Forget, for the moment, the question of whether Gov. Jerry Brown's water guru Jerry Meral made a colossal political blunder last week or was just telling it like it is. Either way, it's clear that the governor's $23 billion Delta water plan deserves to go down the drain.
Five Bay Area Congressional Democrats including Reps. George Miller of Martinez and Jerry McNerney of Pleasanton are screaming for Meral's head since the state Natural Resources Agency deputy director allegedly told a water advocate that Brown's plan "is not about, and has never been about, saving the Delta. The Delta cannot be saved."
Meral knows that the Bay Delta Conservation Plan has been sold as having equal goals of providing a reliable water supply for California and restoring the health of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the largest estuary west of the Mississippi.
Brown's team claims Meral's remarks were taken out of context, which is possible. We don't care if he stays or goes. But the Congressional delegates' reaction is a result of the widespread belief, which we share, that from the beginning this boondoggle has been a classic water grab with the goal of channeling as much Northern California water as possible to Central Valley Big Ag and Southern California urban sprawl. The Bay Area has much at stake. Two-thirds of its water now comes from the Delta.
Brown's plan calls for building two 37-mile tunnels under the Delta to transport enough Sacramento River water to Los Angeles to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool every 10 seconds. Taxpayers would pay $4 billion for Delta habitat restoration, and water providers would pay the remaining $19 billion by passing on costs to ratepayers -- including the Bay Area's -- for construction and operating expenses.
The fuss over Meral obscured another recent development that's actually more alarming.
The state has never shown how Brown's plan pencils out nor produced any scientific evidence of its effect on the health of the Delta. University of the Pacific economist Jeffrey Michael has been watching for a long-promised comprehensive cost-benefit analysis, and he observed last week that state officials appear to be backing away from that commitment.
There's no way voters can approve this plan until there's a full analysis of its costs and benefits compared to alternatives.
The best way to improve the health of the Delta is to fix the damaged levee system and allow more water to flow through the estuary, not less. Additional water for cities and agriculture can come from increased recycling and from expanding reservoirs and using underground aquifers for more storage.
Historians now question whether humorist Mark Twain actually uttered the famous quotation: "Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over." If he didn't, he should have. Northern Californians are in for the water fight of their lives -- and with the likely cost in dollars and in water, it's a fight they can't afford to lose.