End perverse incentives to oppose water project approvals

On April 30, Gov. Jerry Brown “joined top federal officials to unveil plans that accelerate restoration of the Delta's ecosystem and fix the state's aging water infrastructure.” I count this as good news, reminded that this particular water war has been raging for decades.

“The revised plan substantially improves the health of California’s fisheries, increases water reliability and addresses the uncertainty of climate change,” the governor’s press release states

The truly important question: How many years will be required to implement the plan? Based on history, the amazing answer is most likely decades.

Long-winded plans coupled with perverse incentives to delay projects using environmental challenges and a cadre of opponents paid under the “intervener rule” for matters before the California Public Utilities Commission, have stalled nearly every sensible project that might help resolve our challenges.

In an effort to make physical progress and untangle some projects from the Gordian Knot of perverse incentives, Brown announced steps “to streamline environmental permitting for critical water supply projects,” directing the Office of Planning and Research and other state agencies to help local water agencies reduce the time required to comply with state-required environmental reviews.

However, the governor’s permit streamlining efforts “will focus on projects that can increase local water supplies with limited environmental impacts.” So much for bold steps to resolve the big issues!

Oh, yes, we certainly would not want to adversely affect the environment, even though by slow-walking policies in connection with curtailing greenhouse gas emissions, we are turning portions of California into a more arid and inhospitable desert.

Most striking among the many ideas contained in the governor’s press releases is the ambiguous phrase: “the uncertainty of climate change.”

Really? The “uncertainty of climate change”? What will it take to make clear that the only uncertainty of climate change pertains to just how truly awful it will become?

Among the many drought-related notices posted at are the following:

“Governor Brown has convened an interagency Drought Task Force to provide a coordinated assessment of the State’s dry conditions and provide recommendations on current and future state actions. The response to this statewide disaster requires the combined efforts of all state agencies and the state's model mutual aid system to address.”

On April 15, the California Department of Water Resources, faced with potentially insufficient water supplies to repel salinity in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, is moving to install an emergency, temporary rock barrier across a Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta channel.

On April 23, “approximately 2,981 junior water-rights in the San Joaquin River watershed held by 1,474 individuals and entities will receive curtailment notices. The Scott River curtailment notice includes 162 water-rights held by 137 individuals and entities.” Think of this as a notice that the connected businesses are in big trouble. One must ask if they will ever come back.

We are also informed that a water-police state of sorts is coming on strong in California in the form of big fines enforced by deputized water police. Of course, no one uses those precise terms, but the meaning is the same.

Like ghosts of the war on drugs, Prohibition and other bizarre proscriptive efforts, what is laudable in concept is likely to turn bad. Bootleg water, anyone?

The official missives and notices at go on and on, none good and all foreboding of more to follow.

California, noted in recent decades for increasingly long droughts and inadequate water storage and conveyance capacity, has become a poster child for the nasty effects of climate change caused by excessive amounts of greenhouse gases released to and present in Earth’s atmosphere.

That long predicted hydrologic reality has come to pass, though the future somehow always seems mysterious to those who wish it so.

Because California is also notorious as a laboratory for manufacturing delays and creating perverse incentives to oppose useful projects, it remains to be seen if it can extricate itself from the astonishingly complex and subtle morass in which it now finds itself.

The governor offered one tantalizing glimmer of hope on April 28, when his office stated, “The Governor's Office will also explore legislative changes that can speed up delivery of critical water supply projects.” Oh, be still my beating heart!

To that end and more, isn’t it time to genuinely and fully revisit the issue of environmental and intervener review before it’s too late? We spend entirely too much money and time dithering, planning and procrastinating over trifles and review.

That time, effort and money would be better spent on timely creation of improved physical assets of value to the whole population, including renewable-energy projects.

California genuinely needs to reduce the number and strength of perverse incentives that have led to so much delay and waste.

Coffey is an attorney based in San Diego. He can be reached at Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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