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.