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Governor Seeks Restructuring of Water Program

The plan would reorganize the CalFed system, which oversees operations in the state's delta region, to focus on pressing problems.

April 21, 2006|Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writer

The Schwarzenegger administration on Thursday released a plan to reorganize a wide-ranging government program launched six years ago to repair the ailing heart of California's water system.

Known as CalFed, the alliance of state and federal agencies was supposed to improve water deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta east of San Francisco while also restoring the delta's deteriorating environs.

But in the past year, CalFed has been severely criticized for being ineffective and slow to tackle some of the delta's most vexing problems.

The Schwarzenegger administration ordered reviews by the independent Little Hoover Commission and the state Finance Department. The blueprint issued Thursday adopts some but not all of the recommendations made by the commission.

Under the restructuring, a new governing body would be created, composed of the directors of 14 state and federal agencies. Co-chair of that entity would be the state resources secretary, who administration officials said would be the ultimate state decision-maker and held accountable for state actions.

The current governing board, made up of agency heads, regional representatives and members of stakeholder groups, would be dissolved. The CalFed staff would be folded into the resources agency.

In addition, said Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman and Bay-Delta Authority Director Joe Grindstaff, a new effort would be made to focus on the most crucial problems based on a realistic vision of what the delta will look like a century from now.

The reorganization requires the approval of the Legislature. That may be elusive, based on the comments of a key player on water issues, Sen. Michael Machado (D-Linden).

"I think it's a rehash of old ideas that doesn't go to the core of the problem," Machado said of the plan, complaining that it should have been released in January.

It would probably be preferable, Machado added, to return to a pre-CalFed format in which individual agencies enforced regulations to achieve the needed delta improvements.

CalFed was born under the Clinton administration as a hugely expensive, 30-year effort to resolve the state's chronic water conflicts, many of which can be traced back to the troubled delta.

The program tried to buy peace by promising something to everybody, including water consumers, environmentalists, farmers who grow crops in the delta and fishermen.

So far, CalFed has spent $3 billion of a projected $10 billion. There have been some successes. Imperiled salmon runs have improved. Wildlife habitat has been restored. Groundwater storage projects around the state have been funded.

But the populations of several delta fish species, including the threatened delta smelt, are crashing. Delta water quality problems continue. And renewed warnings about the fragility of delta levees have highlighted the fact that the levee system has not been fixed under CalFed.

There are "legitimate criticisms that we tried to be all things to all people and we tried to do everything," Grindstaff conceded. "So part of the program is to focus on key areas of conflict."

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