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'Fixing' the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta will have to include construction and conservation.

December 27, 2007

It was easy to miss in the year-end rush to salvage healthcare and slash California's $14-billion budget shortfall, but another of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's onetime pet projects, the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force, submitted its final report Dec. 17. It's an important piece of work that should help guide a water debate in 2008.

Asked to "develop a durable vision for sustainable management of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta," the seven-member committee considered the watershed's looming problems, among them a threatened ecosystem and a network of aging levees. These levees could collapse in the event of an earthquake, destroying farms, homes and wildlife habitat and threatening water supplies. Currently, 25 million Californians use water that flows through the delta.

The panel suggested that protecting the region's ecosystem and securing the state's water supply should be "primary, co-equal goals" in its management. In a way, this offered something for everyone. Environmentalists emphasized the worthy recommendations that water users conserve more and reduce what they take from the system. At the same time, some water users, including the Assn. of California Water Agencies, lauded the panel's determination that "new facilities for conveyance and storage ... are needed" -- in other words, that the state must consider reservoirs and a canal to store and carry water around the delta.

But the Delta Vision Task Force stressed that "the delta cannot be 'fixed' by any single action." In other words, building new dams or canals alone won't solve the problem. Nor will conservation.

Figuring out a precise balance between the two approaches has eluded California for decades: Witness the peripheral canal debacle of 1982. It won't be easy now either. But with a new year upon us, we urge state leaders to take this opportunity to work for a comprehensive set of water policies that will conserve what we have and plan for growth. The task force is required to submit an implementation plan by October. In the meantime, we urge those who are prematurely dueling over water bonds -- bonds that do next to nothing to address the delta problem -- to join in support of a single, rational set of plans.

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