September 19th, 2011


Former Secretary of the Interior


The hard-won consensus reached to cool three of California’s most intractable water disputes is imperiled, warned Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at Climate One on September 19, in San Francisco.  

“Never before have water agreements that have provided security and certainty for Westerners been so much at risk,” he said. “It’s a battle between pragmatism and ideology, collaboration versus cynicism.” 

“From the San Joaquin River and the California Bay Delta to the Klamath River Basin,” continued Salazar,   “there are a few passionate and unyielding players who want to unravel decades of work toward consensus, solutions, and settlements to some of the most complex water challenges of our time.”

Key decisions are coming soon regarding the future of one of those flashpoints, the Klamath River Basin. On September 22, Salazar said, his department will release a scientific assessment weighing the costs and benefits to remove four dams along the Klamath River, which straddles the Oregon-California border. 

Dam removal would mean a loss of hydropower and 50 jobs, Salazar acknowledged, but he presented a much stronger case for the benefits: 4,600 restoration jobs, including 1,400 from dam removal alone; higher farm sector income and employment linked to a reliable water supply; adjudication of tribal claims; and restored salmon fisheries – all at a cost of $290 million, $160 million less than the original estimate. 

Salazar said not to expect a final decision until March 2012, but he left little doubt he was thinking big. “I want to be able to make a decision that will stand the test of time,” he said. 

On the fate of the San Joaquin River, Salazar was sanguine, despite pushback from politicians eager to scuttle a deal to settle long-simmering disputes in the watershed. “This past year was the first time in half a century that the San Joaquin River ran from its headwaters to the ocean. I think that’s remarkable achievement of a river reborn,” said Salazar. 

“Yet there are a few members of this state’s delegation in the House of Representatives who will pound their chest, and who will say that all this work, all this settlement, after all this litigation, that it ought to be thrown out the window. We need to stay the course, and we will stay the course. Killing the settlement in the San Joaquin will only lead to more litigation, more economic uncertainty,” he said.  

Salazar used the example of the Everglades, the single largest river restoration project in the world, to frame the scope of the challenge in the Bay Delta. “As complex as that project has been … I will tell you that the challenges that face us here in the California Bay Delta, and in the river systems that feed that delta, are equally as difficult,” he said.

Salazar delivered the grim facts: more than 25 million people rely on the Bay Delta for drinking water, yet the water delivery system was built to serve a population half that size; the system is at risk of catastrophic failure in the event of an earthquake; fish populations, including the endangered delta smelt, are in decline; salmon fishing seasons have been closed in California for almost three years.   

The solution, he said, is the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), “the most important and most complex long-term water and habitat management plan ever undertaken in the history of the United States of America.” The plan adds new habitat for endangered species, tackles water pollution, and makes improvements to water infrastructure, including a new conveyance to move water through the delta, as recommended by the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force.

The Obama administration is committed to implementing the BDCP, Salazar said, citing meetings later that day he and his deputy, David Hayes, had scheduled with water districts and water users, environmentalists, and State of California officials. 

“We’re here because we want to make this work,” he said. 


- Justin Gerdes
September 19, 2011
Photos by Ed Ritger
The Commonwealth Club of California