California water’s “grumpy old guy” on BDCP

Phil Isenberg, California water’s self-described “grumpy old guy”, put down a marker today with a particularly useful, nuanced take (pdf) take on this week’s Bay-Delta Conservation Plan announcement, arguing that it is a bigger deal than some of us have been willing to acknowledge.

Phil Isenberg

Phil Isenberg

“Serious public policy people should pay attention,” Isenberg wrote.

As I’ve written before, the Delta is a hairball of a wicked problem. Isenberg sketches what seems to be a solution space he sees taking shape in the proposal announced Wednesday for a tunnel beneath the Delta to carry water from north to south.

Isenberg is one of the most savvy politicians I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. I mean “politician” here in the best sense of the word, with politics being the noble means by which we settle conflicts among competing societal values. Isenberg’s job as head of the Delta Stewardship Council is to do just that. Given that political skill, however, what I don’t know is whether Phil is describing here what he actually thinks is happening in the BDCP, or whether he is trying to frame things in a way he hopes they will happen. Probably a bit of both.

In particular, Isenberg finds it significant that the scheme laid out yesterday includes no guarantees for how much water the exporters (San Joaquin Valley farmers and water-using cities in the Bay Area and Southern California) will be able to extract from the system in the long run:

Absolute guarantees of endless amount of ‘new water’ are slipping from the discussion. This may be the most interesting part of the BDCP announcement. For the entire history of California, people have demanded legal guarantees of water supplies (we also call them “assurances,” or “entitlements”). But if you read all the documents presented this week, it clear that water contractors are not asking BDCP to guarantee a set amount water will be provided – not even a “minimum amount” to be exported (see the Questions and Answers on page 3). Rumbles have circulated through the water world for many weeks that “guarantees are no longer a pre-condition for BDCP approval.” That was so peculiar that many of us thought it could not be true.

I don’t read the “Questions and Answers on page 3” (pdf) as being quite as firm as Phil would suggest:

Our package of recommendations does not currently address any specific guarantees of minimum water exports. Whether and how to shape these “assurances” must await further environmental and cost analyses which will be forthcoming in the reviews currently underway.

That seems to me to leave an opening for guarantees down the road. But maybe this is an example of Phil, the savvy politician, trying to frame the discussion in a useful way?

The related point is that “Science will now guide how to best restore the ecosystem and how much water can be exported.”

This declaration breaks new ground. Not by saying that science should be involved, but by saying that science will guide water operations as well.

Isenberg argues that “this may well qualify as a major change in how California deals with water supply and demand”:

Historically, we have overpromised the total amount of water to be delivered. That was not a big problem when California’s population and economy were small and the supply of water ample. Today, our population and economy is very large and the supply of water has remained static. The tension is also greater because of strong public supports for reversing the environmental damage from previous water development.

Is dropping the demand for guaranteed levels of water a way to talk honestly about supply and demand? I sure hope so. The Delta Stewardship Council has wrestled with this problem, and ultimately decided that the best way to say it “matches the demands for water to the available supply – not the other way around.” The announcement this week sounds very much like this approach.

If you’re interested in sussing out what is happening with BDCP, I recommend reading the whole thing.


  1. Right now, it’s all about the capacity of the proposed tubes. Of course they won’t want to have an argument about how much water will really go through them. The time for that is after they’re built. All else is not especially useful commentary.

    I think it’s clear enough that the only thing really protecting the Delta is the threat of saltwater intrusion into the pumps. For the Delta to survive, that constraint must remain.

  2. Chair Isenberg’s remarks are among the few insightful comments on the Delta this week. As noted, has a good understanding of politics and he is in an unusual position to be both honest and insightful.

    The above comment also has some insight. The Delta has always been about hostage taking – traditionally with local interests using Delta salinity as a hostage on the big water export projects, and water export users using Delta salinity as a hostage to gain the support of local Delta landowners – who depend on Sacramento River flows to dilute salts in the lower San Joaquin River/south Delta. This situation has trashed native species habitat. Unfortunately, the hostages are dying (native species, subsided island levees, and drinking water quality). So new infrastructure and hostage arrangements will be needed. The hostage exchange negotiations will continue to have the characteristics noted by Chair Isenberg.

  3. Many of the arguments for a Peripheral Tunnel include the fact that Winter and Spring Run Chinook salmon and native fish in the Delta are on the brink of extinction.

    This is not due to the current water export facilities, but to the mismanagement of operation if the facilities, and the huge increase in exports by the State Water Project over the past decade. The implementation of the revised Biological Opinions in 2008 is a major reason that fish populations in the Delta are in a fragile recovery.

    This recovery should be championed by all parties as a major milestone in management of the Delta, and the biologists should be given deference, since their recommendations appear to have worked. Instead, because the biological opinions require reductions in maximal levels of exports, there have been continual political and legal attacks on the Endangered Species Act requirements, which the Department of Water Resources has joined.

    There is little evidence that a large new facility would be managed any differently than the current facilities.

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