After years of false starts and stumbles, the federal government has renewed its commitment to the troubled California Bay-Delta Program, breathing new life into the ambitious effort to fix the troubled centerpiece of the state's water system.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta, a vast cat's-cradle of sloughs and channels where the state's two major river systems mesh and then mingle with saltwater on the inland edge of San Francisco Bay, is where the State Water Project and the federally operated Central Valley Project get much of the water they distribute to farms, cities and rural communities in the southern half of the state.

Altogether, the pumps that slurp water from the delta and dump it into southbound aqueducts irrigate more than 4 million acres of cropland and provide some or all of the water consumed by two-thirds of the state's population.

The delta also is a troubled place, caught in the middle of a bitter, decades-long battle over water and fish. The California Bay-Delta Program, or Cal-Fed, was conceived in the early 1990s as a way to bring together all the battling groups with an interest in the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta - urban and agricultural water agencies, environmentalists, government regulators - to craft a series of solutions to the problems associated with state and federal water diversions. Those problems include declining salmon, smelt and wildlife populations, deteriorating water quality, and the increasing unreliability of the supply because of pumping reductions ordered to protect the environment.

So far, most of the $3 billion spent on Cal-Fed projects (including $180 million of the $825 million in Proposition 50 bond funds authorized by voters in November 2002) during the last 10 years has gone to ecological restoration projects in the delta and along the rivers that feed into it. The theory behind that approach is that recovering threatened or endangered species, and preventing others from becoming imperiled in the first place, reduces the chance that water diversions will be curtailed for ecological reasons.

That allocation of funding has begun to draw criticism from representatives of some user groups, who argue more surface storage is needed.

That criticism is reflected in the bill approved by Congress and signed by President Bush in October. The bill, HR 2828, reauthorizes the federal government's participation in the California Bay-Delta Authority, which is responsible for carrying out Cal-Fed projects and would have dissolved next year without that reauthorization.

The bill also authorizes $389 million for Cal-Fed programs, $184 million of which is earmarked for projects intended to increase reservoir capacity and boost the amount of water that can be pumped out of the delta for delivery to farms and cities. The bill also authorizes $90 million to purchase water from agricultural and urban users so it can be dedicated to fish and wildlife, and $90 million to repair and rebuild delta levees.

The bill more than doubles the federal investment in Cal-Fed. According to a September report on Cal-Fed finances, the state has provided $1.3 billion of the $3 billion spent so far. Local agencies have contributed $1.2 billion, water users and state and federal project contractors have put in $187 million, and the federal government about $350, or 12% of the total.

The bill has won mixed reviews.

“Today, California's leaders in Congress have truly delivered for our state,” Steve Hall, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, said in a prepared statement. “Every facet of California's economy and way of life depends on reliable, high quality water, and this program will ensure that those supplies are available well into the 21st century.”

Other groups were harshly critical of plans to increase exports from the delta, arguing that this will benefit large water users at the expense of the environment. The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Planning and Conservation League, and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association joined Friends of the River at a news conference in Sacramento to protest those plans.

“Our solutions include conservation, water recycling and groundwater desalination. We can meet the growing demand at a lower cost without further imperiling wildlife and water quality,” said Mindy McIntyre, water policy specialist for the Planning and Conservation League.

One of the most controversial elements in the original version of the bill, introduced more than a year ago by a coalition of California representatives, was dropped. As drafted, the measure would have granted authority to the secretary of Interior to proceed with any storage project he or she deemed “feasible,” unless Congress specifically forbid it.

“We're grateful that the language that would have pre-authorized water projects was removed,” said Steve Evans, conservation director for Friends of the River. “That was a nonstarter for us.”

Evans said, however, that he is disturbed by the suggestion, implicit in the bill's language, that the Cal-Fed process so far has improperly favored ecosystem restoration at the expense of storage projects.

“The conservation community believes it was unbalanced in the other direction,” he said. “We're ready to admit that a good chunk of money has been spent on ecosystem restoration. But it's not how much money you spend. It's how many threatened and endangered species you bring back.”

The version of the Cal-Fed bill approved in October differs from its predecessor in other ways as well, including elimination of $300 million “to address issues surrounding the Salton Sea.”

The Salton Sea, the largest body of water in California, is a landlocked lake in the desert near the Mexican border that receives irrigation drainage from farms in the Imperial and Coachella valleys. Rising salinity, fluctuating water levels and contamination from American farms and Mexican sewage threaten fish and bird life at the sea, and several costly proposals have been made for solving those problems (see CP&DR Environment Watch, February 2000).

The final bill also authorizes $3 million to study construction of a dam on Alder Creek in El Dorado County, long sought by lawmakers representing the booming foothill communities east of Sacramento.

The allocation for delta levee improvement is $20 million higher than when the legislation was introduced - perhaps a reflection of the June 3 collapse of a levee near Stockton, which flooded 11,000 acres of previously dry land and so perturbed the hydrology of the delta that salt water began flowing inland from San Francisco Bay toward the intakes of the state and federal pumping plants. The state pumps shut down; the federal plant reduced pumping to a trickle.

The levee has been repaired and water diversions have resumed. Experts warn, however, that there's a 60% chance multiple levees could fail simultaneously in the next 50 years.

California Bay-Delta Authority:
Association of California Water Agencies:
Friends of the River: