Delta canal measure put on hold

Delta canal measure put on hold
By E.J. Schultz -
Published 12:00 am PDT Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Story appeared in Sacramento Bee MAIN NEWS section, Page A3


An Assembly committee on Tuesday shelved legislation to build a canal around the suffering Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, telling the bill's author to try again next year.

Two years in the making, Senate Bill 27 tackled a subject so politically charged that author Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, carefully avoided using the "P" word – Peripheral Canal – as he presented the bill as a way to shore up state water supplies without harming the environment.

But with environmentalists, farmers and Delta-area interests all opposed for different reasons, the legislation went the way of so many other water bills – to the shelf to wait for more studies.

"We don't know what will fix this yet … so to leap to the conclusion that it is a conveyance facility and to focus attention on that I think truly is premature," said Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, D-Davis, chairwoman of the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee.

"Conveyance" is the other word for canal. SB 27 would have created a new seven-member authority to contract for the design and construction of a new facility to move water from the Delta to pumps that send water to cities and farms.

The bill would have also asked voters to approve a $4 billion bond to pay for environmental restoration of the Delta.

Voters rejected a so-called Peripheral Canal in 1982, but the idea has drawn renewed interest recently as groups take a closer look at the Delta's woes.

There are many troubling signs.

Declining fish populations have led to court-ordered pumping cutbacks. Elevated ocean levels, predicted as the climate warms, could cause floods. And the ever-present threat of a Delta earthquake has water users on edge.

"The Delta's going to hell in a handbasket," Simitian said. "There's a two out of three chance that the whole system will collapse sometime in the next 50 years."

Committee members agreed with the urgency but said it would be wise to wait for a much-anticipated Delta report. The Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force, appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is scheduled to release a "strategic plan" for the estuary in October.

Separately, the administration announced in February it would start environmental reviews on several options for improving Delta water flows.

Possibilities include pumping water around the Delta, both through and around it, or bolstering the existing system, which moves water only through the estuary.

Urging Simitian to wait for more findings, the Assembly committee did not vote on his bill.

He plans to scale it back to include only short-term fixes, and said he would tackle the canal again in a new bill next year.

But finding consensus will prove tough, no matter how much new information is available.

Farmers want assurances that they will still get access to enough Delta water and not be charged too much for it.

Environmentalists worry that a new canal could hurt water quality, harming fish. Delta-area residents, meanwhile, have long feared that a new canal is nothing more than a south-state water grab.