As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.

History 383 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer

A Selected Chronology of California's Four-Decade Long Struggle of the Management and Decline of the Bay-Delta Ecosystem

For the past four decades, California's have been involved in a contentious water war over two major issues related to the Bay-Delta region: how to best manage water quality and protect the many native species of fish and fowl in the region and how to best provide water resources that were rapidly depleting. The struggle has involved many stakeholders - local residents and politicians, state and federal regulatory agencies, and environmentalists. Below are the highlights of this ongoing struggle.

Map of Sacramento-San Joaquin DeltaLate 1960s - After the State Water Project (SWP) began operations, the combined effects of Central Valley Project (CVP) and SWP impoundments and diversions became apparent. River flows and water quality declined, threatening both economic and environmental uses and the ecological balance of the Delta became disastrous to native fish species.

1978 - In 1978 the State Water Resource Control Board (SWRCB) presented water quality standards for the Delta and amended water rights permits of the CVP and SWP to regulate project operations. Both projects and an array of water users and environmentalists filed suit, and the litigation quickly became the largest water resources dispute in California’s history.

1980 - The California Legislature authorized the construction of a Peripheral Canal to divert water south from the Sacramento River and the Delta. Rathering than restoring the area, the plan would route water around the Delta via a 43-mile, concrete-lined peripheral canal which would have more efficiently linked the northern and southern units of the CVP and SWP.

1982 - Opponents of the Peripheral Canal authorized in 1980 succeeded in putting an initiative on the 1982 ballot. After a heated campaign, California voters turned down funding for a Peripheral Canal. The voters sided with the canal opponents, rejecting the peripheral canal by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent. All counties north of Ventura on the coast and Kern inland voted no - many with more than 90 percent of voters opposing the measure. The yes votes in Southern California were insufficient to overcome monolithic northern opposition.

1986 - At the beginning of what would be one of the worst droughts of the 20th century, the California Court of Appeals ruled that the water quality standards adopted by the SWRCB were unlawful and ordered it to conduct new hearings. The court emphasized that the SWRCB had broad authority to amend the water rights of the CVP and SWP to ensure that project operations did not threaten water quality, aquatic species, and other beneficial uses, and it autho- rized the board to apply the new water quality standards to other water rights holders whose uses contribute to flow depletion and water quality degradation.

1989 - Federal regulary agencies increased their involvement in California's water policy debates beginning with the National Marine Fisheries Service which listed the Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon as a threatened species and upgraded the listing to endangered status in 1994.

1991 - Because the SWRCB first draft water quality plan presented in 1989 provoked a firestorm of political protest, a second draft was releassed in 1991. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) disapproved the water quality plan.

Chart of fish loss in the Delta1992 - Congress enacted the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA), noting that project operations had diminished water quality, degraded the ecology of the Central Valley and the Delta, and threatened the extinction of native fish species. The CVPIA thus added fish and wildlife protection to the operational directives of the project, and ordered the Bureau of Reclamation to dedicate 800,000 acre-feet annually (about 20 per- cent of the face value of water delivery contracts) to a variety of environmental purposes. The CVPIA also included provisions that brought the project into greater conformity with state law.

This new federal intervention presented California's water managers with a real threat - possible federal regulatory takeover of the state's largest water projects and most imporant sources of water supply.

1993 - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the delta smelt as threatened. Since 1940, the delta smelt population had diminished by more than 90 percent.

1994 - Negotiations among the various stakeholders involved in the water conflicts - representatives of agricultural, urban, and environmental interests, California's business community, and political leaders from Sacramento and Washington, D.C. - resulted in the creation of CALFED. It brought together all state and federal agencies charged with administering or regulating the waters of the Delta system to meet two primary goals: to create a long-term management plan to restore the ecological health and to improve water management for beneficial uses of the system.

2000 - CALFED's "Record of Decision" (ROD) explained the seven-year plan to achieve the goals defined by the Bay-Delta Accord. By the mid-2000s, federal and state support for the program had disappeared and CALFED collapsed. With the demise of CALFED, the Delta returned to its tradition of litigation and confrontation.

Such confrontation, as Hanek, et. all explain in Managing California's Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation (p. 64) made it clear that California's water management institutions were not able to cope with the Bay-Delta problem: "In response to lawsuits filed by environmental groups, in May 2007 and April 2008 federal district Judge Oliver Wanger invalidated the biological opinions that governed CVP and SWP operations to protect delta smelt and salmon. Citing the insufficiency of federal efforts to protect declining species, Judge Wanger ordered severe restrictions on exports and a redrafting of the biological opinions. The new biological opinions, issued in 2008 and 2009, were adopted by the project operators. Then, in response to lawsuits filed by CVP and SWP contractors, the same judge invalidated the new biological opin- ions, concluding that the fish protection agencies did not adequately explain the linkage between project operations and the decline of the species and failed to consider effects of export restrictions on employment and production. At the time of this writing (late 2010), the judge has ordered a temporary increase in exports while all parties attempt to negotiate a solution."

2007 - In February, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger convened a Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force to study the situation and recommend institutional changes to enable California to better manage the array of competing interests.

2008 - In its Strategic Plan for the Delta, the Blue Ribbon Task Force called on the legislature to create a new governance structure that would manage the waters of the ecosystem to achieve two "co-equal" goals: "Restore the Delta ecosystem and create a more reliable water supply for California." The task force emphasized that these "are co-equal goals because one objective can't be achieved without the other."

2009 - The California Legislature responded in two ways: passing the Delta Reform Act and putting forth a $11.1 billion bond measure to fund new water projects around the state. The Delta Reform Act adopted the task force's recommendation to create a Delta Stewardship Council to manage the Delta to achieve the goals of "restoring the Delta and providing for a clean, reliable, and sustainable water supply for all of the uses that depend on the waters of the ecosystem" (Water Code 85001(c)). The package of reforms also included statewide measures to increase urban water conservation, better account for groundwater use, and increase water rights enforcement.

2010 - The Bay Delta Conservation Plan - negotiated by federal and state water managers, government regulators, water users, and environmental interests - was established to create a comprehensive habitat conservation and management plan to protect the endangered and threatened species of the Delta ecosystem while also permitting continued export of water by the SWP and CVP.

2011 - A proposed bill in February would have prohibited the construction of yet another proposed peripheral canal.

2012 - In July, Governor Jerry Brown introduced plans for a massive water project in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The multi-billion dollar proposal was designed to address long-simmering disputes over who gets how much water and at what cost to the Delta's ecosystem. Its critics say that the plan looks suspiciously like the one voters rejected in 1982. Rather than proposing to build a Peripheral Canal, however, Brown's plan proposes building two large tunnels roughly the length of the Panama Canal to route water under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta so that it could be more reliably shipped to farms and cities to the south.