Bay-Delta: A Glimmer of Consensus amidst the Sound and the Fury

We all love a good show, and the foot-stomping theatrics of Westlands and their close allies the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority have captured much of the attention of Bay-Delta watchers over the last week.  But a more interesting and potentially much more important story has been quietly unfolding over the same period.  Several other water contractors across the state – mostly agencies serving urban areas – have not only reiterated their commitment to the Bay Delta Conservation Planning process, but have explained that the point of the process is not to increase the amount of water diverted from the Bay-Delta, but to restore the ecosystem and improve the predictability and security of our water supplies.  This recommitment to the original impetus for BDCP stands in marked contrast to the demands of Westlands and SLDMWA for more water from the Delta.  It also provides a clear and hopeful path forward for the process.

As bluntly stated by representatives of two water agencies that serve customers in the Bay Area, “[w]e are not looking for more water.”  Instead, the Zone 7 Water Agency and Alameda County Water District recognize that “[t]he status quo is unacceptable for the Delta ecosystem and for the reliability of our community’s water supply.”  These water agencies seem to get the underlying reality that improving the perilous state of the Bay-Delta ecosystem equals a more stable water supply – one that is less subject to emergency cutbacks to deal with levee collapses caused by earthquakes or floods, or protections for endangered fish – and that such a result is a win for everyone.

A similar sentiment was recently expressed by Tom Philp, “executive strategist” (one of the coolest job titles on the planet) for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.  Discussing Met’s new 25-year water plan, Tom explained that “you won’t find expectations of ever-increasing supplies from Northern California.  The plan has as its highest target the retention of a traditional Northern supply via the State Water Project.”  Although Tom wasn’t precise about the amount of Met’s “traditional Northern supply via the State Water Project,” it’s not a difficult calculation to make.  Assuming that the last twenty years make for a “tradition,” and generously including deliveries surplus to their base contract amount (known in waterspeak as “Article 21 deliveries”), Met received about 52% of its contract allocation on average from 1990-2008: 

(As mentioned, this is a generous estimate because it includes the unsustainable deliveries from the record-setting years in the past decade.)

This 52% traditional supply is less than the 60% SWP delivery that the Department of Water Resources estimates that Met will receive on average under the current biological opinions.  See Table 6.3 in the 2009 State Water Project Reliability Report.  Thus, Met, too, seems to recognize that the purpose of BDCP is not to increase water diversions from the Delta, but to stabilize supplies by stabilizing the ecosystem.

This realistic position is also reflected in two important developments at the state level over the past year.  The first is the new state policy of reducing our reliance on the Delta.  The second is the State Water Board Flows Criteria, which suggests (as do many other scientific investigations) that water agencies should not plan for increased diversions from the Bay-Delta.

I’m thankful for this pragmatic acknowledgement by urban water agencies that saving the Bay-Delta is vitally important and worth the investment, even though we are unlikely to squeeze more water out of the estuary for export.  Such a clear-headed approach is just what we need to finally end California’s boom and bust cycle of water politics. 


[1] From Dept. of Water Resources State Water Project Reliability Reports, 2002, 2005, 2009, Appendix D.