Sobering thoughts: Reconciling California’s water expectations with reality

An alcoholic has to admit to having a drinking problem before that problem can be solved. And California has to admit to having a water problem – and understand the real nature of that problem – before it goes spending a lot of money on “solutions”.

That was one important take-away message from the October 18 program “Changing Our Perspective: New Ways of Thinking About the Delta.” This program was sponsored by the Water Education Foundation and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy, with assistance from the State and Federal Contractors Water Agency.

The Water Contractors can’t have been happy about some of the messages that panelists delivered. Panelist Jeff Conklin said that you don’t have to implement a canal to know that it won’t work. Panelist Ian Mitroff said that we need to step back and reframe the issue. We can’t solve our water problems if we limit our options to solutions that have worked in the past.

And focusing an inordinate amount of resources to implement a “solution” that will provide a limited or finite benefit may impede progress in other areas that may provide greater return.

There was some question about whether there is a real desire to solve California’s water problems, given the number of public and private entities that benefit from the dysfunctional status quo.  It doesn’t help that those searching for solutions have different and sometimes conflicting legislative mandates.

The real nature of our water problem is over-subscribed water. Right now, we don’t seems to have a real incentive to deal with that. Panelist Jeff Conklin said that historically, it takes a natural disaster or a war to catalyze real change. The recent drought apparently wasn’t disastrous enough. Like an alcoholic, we apparently haven’t hit bottom. And we won’t until we recognize the vast discrepancy between “paper water” and what actually exists on the ground: even in the wettest of years, paper water allocations exceed the actual supply by three times.

The panelists encouraged incorporating local stakeholders in negotiations and plan development, as well as a more honest and open environment for discussing appropriate alternatives.

The morning program (Jeff Conklin and Ian Mitroff, plus keynote speaker James P. Mayer of California Forward) was mostly philosophical and academic; coming up with specific solutions was not the point.

There were two afternoon panels. One focused on Delta planning and consisted of Campbell Ingram (Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy), Joe Grindstaff (Delta Stewardship Council), Michael Machado (Delta Protection Commission), and Byron Buck (State and Federal Contractors Water Agency). The second focused on public financing for ecosystem and economic development and consisted of Senator Lois Wolk (D-Davis), Senator Jean Fuller (R-Bakersfield), and Assemblyman Bill Berryhill (R-Stockton).

While it is always good to get the various sides together talking, it was obvious from the afternoon panel discussions that no one had yet come out of their respective corners, and the gridlock amongst stake holders may continue indefinitely.

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