Ten years ago, conditions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta were grim. Fish populations were crashing, forcing shutdowns of the giant pumps that send fresh water south from the Delta to Central Valley farms and Southern California cities. The levees protecting those critical pumps were in danger of collapsing. And a giant tug-of-war was under way between urban agencies, rural irrigation districts, environmentalists, farmers and fisheries experts over who was to blame.

Out of that tumult was born the Cal-Fed Bay-Delta Program, intended as a mechanism for collaboration among those interest groups on an ambitious program of water-supply and ecological restoration projects.

Ten years and $3 billion later, here’s where things stand in the Delta today: Fish populations are crashing. the levees protecting the huge state and federal pumps are in danger of collapsing, and a tug-of-war is brewing between urban agencies, rural irrigation districts, environmentalists, farmers and fisheries experts over who is to blame.

The seeming lack of progress has not gone unnoticed. As it begins its second decade, Cal-Fed is suffering an identity crisis, and critics are multiplying. Many are the same policy experts and political leaders who originally championed the unusual state-federal partnership as a welcome alternative to litigation and bureaucratic paralysis — a paralysis they now believe has infected Cal-Fed itself.

“If I had do sum up why I believe Cal-Fed has strayed from its course,” former Gov. Pete Wilson said during an August 25 hearing in Sacramento, “it would be: Process has replaced leadership.”

The rumblings of concern have reached a crescendo thanks to an odd coincidence of natural and political events.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger kicked things off with his $115.7 billion May revise of the state budget, in which he outlined a three-point plan to revitalize Cal-Fed, including an independent review of the program and development of a long-term financing plan. He followed that up with a June 22 letter to the state’s Little Hoover Commission, asking it to recommend improvements to the Cal-Fed governance structure.

Former Gov. Wilson was one of several current and former officials with direct Cal-Fed involvement to testify at the first of three hearings convened by the Commission. Other speakers included Lester Snow, the former executive director of Cal-Fed who now heads the state Department of Water Resources, and Bruce Babbitt, who signed the original Cal-Fed agreement when he served as interior secretary under President Clinton.

“At the outset, we clearly anticipated this process would yield major progress in two areas: finding and developing the sites and infrastructure for increasing surface storage, and making large investments in modernizing and updating the Delta infrastructure,” Babbitt told the commissioners. “The program has not met those expectations.”

Snow, however, defended Cal-Fed against the mounting criticism. “Saying Cal-Fed is a failure — that’s pure hyperbole,” Snow told the Little Hoover Commission. “Cal-Fed was not designed to resolve all of the state’s water problem. It was designed to solve conflicts in the Bay-Delta system, and it is doing that.”

“The last 10 years,” Snow added, “have been remarkably free to lawsuits related to management of the Bay-Delta system because most stakeholders have viewed collaboration as more constructive and proactive than litigation.”

Snow’s more positive assessment has become rare in Sacramento. The Legislature, not wanting to be outdone by the administration, conducted its own hearings on conditions in the Delta. One was convened August 23 by Sen. Mike Machado (D-Linden) who chairs the Senate Natural Resources and Water subcommittee on the Delta. Another, on the same day as the Little Hoover Commission’s hearing, was conducted by Assemblyman Lois Wolk (D-Davis), chair of the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee. Both hearings focused on evidence of continuing ecological problems in the Delta, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars invested by Cal-Fed.

Recent surveys show continuing and severe population decline among key Delta fish species, including striped bass, threadfin shad, delta smelt and longfin smelt, along with a variety of zooplankton that serves as an important food source for the fish. A team of state and federal biologists is trying to figure out why. Although operation of the Delta pumps that move water south has long been regarded as having a deleterious effect on fish, researchers say there is no clear statistical link between pump operation and numbers of fish. To some, that disconnect suggests a more pervasive and troubling imbalance in the Delta ecosystem.

“We have learned a tremendous amount about the Delta in the past five years and most of it is really bad news,” said Steve Hall, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies.

It took nature to deliver the worst news of all. When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in late August, breaching the levees protecting New Orleans and turning that coastal city into a modern-day Atlantis, it led to renewed warnings about the threat of a similar disaster in the Delta, where 1,100 miles of fragile earthen dikes protect a region that lies mostly below sea level.

As California water and flood managers warned in a spate of post-Katrina op-ed pieces and news stories, collapse of multiple Delta levees after a major earthquake or winter storm likely would force shutdown of the huge pumps that feed the State Water Project and Central Valley Project. Such a collapse has a 2-in-3 chance of occurring in the next 45 years, experts warn. Little has been done to safeguard against such an event, although one of Cal-Fed’s chief goals is improvement of the Delta levee system.

“I think that the dire and urgent nature of the threat is really now beginning to dawn in policy makers here in Sacramento,” Hall said.

Several of those who testified before the Little Hoover Commission pinpointed where they believe Cal-Fed has gone astray. Most agreed that the peculiar structure of the program — “an odd creature that only a mother could love,” former California Resources Secretary Mary Nichols called it — contributes to confusion and inertia. Overseen by the California Bay Delta Authority (CBDA), which has no authority over the state and federal agencies responsible for water projects and environmental regulation, the program is funded piecemeal by periodic and unpredictable congressional appropriations, bond measures and state budget allocations.

The biggest single weakness in the program is the failure of Cal-Fed administrators to recognize the financial limitations facing the state and federal governments and to decide which of the many Delta projects are of highest priority, said Bennet Raley, former assistant secretary for water and science in the U.S. Department of Interior.

“To be blunt, I lost confidence in Cal-Fed when it essentially refused to develop budgets that recognized unavoidable fiscal realities,” Raley told the Little Hoover Commission. “You can shoot the messenger, but that will not change the harsh reality that CBDA must evolve away from an organization that acts as if infinite funding will magically appear into one that is able to prioritize and effectively spend whatever funding is provided.”

The commission is expected to submit its report to the governor in November.

Steve Hall, Association of California Water Agencies, (916) 441-4545.
Lester Snow, Department of Water Resources, (916) 653-7007.
Little Hoover Commission: lhc.ca.gov