Delta hostages

One of the smartest comments on last week’s Cal-Fed announcement about the California Bay-Delta system came in a blog comment from UC Davis’s Jay Lund:

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.

Lund and Kaveh Madani wrote an insightful paper last year on the political/game theory problem:

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.

Phil Isenberg made a related point in his piece responding to the Bay Delta Conservation Plan Announcement (he’s actually quoting here from a talk he’s given to several California audiences):

In public, most of the speakers say pretty much the same thing. The most common refrain is “me, and my interest first.” However, when I talk to these people in private, they say things differently. In private, people are more candid, flexible and pragmatic. This difference between public posturing and reasonable private conversation irritates me. I occasionally demand they say in public what they tell me in private. Some smile, but mostly they glower or stare back without responding. This is the American way to negotiate: demand more than you want or need, in the hope of getting something better than you expect. Ask tough questions of your opponents, but duck the ones that come your way. Offer to compromise 30 minutes before a final decision. This pattern is not a great way to make public policy.


  1. I’ve long thought that a very distasteful presentation of Delta views is that they are holding the water supply of a city of 20 million people hostage to getting their levees fixed.

  2. Pingback: Delta Hostages on Ecocentric Blog | Food, Water and Energy Issues

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