The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

California’s contemporary effort to modernize the water system in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta officially began in 2006.

George W. Bush was president Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor. Their administrations signed a planning agreement. And the search for a solution was on.

Thirteen years, two governors and two presidents later, we are all still at it.

We have yet to find ways to stabilize important water ecosystems or the reliability of water supplies for the state economy. And we are going to reach a point where we either collectively fail to achieve these two important goals despite years of efforts, or we move forward in historic and meaningful ways that undoubtedly will not please everyone.

Last week, the Legislature acted to attempt to thwart President Donald Trump on water matters by passing a bill that sought to essentially pre-empt the execution of federal environmental law. The Metropolitan Water District opposed Senate Bill 1 because it would have unleashed rounds of state-federal litigation, and would have likely brought 13 years of effort to a halt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has signaled he plans to veto the measure.

It is tempting to look at these developments through the news of the day and the evolving agendas of one administration or another. But it is the wrong way to look at something so important as water planning in California.

In the case of the Delta, it won’t take us years to change the status quo. It may take us decades.

Gov. Newsom in some respects is in an enviable position on water. He has inherited unfinished work of previous administrations. And he truly has the chance to make lasting and historic change before he leaves office.

Jeffrey Kightlinger

He has taken the first solid steps to make the most of this opportunity. Within weeks of taking office, he identified a single-tunnel approach to Delta conveyance as the infrastructure solution he would support. And his team is now drafting an overall portfolio of water actions with climate change in mind to drive his agenda.

The State Water Resources Control Board is in an equally historic position to reexamine the beneficial uses of water in the Delta and the Sacramento and San Joaquin river watersheds.

Metropolitan and water agencies representing most Californians are working with the Newsom administration to propose agreements to provide new water for the environment, more restoration and more science.

Creating a new “block” of water for the environment is particularly exciting, given the flexibility this can give wildlife agencies to operate the system in a way that is most valuable to important fish species.

This water board process is a foundation from which to make progress in the Delta and every river flowing from the western Sierra Nevada. Such agreements of this scope and importance have never before been achieved.

Protecting this process and its chances of success are what fundamentally prompted Metropolitan to oppose SB 1, despite the best intentions of its author, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, and its supporters.

This was not about the sitting president or any action his administration may or may not take. It was about keeping intact this historic window of opportunity to make generational changes in California water.

If the last 13 years are any indication, there will be moments when Metropolitan may disagree with one administration or another. We disagreed with a piece of legislation.

Meanwhile, all of our challenges are still ahead of us. We need to manage water in smarter, more adaptive ways. We need to redouble efforts to find common ground.

We need to demonstrate unwavering protection of the California environment as just as fundamental a goal as providing water to sustain our society. That’s something that any governor, or president, should be proud of.

Jeffrey Kightlinger is general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

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