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The consensus seems to be: Let somebody else fix the delta

Confidential surveys of water officials, water users and others involved with the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta offer some telling insight on why the delta is stuck in a perpetual quagmire.

When it comes to fixing the hub of California’s water system, most parties would prefer it if someone else made the sacrifices.

The surveys, conducted last year by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California and discussed in a new institute report, found that there was general agreement with scientists about the nature of the problems that have pushed several of the delta’s native fish species to the brink of extinction: altered and diminished water flows, water pollution, loss of fish and wildlife habitat, invasive species and fishery management.

But interest groups differed on the importance of those stressors, depending on what it would take to fix them — and who would do the fixing.

Water "exporters avoided measures that would reduce their diversions (either directly or through changes in upstream management), while prioritizing 'nonflow' stressors — such as discharges, delta habitat and harvest management — for which costs would likely be borne by other stakeholder groups or taxpayers," the authors wrote.

"Likewise, fishery interests did not support harvest management — a direct hit on their livelihood — but strongly endorsed reducing diversions and improving upstream management to benefit fish populations," the report continued. "Upstream interests did not support upstream management measures, which could cost them land and water, and they supported reducing diversions only if those came at the expense of exporters, not themselves."

And "delta interests were more enthusiastic about reducing other water users’ diversions and less enthusiastic about measures to develop more delta habitat, which might harm the local economy, even if landowners are compensated for converted lands."

The report, "Stress Relief: Prescriptions for a Healthier Delta Ecosystem," also cites a separate opinion poll by the policy institute that found a similar mentality among members of the public. Though 61% of Californians polled said they supported more state spending to improve conditions for native fish, that figure dropped to 39% if the spending pushed up their water rates.

Not surprisingly, the authors call for more coordination and consistency in tackling the delta’s myriad problems. They propose establishment of a new state office to coordinate and expedite permitting for projects affecting the delta. Permitting decisions would remain with individual agencies, but the office would coordinate information sharing and try to avoid duplication.

The report also advocates creation of a joint powers authority to oversee scientific research and monitoring in the delta. The authority "would not terminate participating agencies’ own scientific studies or their legal obligation to base policy decisions on sound science," the authors wrote. "Rather, it would tackle the larger, most complex and controversial issues."

bettina.boxall@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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