2007 Archive

Task Force Tackles Delta crisis, State's Water Woes

Even by the sobering standard of recent environmental news, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta crisis is troubling. A new report by the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force—three of whose seven members have ties to UC Berkeley—concludes that the current system for providing delta water to roughly 25 million Californians is no longer sustainable.

“It’s a daunting issue,” says task force member Richard Frank, executive director of Boalt Hall’s California Center for Environmental Law and Policy (CCELP). “The problems are so multi-faceted and the challenge is so enormous that I’ve joked with several people that this is a professor’s dream exam question.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger established the task force in February to help address California’s increasingly fragile water status and sustain the delta’s declining ecosystem. In addition to Frank, the task force is chaired by Boalt alumnus Phil Isenberg ’67, a former legislative leader and mayor of Sacramento. It also includes UC Berkeley environmental and civil engineering professor Raymond Seed.

The report—to be released formally next week—urges state and federal officials to evaluate options for a new water-delivery system from the delta to users in the East Bay, San Joaquin Valley, and Southern California. In doing so, it suggests a cooperative statewide effort to conserve water and adopt measures that deter flooding. Among the report’s 12 integrated recommendations are improving the delta’s levees, building a better system to move water to users, decreasing the amount of water that cities take from rivers feeding the delta, and restricting development on area floodplains.

“The key point is that you can’t go through these recommendations, pick a couple and ignore the rest, which some interest groups will be inclined to do,” Frank says. “At the top of our list is restoration of the delta ecosystem and maintenance of a reliable water supply.”

Various environmental factors have created increasingly tight water supplies flowing through the delta. The report’s recommendations include immediate improvements to the delta’s existing infrastructure and operations, and study of improved distribution options to reach better long-range solutions.

 Held together by 1,100 miles of aging levees, the delta faces a significant threat of flooding. Because many of the levees were built more than 100 years ago—many from erodible materials—it is susceptible to flooding on par with what New Orleans sustained during Hurricane Katrina. Levee failures could also contaminate the delta’s water supply and jeopardize nearly 400,000 area residents of the floodplain.

“These levees are deteriorating and not maintained to the extent anyone feels is needed,” Frank says. “Beyond that, the water is getting higher, which applies additional pressure on the levees. You also have the impact of climate change, which has caused rising sea levels and more dramatic runoff, and seismic problems as a number of fault lines run through that area.”

Aside from being a source of fresh water for two out of every three state residents—most of whom live in Southern California—the delta is a habitat for species such as salmon, perch, ducks, and geese. To protect such species, the report urges state officials to stop development in floodplains around the delta. Additionally, a large portion of California’s agriculture and more than one-sixth of the nation’s irrigated farmland relies on water that flows through the delta.

The task force first assembled in March and held public session meetings about twice a month. Each member performed different roles, with Frank focusing on water law and land-use planning issues. After taking testimony and obtaining information from government officials, scientists, and other stakeholders for a few months, the task force began crafting its report. Members will meet again in January to begin creating a strategic plan for implementing their delta-management recommendations, with the plan to be submitted by October 31, 2008.

Although Frank joined the task force to help transform California’s most important water delivery system, he knew his involvement would also have a positive impact on CCELP.

“This work ties very nicely into CCELP’s research and policy objectives,’’ he says. “The delta is a microcosm of many key issues that the center is focused on, such as climate change, water allocation in the American west, disaster law, and disaster planning policies. There’s some synergy here, and some long-term benefits that will be great for the center and the law school.”

- By Andrew Cohen