Water and farmland in the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta. Courtesy San Diego County Water Authority

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently released his Water Resilience Plan, a platform of 142 proposals gathered from state agencies to manage and improve California’s  water future.

The big ticket items are two infrastructure projects: the Delta conveyance tunnel and Sites Reservoir, alongside the Sacramento River.

Each project is designed to deliver large amounts of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to Southern California. However, neither Newsom nor the project sponsors are prepared to say just how much more water.

How much water to export from the Delta has divided California, north and south,  for generations. The subject is so toxic that our political leaders routinely sidestep the question by suggesting that unnamed experts will eventually provide an answer — not now but sometime in the distant future — after projects are built.

This political culture of deferral, intended to finesse controversy, has only heightened the level of mistrust and contention. In the absence of comprehensive plans, exports are currently ramped up and down in response to arbitrary deals concocted in response to shifting political winds, followed by endless litigation.

The Delta conveyance tunnel, once again on the drawing board, is undergoing yet another regulatory process that will extend for several more years, and illustrates the problem.

The current tunnel proposal from the governor is designed to export more that 4 million acre feet of water per year from the Delta — about equal to the total consumption of all the cities in Southern California.

Tunnel proponents say they do not expect to operate the tunnel at capacity, and it would be in use mainly to draw from the periodic storms that send more water through the Delta out to San Francisco Bay.

Bruce Babbitt

But how much would that be? The usual answer is: we will leave that to the experts.

Tunnel skeptics contend that  the history of water projects shows that infrastructure will eventually be used to full capacity, notwithstanding contemporary environmental regulations. They point out how the Trump administration has increased exports to the Central Valley by manipulating regulations, subverting scientific findings and pressuring federal officials to meet its demands.

The case for building the tunnel at the south end of the Delta and Sites Reservoir northwest of Sacramento would be a lot more persuasive if the proponents would forthrightly come to grips with this issue of how much water ought to be available for export and then support a fair and enduring division of Delta water.

What is needed is a “grand bargain” in which all the parties achieve a consensus, confirmed in legislation, to apportion Delta water between exports and an adequate ecological flow to San Francisco Bay.

Can it be done? Stakeholders, inured to generations of contention and litigation, may say no. However, the California Dream is still alive, waiting for our leaders to raise their expectations and go to work for a fair settlement.

Bruce Babbitt is a former Governor of Arizona and U.S. Secretary of the Interior. He wrote this column for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.

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