It seems to us we’ve heard that song before: A SPECIAL REPORT

When Governor Schwarzenegger showed the Delta to visiting journalists from outside California, he did it from a helicopter flying over the region.

Even then, though, he was closer than most of the academics who are continuing to pad their professional resumes by writing about the Delta for the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).  They seem to be viewing the region from about 50,000 feet.

Last week the PPIC entertained 350 people at the Sheraton Grand in Sacramento for what was basically a book launch of their latest tome, “Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation.”  Attendees enjoyed lunch and panel discussions courtesy of the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Pisces Foundation, The Resources Legacy Fund, and the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority.  These days, the sponsors are happy to have their names attached, whereas formerly, one had to dig to identify them.

Its been four years now since the PPIC published “Envisioning Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta,” and right from the start, S. D. Bechtel and the Resources Legacy Fund have been pushing this ongoing initiative to frame California’s discussion of the Delta as doomed.

The original document explored nine alternative “futures,” each conceptual, each an exaggeration stripped of practicality or opportunities for compromise.  In that document, the authors wrote the score for the song sheet they have been singing from so successfully ever since: the fragile, unsustainable Delta; seismic threat; catastrophic levee failure; inevitable loss of species; failing governance; crisis, crisis, crisis; conflict, conflict, conflict.

The PPIC’s latest effort, 500 pages long and sprinkled with nice photographs, is more of the same, although they’ve zoomed out here to include much of the rest of California.

The “Eco-Delta” of the 2007 report has been modified into an “eco-friendly” Delta with ten or so south Deltas islands designated as “open water.”  Bethel Island and Hotchkiss Tract are designated for “humans and wildlife,” but with the altered hydrology of being surrounded by open water, it doesn’t seem like they would survive long.  This is the kind of idea that only makes sense from way up in the air.

The proposed “eco-friendly” Delta would support “new, novel habitats (flooded islands) that have no natural equivalent, as well as species of plants, invertebrates, and vertebrates from all over the world.”  You know, sort of an aquatic zoo.  So much for Delta restoration.

(To take a look at the “co-friendly Delta,” you can download the full report from the PPIC website.  The map is Figure 5.3 on page 220.  You’ll find the zoo on page 219.)

In the interest of ecosystem preservation, the authors might be willing to sacrifice a few species.  Abstract and judicial, this suggestion concedes the battle before it has been intelligently fought.

The report seems almost hostile to California agriculture.  In introductory remarks, Ellen Hanak praised water marketing as “a good way to move water away from low value crops to high value crops and urban uses.”  If this looks like a slippery slope, with water increasingly flowing toward export almonds and desert subdivisions, that’s because from an economist’s perspective agriculture is, well, not a big economic driver.  Asked about the effect of this kind of market on food supply, Hanak spoke warmly of eco-tourism.

To be fair, the PPIC invited panelists who didn’t necessarily agree with the report’s recommendations.

Chapter 5 of the report deals with “reconciling” ecosystems – a favorite idea of author Peter Moyle.  NRDC attorney and Delta Stewardship Council member Felicia Marcus (taking a break that morning from the DSC meeting running concurrently) said that Chapter 5 irritated her.  She advised against focusing on the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act as enemies.

And Moyle himself admitted that “we haven’t applied available tools effectively.”  Yes, we could insist on enforcement of the Water Code.

The PPIC has a grand scheme for fixing governance (“reshaping water institutions”).  They echo a recent report by the Little Hoover Commission in recommending that the State Water Project be separated from DWR and made an independent public benefit corporation, like the Independent System Operator that manages California’s power transmission.   The State Water Resources Control Board would be merged with sections of DWR that don’t relate to running the SWP, including the regional water boards.  The Fish and Game Commission would be merged with the Department of Fish and Game.

Panelist and former Resources Director Lester Snow, now a consultant to the Resources Legacy Fund, noted that in his experience, reorganizations of this kind are effective in inverse proportion to how difficult they are.

And panelist Martha Davis of the Inland Empire Utilities Agency commented that changing institutional structures should not be the main focus of governance efforts.  She suggested that we ask “What are our goals as a state?”  Do we need a new authority, she asked, or do we need to make better use of the institutions we have and encourage creative problem-solving at the local level.

This respect for local problem-solving is missing almost by definition from the kinds of academic reports the PPIC produces.  But the reports work well as fodder for media commentary and as support for grandiose legislative initiatives.

Heaven forbid that we actually solve these problems.  What would happen to this little cottage industry of Delta doomsingers?

We don’t want to be churlish, though.  Thank you for lunch.

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