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Kent Davy: Time to cross the water-wise bridge

2013_COLUMN_DAVY_newFace it.

San Diego is a semi-arid desert; it’s really North Africa on a different planet.

But we don’t live like it.

We tend to enjoy plush, landscaped yards (me, too; I’m guilty, as well) and think about water mostly when the rates go up.

If we had to rely solely on fresh water from the ground and our natural lakes and streams, only a fraction of us could live here.

So, it was with some interest to listen to Maureen Stapleton, chief of the San Diego County Water Authority, appear before the San Dieguito Water District (the Encinitas City Council members with different hats on) to explain some things about the Delta water conundrum and the latest proposed solution.

The problem, as most people know, is that about 20 percent of the water we use comes, at least indirectly, from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

That watershed covers 1,100 square miles and carries water from Northern California ultimately into San Francisco Bay – except, enough water to supply 25 million residents and 3 million acres of farmland to the south is first diverted to head south into the San Joaquin Valley and, finally, at the end of the “pipe” to us.

The struggle over how to share the finite resources of the Delta – between that which naturally flows to the sea at the San Francisco Bay and that which is sucked south to the Central Valley and Southern California – has been joined for decades. (The original levees in the Delta were thrown up in the 1850s, bringing marshland into agricultural production; the Central Valley Project started in the 1930s and the bond that opened the money tap for the State Water Project passed in November 1960.)

In more recent years, the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project have diverted as much as 40 percent of the Delta’s flow south to farms and cities such as ours.

In August 2007, a federal judge famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view) invoked the Environmental Protection Act to protect the endangered Delta smelt, a 2-inch minnow, by curtailing the amount of water taken.

Subsequent drought triggered additional cutbacks, straining the valley agribusiness interests and bringing the crisis to a boil.

This spring, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a comprehensive solution (baydeltaconservationplan.com/Home.aspx).

The $25 billion Bay Delta Conservation Plan, the product of stakeholders working with the California Natural Resources Agency, proposes money for two giant, 38-mile-long tunnels to suck water from the Sacramento River upstream of the Delta and pump it into the canals at Tracy, where it would flow to the south. It also intends to restore habitat and protect threatened species.

But as with most complex issues involving scarce resources where nobody gets everything they want, the proposal has already drawn opposition.

The San Diego County Water Authority will weigh in later this year after needed study.

The agency, which is layered between the giant Metropolitan Water Authority and the local water agencies, will analyze four of 16 possibilities: the governor’s preferred plan, a doing-nothing proposal, a Delta Vision Foundation proposal and the somewhat similar Natural Resources Defense Fund portfolio idea.

A “bookend” approach, Stapleton called it. (For details about the water authority’s approach, see www.sdcwa.org/sites/default/files/files/2013_07_13_WaterAuthorityBDCP.pdf)

This study and analysis will be worth more than its weight in water – if not gold.

The county water authority has articulated an apt and thoughtful set of values to judge these plans, including:

  • co-equal attention to water reliability and environmental restoration;
  • development of local water resources;
  • encouragement for a statewide market for water transfers;
  • a financial structure that brings certainty and fairness to the arrangements.

The water wars in California are legendary.

And finding compromises that allow good ag land to be farmed, cities and their industries to drink and grow as needed, and fish and their habitat to survive is worth doing fairly and right.

Kent Davy is the former editor of the daily North County Times. Contact him at kent2davy@gmail.com.

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Kent Davy: Time to cross the water-wise bridge