Conference Probes Environmental Impact of Federal Water Policy

September 15, 2003

by Kathryn Stelljes

A decade ago, federal water projects in California were operated to provide cities and farms with water and power, with little consideration given to their environmental impacts. Today, environmental interests have a seat at the table as a result of landmark reform legislation passed in 1992 called the Central Valley Project Improvement Act.

“It is hard to think of any other system of government that is more conservative, more resistant to change, than water policy, even when there is an obvious need for change,” said Senator Bill Bradley Friday. Bradley, along with Bay Area Congressman George Miller, co-sponsored the Act when he was chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in an effort to change the way the Department of the Interior managed water in California. Bradley was the keynote speaker at a day-long conference in San Francisco hosted by UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources and Boalt School of Law to examine the success of the law and implications for future water policy in the state.

Beyond listing environmental restoration as an objective of water project operation, the Act specifically reallocated roughly ten percent of water supplies to the environment, mandated a doubling of wild salmon populations in the state, and changed the way long-term water federal contracts are designed and implemented in California.

CNR Dean Paul Ludden presented Bradley with a Chancellor's Distinguished Honor Award for his commitment to California. Congressman George Miller was also recognized for his efforts. A graduate prize was also announced in Bradley’s honor. The prize will be awarded to a UC Berkeley graduate student in the College of Natural Resources focusing on water economics and policy analysis.

“An unusual thing about the Act is that it is so specific,” said David Sunding, associate professor and cooperative extension specialist of natural resource economics at the College of Natural Resources. “The CVPIA gave very detailed instructions to the Department of the Interior about how federal water projects were to be operated in California, including how much water was to be set aside for the environment. Congress usually leaves such technical decisions up to agencies, but in this case the legislature simply did not trust the Department of the Interior to faithfully implement its wishes,” he said.

The conference brought together experts in water policy, many of whom participated in the creation of the Act, along with students, lawyers, scientists and representatives from agriculture, fisheries, cities and environmental groups.

While the various parties agree that the Act was a milestone in water law and policy, there is wide disagreement as to whether the Act is beneficial or effective. In most cases, target salmon population numbers have not been reached. Agricultural and environmental interests have had multiple legal battles over interpretation and implementation of the Act.

The Cal-Fed Bay Delta Program, a subsequent effort with an even wider scope to balance water supplies among various users statewide than the Act, continues to stall as well. Last Tuesday, a court decision in Fresno revived a major lawsuit by agricultural businesses against the Cal-Fed program.

Conference participants agreed that the outcome of these decisions will be crucial to California's future. Water is likely to present the next big crisis in California and the West, said Cynthia Koehler, a visiting scholar at CNR's Center for Sustainable Resource Development. Groups on all sides of the debate remain watchful as to whether the flexibility introduced by the Act will allow lawmakers to meet future challenges.