Timid policy-making produces weak-ass plans.

Here’s what I see a lot in big state-led policy-making efforts. As a backdrop, remember that these conflicts are genuinely complicated and long-running. The parties have a lot at stake, sometimes as much as their way of life; their representatives have been doing this for a long time and are very sophisticated. Our democracy is set up with a lot of veto points and ways to exercise power (through the legislature, through the executive branch, through the feds, through the press), so BATNA‘s are constantly shifting. Scarcity looms, in big and small ways.

For some reason, bright and well-meaning people are still willing to work on this problem and try to come up solutions. God love ’em. But, perhaps because nothing works, they have come up with a terribly constrained way of doing it. In these big policy processes, the default is: We will go as far as everyone agrees on, and as soon as someone says no, we scurry back like threatened mice. We continue to advance in the directions that everyone agrees to, and let the parts with disagreement languish. If people keep disagreeing, we let the whole effort collapse until the Legislature starts it over with a new name.

This is how we ended up with a mish-mash like BDCP (which I haven’t read. I’m basing my impression on the NAS review.). It was well developed along a few lines; it had a long wishlist of restoration projects and fantasy of a Peripheral Canal and a notion of adaptive management. But nothing controversial, like flows, or the purpose of the Plan itself (is a habitat conservation plan or a way to justify a Peripheral Canal?) or priorities, was settled. Without the external review, I bet that could go on for another decade.

This is how we do stuff and honestly, I understand why. Wading into the controversial realms is so painful. We just saw ACWA and a bunch of water districts act like thugs when the Delta Stewardship Council got into the controversial issue of regulating local control for consistency with their plan. We’ve seen Westlands and the State Water Contractors shut down BDCP by withdrawing funding. The legislature itself has punted; wisely realizing that they can’t weather the political storms that come with making Delta decisions, they delegated their power to a Delta Council made up of people who will never again run for office. As a subjective professional experience, the political storms suck.

But so do the products of processes that avoid them. The NAS review is very clear: without guiding policy decisions (“Yes, we want a Peripheral Canal, and here’s the best combination of restoration projects that could mitigate for that.” or “This is a habitat conservation plan and here is the conveyance option that we can accommodate within a fully restored ecosystem.”) a wishlist of options can’t be integrated or analyzed for full effect. For all the years of work and $150M that the contractors paid for, they got a crappy Plan because of fearful policy setting that avoids the hard, sucky part.

They’ve also reaped widespread scorn by trying to have it all. Hovering on the boundary of “it is a habitat plan! It is the way to get a Peripheral Canal!” and using whichever one suits your audience keeps this process limping along. It lives out another day, and maybe that’s enough because having no process is also unacceptable. But when sides realize the opposing message, it pisses them off. Westlands wants to know why it is paying for a restoration plan that may not bring them a canal or any water, and they have a really good point. Everyone else wants to know why a habitat restoration plan is essentially a brochure for Peripheral Canal, and that’s also an excellent question. Hovering over “both” means that either side has good reason to be mad when “which” gets settled. It also means that the people running BDCP will put off answering “which” indefinitely.

Which is why I honestly don’t think the Delta will be constructively “fixed” before it collapses. Honestly, I think the levee collapse will come first and when the repair work is done, we’ll have an “emergency” Peripheral Canal. Then we can get to work on that wishlist of restoration projects. Affirmatively and constructively working through a process that settles real conflict is so miserably unpleasant that it won’t happen. Not if the DSC backs off in the face of ACWA’s letter. Not if the state shows no spine. Not if the state can’t or won’t fund its own fucking planning processes, so it isn’t hostage to the self-interest of the people who are paying. We’ll get late, weak-ass plans and we’ll deserve them.


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5 responses to “Timid policy-making produces weak-ass plans.

  1. Well Said. Yesterday one of my customer asked why we keep studying this endlessly.
    I told him that the collective “they” don’t really want to come to a conclusion. To do so would force them to answer to the root question of how much , if any, water from the delta can be classified as surplus.
    On your last point, my heart hopes you’re wrong and my head tends to agree.
    I live on Sherman Island which is a majority owned subsidiary of DWR.
    We have a slick , well produced 5 year plan designed to get the island to meet the HMP standards. No projects have been started in months and none are expected to be completed this year. Why ? Because funding is being withheld . Is this a self fulfilling prophesy or a bureaucracy grinding to a halt in it’s own B.S. ?

  2. Robert Pyke

    Chris, your prayers will be answered! The levees will not “collapse” and trigger an emergency peripheral canal, as postulated by our good friend OtPR. I say this for several reasons: (1) nothwithstanding the painful processes involved in getting the State to actually spend bond money already approved by the voters, much progress has been made in improving the Delta levees and this will continue. The forthcoming Delta Economic Sustainability Plan will include a current and accurate assessment of the existing levees and estimates of the cost of additional improvements that should reset the debate on these issues; (2) although not complete and not publically availale, there are persistent rumors that the latest DWR studies on salinity intrusion following widespread levee failures suggest that the Delta will flush out with fresh water in a matter of months, not years as was suggested by David Hayes at the recent BDCP re-launch. Confressman John Garamendi is kindly delivering a Dear David letter for me correcting some of the errors that Deputy Secretary Hayes made on that occasion. You ask a good question – is this a self-fulfilling prophesy?Are the delays in getting bond money spent on levees part of a plot or simply the result of bureaucratic inefficiency? I think the answer is both. I have recently observed first hand that the faction in DWR that is trying to work with local reclamation districts to get things done, does have to deal with interference from the “pro-canal” faction in DWR who think that the levees are doomed and are in fact siphoning off bond monies that were internded for levee repairs for more endless studies. This is a reflection of the continuing lack of leadership at DWR. Can you believe that DWR has no centralized GIS services in this day and age? I would suggest that DWR leadership needs to pay less attention to politics and more attention to executing their responsiblilities. As a director of the Contra Costa Water District said to me recently, you would certainly not use DWR and “action” in the same sentence, and that has to change.

  3. They myth of the failing Delta levees is just that a myth. As George Lakoff discusess in his ten points for manipulating public opinion, a “problem” has been created — the failing Delta. And the same people have named the problem have created the solution — the peripheral canal.

    Levees need to be maintained — there will be failures due to floods along the way. That is the nature of a levee system. Two engineered canals that are set on top of faults running from Tracy to Kern County to move water from north to south are much more likely to be undone by a seismic event than the Delta’s levee system.

    Moreover, nobody in this State questions spending billions of dollars restoring Treasure Island — a place that is vulnerable to seismic activity and sea level rise in a much more intense way than the Delta. We do not tell other regions in the State that they must be redone due to the seismic threat — but the Delta that’s different. That is because we are in the way of what they want, the water.

  4. onthepublicrecord

    For the record, I would absolutely tell other regions in the state that they must be re-done, especially if they’ve put houses on floodplains. Further, we tell other regions that they must be re-done for seismic threat: earthquake retrofit is a strict legal mandate, undertaken at the building owners’ expense. I would move people out of the way of debris flows, too.

  5. onthepublicrecord

    Oh, and restrict them from living in high fire danger areas. At least in my ethos, the Delta residents aren’t uniquely special victims.