Playing Chicken with the Delta

One of the most interesting analyses of California’s water problems I read before last week’s trip was “California’s Sacramento San Joaquin Delta Conflict: from Cooperation to Chicken“, by Kaveh Madani and Jay Lund at UC Davis.

It looks at the struggle over the Delta’s future as a game theory problem, one in which an optimal solution is possible if each actor gives a little, but one in which no one has an incentive to give first, because they end up losing out:

Today’s Delta problem has characteristics of a Chicken game, where cooperation is in everyone’s interest, but is unlikely because parties deviating from the status quo are likely to bear more of the costs of a long-term solution. The state of California may become the victim (or chicken) of the Delta game, bearing the greatest costs, if it continues to rely on a policy of leaving parties to develop voluntary cooperative resolution without a sufficient mechanism for enforcing cooperation.

So we have a situation now where there’s a great sense of urgency around the Delta’s problems. At least I think there is. Everyone I talked to while I was in California had it.

Sacramento River Delta, June 2011

Sacramento River Delta, June 2011

Big water users feel urgency because of the risk to reliability of their supply in the Delta earthquake disaster scenario. At least some of the big water users (and their benefactors) feel urgency because of a risk to reliability of their supply resulting from environmental regulations (and, we should not forget, the societal values embedded in those regulations). Environmentalists feel some urgency, partly because of the collapse of the Delta ecosystem and partly because of the actions of the water users’ congressional benefactors. People who think about and on behalf of the culture within the Delta have a particularly whipsawed sense of urgency because they’re in the middle of all of this, buffeted by powerful forces that seem to be hustling toward some sort of change that they’re being left out of.

While I was in Sacramento last week, the Delta Stewardship Council released its latest draft Delta Plan (pdf) and the Association of California Water Agencies made public its Alternative Delta Plan. The tension between the two, I think, highlights the issues Madani and Lund were poking at in their “Chicken game” paper. John Bass characterized the ACWA plan thus:

There are a lot of people who don’t like or believe in the usefulness of regulations. But we find that ACWA’s ADP proposal is a bit soft on accountability. Maybe some of their constituents would prefer not to have too much of it. Or maybe instead of legislation, which can only lead to laws and regulations, they’d like subsidies, tax breaks and other sorts of “incentives” for their complex partnerships?

The Delta Stewardship Council seems to be pushing to exploit the legislative mandate it believes it has to exert the “sufficient mechanism” sort of thing Madani and Lund were talking about. ACWA is pushing back.