into the Delta.

• Creates an independent science board.

• Redefines the Delta to include the approximately 120,000-acre Suisun Marsh south of Fairfield.

The Simitian bill was part of a larger package. The other four pieces are:

• SB 2 X7 (Cogdill), an $11.1 billion bond that provides $3 billion for new storage, $2.25 billion for Delta projects and implementation of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, $1.785 billion for watershed and water quality projects, $1.4 billion for regional supply improvements, $1.25 billion for water recycling projects, $1 billion for groundwater projects, and $455 million for drought relief. The bond is scheduled to appear on the November 2010 ballot.

• SB 6 X7 (Steinberg), which creates a groundwater monitoring program. The legislation authorizes counties, water replenishment districts, groundwater management agencies, and other local agencies and associations to assume responsibility for monitoring groundwater levels, but not for monitoring specific extractions. If no local entity assumes responsibility, the Department of Water Resources would do the monitoring, and local entities would lose eligibility for certain grants and loans.

• SB 7 X7 (Steinberg), which requires the state to reduce per capita urban water usage by 10% by 2016 and by 20% by 2021. In addition, agricultural water suppliers must implement efficient water management practices by August 2012.

• SB 8 X7 (Steinberg), which, among other things, repeals a legal provision that exempted water users in the Delta from reporting diversions.

The water package was put together without state Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis), who has been a party to nearly all recent Delta legislation and who carried a failed bill earlier in the year to create a Delta conservancy and expand the role of the Delta Protection Commission (see CP&DR Capitol Update, August 15, 2009). Legislative leaders excluded Wolk late in the negotiations after she complained that local interests were not being adequately represented and that the legislation would enable construction of a peripheral canal carrying freshwater around the Delta. Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), normally a strong ally of Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, joined Wolk in voting against the Delta legislation.

"The plan would put the Delta at risk" DeSaulnier told the Bay Area News Group. "The plan doesn't give the Delta and its 4 million residents a fair say in the process. It doesn't adequately protect Northern California water users. Nor does the plan state how the Delta and its farms, economy, communities and environment would be protected."

Rio Vista Mayor Vick, who serves on the Delta Protection Commission, insisted that the primary mission of the water legislation is to move more water, and everything else – including the needs of locals – is an afterthought. "I don't think we were listened to. That's the general feeling of all the people who have been involved," she said.

Environmental groups are divided on the water legislation. The Sierra Club called it a continuation of existing, failed policies. The Planning and Conservation League complained that the legislation contains no assurances that the Delta will have the freshwater its ecology needs. Those groups joined with some conservative lawmakers in opposing the water bond, which they called fiscally irresponsible.

Meanwhile, the Natural Resources Defense Council and The Nature Conservancy endorsed the legislation. Leo Winternitz, Delta project director for The Nature Conservancy, said the Simitian bill was "absolutely necessary to change the direction we are headed in the Delta."

"It sets up a governance structure that at least provides for consistency and accountability," Winternitz said. "We don't like where we are headed in the Delta. It's not working for anybody."

One of the chief problems identified by the Delta Vision task force and in influential reports by the Public Policy Institute of California concerns the 200-plus agencies – cities, counties, reclamation districts, water districts, federal agencies, state agencies – that have authority over some portion or aspect of the Delta. The agencies often work at cross-purposes while protecting their individual interests. Under the new legislation, though, all the agencies are supposed to work from the Delta Plan adopted by the stewardship council.

"Protecting particular interests may not be good for all of California," Winternitz said.

Whether the legislation will lead to construction of a peripheral canal or other facility for conveying freshwater from the Sacramento River to the State Water Project and Central Valley Project remains unknown. Winternitz said the legislation makes ecosystem restoration a component of, and not merely mitigation for, any conveyance project. Yet environmentalists raised 30-year-old arguments about the canal being a "water grab," and many Northern California lawmakers voted against the water legislation because of north-versus-south fears over the peripheral canal.

In the near term, people on both sides of the debate will be closely watching who is appointed to the Delta Stewardship Council, as well as how the agency is staffed and funded.

"We'll have to see how seriously the actors – the new government entities and the existing ones – take their charge," said Frank, of the Delta Vision task force.  

Rio Vista Mayor Jan Vick, (707) 374-6451.
Rick Frank, Delta Vision Foundation, (510) 642-8305.
Leo Winternitz, The Nature Conservancy, (916) 214-9530.
Delta Vision:
California State Association of Counties water legislation analysis.