California’s story is, in great part, a story of water. Future chapters of that story depend on wise management of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, one of the state’s most important sources of drinking water and agricultural irrigation. As the state considers plans for the Delta, including a multi-billion-dollar tunnel project to divert water into canals, a new report co-authored by Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment Co-Director Buzz Thompson offers a blueprint to improve the health of the ecosystem.

The report, released by the Public Policy Institute of California, recommends comprehensive, science-based management of the multiple sources of stress on the ailing ecosystem. It also recommends improvements to the highly fragmented system of oversight that now involves dozens of federal, state and local agencies.

"The Delta is suffering from multiple stresses that need to be tackled in an integrated, coordinated fashion,” Thompson said. “This report shows that there is wide agreement on the major stresses and the need to tackle them together. It also lays out a workable path to more comprehensive management."

The report, which includes results from surveys of policymakers and scientific experts, emphasizes that there is no simple fix for the Delta's ecosystem. Instead, it lays out an approach likely to achieve better environmental results than current efforts, while containing costs—which are likely to exceed several hundred million dollars annually. The report says that plans under consideration by California are promising but offer an insufficiently comprehensive approach to address the many sources of stress on the Delta ecosystem, and only limited guidance on addressing future challenges such as climate change.

Among the report’s recommendations:

  • Restore natural processes wherever possible (particularly favorable flows and habitat) and use infrastructure and technology (such as hatcheries) to support native species
  • Create a Delta science joint powers authority that would pool resources, share data, foster broad consensus on scientific results and link science to management decisions
  • Create a new state office to coordinate and expedite regulatory actions that affect the Delta

Thompson and the report’s other authors propose several institutional changes, most of them achievable without new legislation. These changes would provide consistent planning, more integrated and accountable management, and more comprehensive regulatory oversight.

"California has already taken a major a step toward more comprehensive management through the Delta Stewardship Council," Thompson said, referring to the organization established to ensure the Delta provides a reliable water supply, while its ecosystems are protected. “This report encourages the council to take a stronger role, by issuing opinions on related actions by state and federal and by encouraging greater coordination among agencies."

As the report notes, much of the cost of improving the Delta will be borne by stakeholders and the general public—both businesses and households—through fees or new state bonds.

Thompson moderated a panel discussion at an event related to the PPIC report on May 10; watch video here.