It's a welcome sign. But there is still a fundamental problem with how the plan for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is being cobbled together:
Lack of trust.
Critics see the project as an obvious strategy by Southern California water contractors and Central Valley farmers to grab greater control of Northern California's water. They believe it will further damage the already fragile ecosystem of the largest estuary west of the Mississippi River, which they say needs more water flowing through it, not less, to restore its ecological health.
BDCP officials amplified the mistrust this summer by indicating that they may not need legislative approval, let alone a public vote, to build the 30-mile tunnels, since water contractors would pay for the work. This of course means ratepayers, not taxpayers or voters, would foot the bill.
Oh wait. Ratepayers are taxpayers and voters. Think they'll figure that out?
The project, estimated at $25.7 billion, would be one of the largest public works projects in California history. It would include two 40-foot high tunnels to convey water from the Sacramento River to the Delta pumping station near Tracy.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said Friday that the new route for the tunnel system announced last week doesn't get at the fundamental problem.
"What really needs to be discussed and resolved are the operating conditions for the Delta over the next five decades," Steinberg said.
The Legislature needs to re-engage, he says, and make sure all of the key players have a voice in what happens. He's right. As an example, while the change announced Thursday makes farmers feel better, it has infuriated environmentalists, who say the tunnels were kept clear of this route originally to preserve habitat for endangered sandhill cranes.
It's also critical to have the non-partisan Legislative Analyst's Office study the project. It's the public's best chance for an objective assessment of costs and benefits.
And while we think this state makes too many decisions by referendum, it's hard to argue that a project of this magnitude should go without a public vote. It will determine the life or death of the Delta and the reliability of California's water supply for generations. Silicon Valley gets more than half its water from the Delta.
Steinberg brought the whole range of water interests to the table in 2009 and brokered an agreement on an $11 billion water bond. It ended up so pork-laden that it was pulled from one ballot, and Steinberg acknowledges the cost is too high. But he got an agreement once. It's worth another try.
Steinberg says the discussion "needs to be about water flows through the Delta, about water quality and how to assure the co-equal goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting the Delta."
The changes announced Thursday show that the people behind the plan realize they've got to listen to critics along the way. But a lasting agreement among all competing interests at a price Californians will accept lies in transparency in planning, credible cost-benefit analyses and ultimately clear, enforceable rules for governing the Delta over time, so tunnels built for one purpose can't be used to drain the estuary dry at some later time.
Trying to force something through without legislative and voter approval will backfire because, whether we call them ratepayers or taxpayers, voters will pay for all this. They will want a say.