California Water Policy Seminar Series: Senator Lois Wolk speaks about the Delta and the importance of finding collaborative solutions

lois_wolkThe UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences kicked off its California Water Policy Seminar Series on January 7th, 2013 with State Senator Lois Wolk, who spoke about interconnectivity and the Delta, and the importance of collaboration and involving the community in achieving successful results for large restoration projects.

Senator Wolk began her political career by serving on the Davis City Council.  She moved up the political ladder to Yolo County Supervisor,  served two terms in the State Assembly, and is returning this year for her second term as State Senator representing the 3rd Senate District.  She is a resident of Davis and a longtime advocate for the Delta.

Senator Wolk began by praising the students’ interest in water policy, saying there aren’t enough well trained people who understand science and law and who are willing to get involved.  While acknowledging that it requires commitment and takes a long time to do it right, “I can’t imagine anything, in my view, as important to the future of the West and the future of California than where we provide for our water supply and that we do it in a way that is sustainable, environmentally sound, and does no harm,” she said.

Senator Wolk wasn’t drawn to water at first.  Born and raised in urban Philadelphia, water wasn’t really an issue.  When she moved to California and served on the Davis City Council, her involvement with Putah Creek was her baptism into the world of California water:  “From that point on, I was very drawn to California water history and policy and challenges.”

Her involvement continued when she worked with the Water Resources Association of Yolo County to bring together cities and the County to work together on water issues: “We tried to pull everyone together whose interests, at first blush, seemed very different but in fact, protection of the water supply is an interest we all share.”  However, an important lesson learned is that solving one group’s problem will cause a ripple or tidal wave effect on countless other stakeholders, both upstream and downstream, “and so you have to approach it from this principle of interconnectivity,” said Ms. Wolk.

“Interconnectedness to me means that proposals to divert water in and around the Delta aren’t just about the water demand and needs of Southern California or the Bay Area, but it also means the drinking water quality in Contra Costa, it means the water quality and health of the pelagic organisms and the fish that depend on the water, it means the health of the agricultural community that has been in the Delta for many, many years, it means the communities that draw their water from the Delta, it means the ports that exist in the Delta, so it means the flow requirements or restrictions that restrict water exports in the Delta protect the smelt but are equally important to other uses as well.  So there is this incredible web of interconnectivity that it is extremely important to recognize in water.”

You have to have the larger view in water policy, said Ms. Wolk, and once you have that, you will act differently when solving problems.  You make sure that you have everyone needed around the table to solve a problem –  that doesn’t mean everyone wins, but it does mean everyone’s issues are addressed.  “The best and most long-lasting decisions or solutions to problems are when you have buy-in from the largest number of folks who are affected by what you are trying to do.  In water, I think it’s absolutely essential,” she said.  She cited other large-scale restoration projects, such as Lake Tahoe, the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes and the Everglades, all of which have had processes that have included incredible numbers of stakeholders and took a long time to work through because the issues are complex and there are often winners and losers, and the issues need to be addressed of those who do not win.  “Everybody was around the table, from the local level, from the environmental, agricultural community, industrial community – whatever stakeholders were affected, all the way up to the federal government.  Everybody had a part to play in that,” said Ms. Wolk.

In California, the water contractors, and the state and federal government are proposing to take on a water project of unprecedented scale as part of the hotly debated Bay Delta Conservation Plan.  Ms. Wolk noted that the BDCP is extremely unpopular among her constituents. “The BDCP would benefit from recognizing and embracing what I’ve termed interconnectedness of California water policy.”

Ms. Wolk highlighted the vital role that collaboration has played in the past successes, noting that several projects in Yolo County have largely succeeded because the proponents embraced collaboration and they focused on bringing together very diverse, very diametrically opposed stakeholders to develop plans that would address and balance the interconnected but conflicting interests, she said.

To illustrate her point, Ms. Wolk spoke about the development of the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, a project to restore 16,000 acres of wetlands and provide extraordinary habitat at the heart of one of the country’s richest agricultural areas and alongside one of the busiest interstates as well as the Sacramento metropolitan area.  The area is managed cooperatively for the benefit of flood control, habitat and the ecosystem, as well as agricultural and recreational use.  Often conflicting interests, but in fact, it works, she noted.

And how does it work?  “It worked because the Yolo Basin Foundation, a locally based group, brought together divergent stakeholders to address concerns and hash out workable solutions to address a management plan for the wildlife area.  It took awhile to get there, but rather than ignore the fact that wetland restoration would have an impact on flood protection and could disrupt irrigation on nearby farms, the Yolo Basin Foundation sought to reach out to those groups and invited them to develop a management plan with multiple benefits.”  The collaborative effort eventually earned tremendous support from the state and federal agencies, the local government, farmers, environmentalists, and the local community, leading President Clinton in 1997 to hail the project as a national model for meeting the challenge of ‘trying to improve our economy and lift our standard of living while improving, not diminishing, the environment,’ said Ms. Wolk.  “It is an extraordinary area, an extraordinary example of how to achieve restoration while also meeting flood protection and the economic needs of the region,” she said.  “My belief is that because there usually is no simple answer to big water problems, it is really important that everyone be around the table.  It is hard work … but you come out with a good result that everyone supports.”

Turning to the Delta, Ms. Wolk noted that the Delta is the largest estuary on the West Coast, home to over 750 species of plants and wildlife.  It is a critical nursery and passageway for 80% of California’s iconic salmon. It also has 5 counties, 2 deepwater ports, 4 million people, 27 cities, 1000 farms, boating, fishing, pipelines and gas wells.  It’s also the point at which water from Northern California is transferred to the Central Valley and to Southern California and to the Bay Area.  It’s the heart of the California water system and the flashpoint of conflict in California’s water wars, she said.

The state and federal governments are working with the water districts and with Metropolitan Water District and Westlands in the Central Valley to develop the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which is a plan to divert the last major freshwater source – the Sacramento River – around rather than through the Delta, through massive, new tunnels.  The plan also calls for 100,000 acres of habitat restoration within the five Delta counties.  “Despite the obvious impact on the Delta, and upstream communities, for the most part, these groups have been excluded from the planning process.  Remember that – that’s important.  All those five counties, 4 million people, 2 deep water ports, 1000 farms, they have been excluded from this process and I don’t say that lightly,” she said.

The process is being driven by contractors, by those who want the water, said Ms. Wolk:  “Now I understand that, but it’s an important need that has to be balanced.  If the BDCP proponents are committed to such a massive project in the Delta, they need to recognize the impact on the Delta, the Delta communities, and the upstream water users.  Risk to these interconnected communities, whether it is water rights, water quality degradation, endangered species exposure, reduced agricultural production – these impacts need to be addressed.  And while it will be extremely difficult and expensive to do so, the proponents must be willing to adjust their preferred project to accommodate these other valid interests.  They are valid interests, and to date, [the BDCP proponents] have been unwilling to do so, from my perspective, in meaningful ways.”

Senator Wolk pointed out that upstream water users, Delta landowners, residents and organizations will be critical to the success of the BDCP, and that each could potentially block critical components of the Plan.  Additionally, there is vocal opposition to the water bond, which includes much of the funding for the habitat restoration portion of the BDCP, she said, and a vote on the measure has been delayed twice since 2009.  “It’s unlikely that the bond as it is currently structured will pass,” she said, noting that she has introduced a bill to put a water bond before the people, but between introduction and the ballot, there’s a whole lot of political process yet to go.  “The path forward on bonds or any future legislation or action on the Delta is going to have to be a discussion and negotiation with all parties at the table.  Delta folks are willing to do that, they have been willing to do that, environmental upstream stakeholders, everyone’s eager to come to the table, and they’ve worked hard to engage in the BDCP process, they want to develop solutions for the Delta that will work for the water exporters as well as the Delta and upstream region.  We’ll see,” she said.

Governor Brown has focused his attention on getting the job done, but getting it built is the end point of the discussion said Senator Wolk:  “What we really need to decide first of all is what do we want this Delta to be, and what it will take for the Delta to survive … what we have to decide, and what our institutions and our policymakers have to come to grips with, is how much water does it take to preserve the Delta the way we want?  And those are very difficult decisions because not everybody and not everything will be the same after that discussion.  There may not be as much water that can go to Southern California as they would like. There may not be as much agriculture left in the Delta as there has been previously.  There may not be as many islands protected by levees as there has been in the past.  We have to decide what we want, and we have to figure out how much water that will take, because water is at the heart of this discussion,” she said.

Senator Wolk continued: “How much fresh water is necessary to preserve the communities in the Delta, and the fish and the wildlife and ship to Southern California – that’s the heart of it and a very, very difficult discussion, but I do know that discussion can’t take place without the Delta communities at the table.  It can take place, but it’s not a stable result.  Whatever is decided, you have to have the people that you affect involved. …   It’s not an easy thing, but interconnected is what they all are.  … Everybody’s got to be around the table.”

Senator Wolk then talked about a unique collaborative effort between the Delta stakeholders, including the Delta counties, Metropolitan Water District, Westlands, contractors and others, who have been meeting over the past six months on their own.   Instead of fighting over the BDCP, they chose to focus on the projects and the needs of the Delta to see if there are projects that everyone could all agree on.  “And lo and behold, they came up with 42 projects at a cost of $2 billion – in my checkbook, that’s a lot, but in water policy, that’s budget dust” said Ms. Wolk.  “So we’re looking leftover bond money or maybe a new bond that focuses on what we can do together and stop talking about the canal.  Let’s try and move forward and maybe develop a bit more trust, which is an incredibly important ingredient in solving any policy dispute in water or any other place.”

In this next legislative session, Ms. Wolk plans on presenting and working through the legislature a bond that will support the kinds of projects that local communities throughout California are asking for, such as recycling, conservation, and levee projects.  Senator Wolk concluded with briefly discussing the importance of local Measure I regarding the groundwater project, and then took questions from participants.

One participant said that having been involved in water issues for some time, the Delta voices seem quite vociferous, so he asked in what ways have Delta voices been excluded from the process?

Senator Wolk answered that in 2009 during the negotiations for the water legislation, she was asked to leave the room and “my name was taken off my bills,” she said.  “The legislation was written by contractors in the middle of the night.  They don’t like to hear me say that, but that’s in fact the case,” she said, and in regards to the BDCP, “the only people allowed around the table of the BDCP …  were those who agreed to a canal or a tunnel.  No Delta folks.” But Ms. Wolk noted that in the Brown administration, John Laird and Jerry Meral have made a real effort to outreach to the Delta counties, and one county had received funds to do studies in order to be able to respond to BDCP proposals.  But in terms of the actual formation of the BDCP, no, she said, and if you ask any Delta county, you’ll find out that’s the case:  “Oh, we’re very vociferous, we make a lot of noise.  That’s all we’ve got.”

Senator Wolk was asked if she thought environmental groups have had more of a position at the table then the Delta groups?  She answered that the environmental groups are divided. The NRDC and the EDF have been at the table with the BDCP, but the Sierra Club, the PCL and others were opposed, skeptical, and not part of the process.  But as the studies have come out, there’s concern that the BDCP is not going to be helpful or healthy for the fish, and that has made the two major environmental groups that are still sort of hoping this will work very skeptical, but I think you just need to talk to them about it, she said.  “This is really going to come down to how much water can be exported from the Delta and still provide a healthy ecosystem, and I think that’s where the real rub is going to come.  I don’t know where the enviros will be in the end,” she said.

A participant noted that the peripheral canal or tunnels is part of the system that began with the construction of Lake Shasta, which creates a supply during the summer which wouldn’t otherwise be available, and so the concept of creating more natural flows by taking this extra water around the Delta makes sense based on that principle, he said. So is it about how much water gets exported out of the Delta because we have created this extra supply, or is it more about who controls the timing on the valves of this infrastructure?  Ms. Wolk said that this is all about assurances and guarantees; it’s about how much water can be diverted and still retain a healthy Delta, and what that means.  “You build a tunnel that can divert 15,000 cfs, you think it’s not going to be used … ? And that amount of water, to divert the Sacramento River in that amount, what do you think is going to be left?  It’s a frightening concept; there’s not going to be enough water left to preserve the health of the Delta.  The Delta needs fresh water,” said Ms. Wolk.

Ms. Wolk continued: “It’s a question of assurances, guarantees … water is not just about good policy on paper, it’s about power – and this is about power relationships, and that’s what was very clear in the legislature.  The Delta doesn’t have the same number of legislators as LA does, or San Diego, or Southern California or the Bay Area, so the kinds of assurances and guarantees for the survival of the Delta – it’s not clear yet what that would be, but I can tell you if there’s two giant tunnels 35 miles long, they are going to fill it.  They are not going to spend billions building it and not use it.  And who has the power to make them stop?  So far, we only have the courts, that’s the only backstop, in my view.  The water board’s been very weak, they’re getting better but they are still weak.  DWR is run in my view by the contractors; it’s not the state’s policeman.  It’s what kind of assurances and guarantees in an area where assurances and guarantees haven’t worked very well in the past.”

View the complete video of Senator Wolk’s speech on YouTube by clicking here.

Future speakers scheduled for the series: Jay Lund, Phil Isenberg, Tim Quinn, Peter Moyle, John Laird, Felicia Marcus, Tim Washburn, and Mark Cowin.

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