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Watermaster: Understanding the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Crisis

Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watermaster Michael George talks about his position at the helm of the Delta’s water rights system, and how we can address the ecological and political challenges the Delta faces.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
A water diversion in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the linchpin of California’s water system.Chris Austin

Michael George has called the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta “highly important, highly complex, highly compromised.” George serves as Delta watermaster, a position created as part of the Delta Reform Act of 2009 to administer water rights in the Delta, where there are some 2,800 separate water diversions.

“A lot of what I’m called upon to do is to work with the members of the State Water Resources Control Board and the Delta Stewardship Council on strategic planning and implementation issues regarding the crisis the Delta is facing,” he said.

George recently spoke with Water Deeply about how that crisis is playing out – the political and ecological challenges – as well as the work that various agencies and stakeholders have engaged in to move toward more sustainable management.

Water Deeply: What are the Delta’s biggest challenges?

Michael George: Political, economic, social, historic – there are all kinds of challenges in the Delta. Start with the fact that it is a highly changed physical place compared to its predevelopment phase, when it was a naturally functioning estuary. We channelized what had been a marshy area. We reclaimed land within the area and started farming.

Later, we built a lot of diversion upstream of the Delta, which, in response to state policy to put water to maximum beneficial use, took water that would naturally have flowed to and through the Delta and put it to uses for mining and for agriculture and for building cities on the many tributaries that empty into the Delta.

The final historic piece of that was the creation of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, both of which use the Delta as a partial conveyance from reservoirs in the north to pumps and canals that move water from a place of surplus to a place of deficit.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that so many people and so many interests depend in so many different ways on the Delta. I sit in the middle of all that.

Water Deeply: The Delta Reform Act of 2009 set up the idea of achieving coequal goals or restoring the ecosystem and improving the reliability of water-delivery systems – can both of those things actually be accomplished at once?

George: Yes, they can both be advanced. I don’t know if the world “accomplished” is one I would use in any kind of foreseeable time horizon. I think we have created a really serious problem over a long period of time and we need to work our way toward those coequal goals in a rational, deliberate fashion. I think we need to have a long-term perspective on those accomplishments and we need to work like hell in the short term to make sure we are doing things every day that move us closer to the better long-term outcomes that we all desire.

Water Deeply: What are the biggest water rights issues in the Delta?

George: Because the Delta was developed from its natural state as an agriculture area early in the state’s history, in the Delta are some of the oldest water rights in California. The cornerstone of the water rights system in California is priority – so, “first in time, first in right.”

In addition, when we became a state we overlaid the riparian system, which was developed in English common law, on our priority system, and that has created a lot of confusion and difficulty with respect to orderly administration of water rights, particularly during severe drought.

There are issues about how you share shortage in times of drought because we have these two different systems. Among appropriators it’s “first in time, first in right”; among riparians it’s “correlative share,” where everyone gets their share cut equally. Managing both of those systems side by side in a complicated physical setting like the Delta creates a lot of confusion.

And then when you add on top of that [the fact that] we are using the Delta as a conveyance system, you have to look at complexity added when previously stored water is released for transit through the Delta to export pumps or to keep the Delta fresh.

Then add to that the fact that the Delta is a tidal zone and twice a day the tides have their way. The tidal water that moves back and forth through the straits connecting San Francisco Bay to the interior Delta is a huge amount of water compared to the amount of water that flows in all the streams that come into the Delta.

That is why the system is so complex and why the legislature felt it necessary to set up within the State Water Resources Control Board a specialty function focused on this highly important, highly complex, highly compromised Delta.

Water Deeply: What changes do we need to make to the water rights system?

George: There are a lot of things that we are doing, that the legislature has done, that the Water Board has done and lots of other agencies have done, to improve water administration.

About a year ago the legislature passed S.B. 88, which includes a requirement for people to measure water diversions.

We are also making great strides in understanding consumptive use of water. Our office is sponsoring a study on consumptive use in the Delta. Because of advances in technology we are able to improve methods for measuring consumptive use – for instance, using computer analysis of satellite images.

Water Deeply: What is your involvement with California WaterFix, the governor’s plan to build twin tunnels under the Delta for new conveyance?

George: The state and federal water projects have proposed a pretty substantial upgrade to the infrastructure that the projects use in the Delta – California WaterFix and California EcoRestore. The proposal is highly controversial. But it is an attempt by those projects to propose an infrastructure solution to advance their vision of the coequal goals.

I do maintain neutrality – we are in the midst of a hearing on the projects’ petition for change in their points of diversion. I am listening to the testimony in the hearings. I’m trying to maintain an open mind and I will continue to do that.

But the Delta as it exists today is not sustainable in the long term; even in the short term it’s probably not sustainable. So the question is: Do the tunnels advance the twin goals or, if not, is there is something better to do? What is it and how do we get about it?

If you drive through the Delta you see these signs that say, “Stop the tunnels, save the Delta” and while that is a catchy kind of bumper sticker slogan, it doesn’t really put in perspective the real issues that we face. Because stopping the tunnels would not have the effect of saving the Delta. In order to save the Delta, in order to make the Delta sustainable, to allow it to meet its functions in its highly altered state, the question is not “Should we build the tunnels or do nothing?” The real question is “What should we do to reconcile the dramatically changed Delta in a way that advances the coequal goals?”

Water Deeply: What’s your hope for where the Delta will be in, say, 20 or 30 years?

George: It’s a powerful question and it’s one I often try to pose, because I think we get lost in the weeds and we have these ferocious arguments about what we should do this week or last week. But if we were to lift our horizon and say to ourselves “What is the Delta we’d like to hand on to our children or grandchildren?” I think we’d have a lot more agreement. I think people would agree that 30 years from now we should all hope to have an ecologically functional Delta and a water system that supports our lives, our families and our way of life.

What happens in the Delta is critical to every person in California and a lot of people outside of California. And it’s complicated; it’s not capable of being resolved by bumper sticker rhetoric. But, since everyone has a stake in it, it’s useful to inform yourself sufficiently so that you can intelligently participate in a discussion of real options as compared to competing absolutes.

The State Water Resources Control Board, the state legislature and all the other agencies have the statutory and, I believe, the moral responsibility to balance a range of uses of water in a system that is chronically constrained. That means that not everyone can have everything. It means we cannot manage the system in absolutes; we’ve got to continually refine and balance how we develop, use, interact with, restore and participate in the management of water resources in the Delta.

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