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Water agencies need answers before they start pointing fingers

Cooperation in research should come before fighting.

Friday, Jan. 02, 2009
Why does California's water crisis never end? Part of the answer is that, instead of devoting their ratepayers' money to projects that might increase water supply or resolve environmental conflicts, individual water agencies spend far too much on campaigns to assign blame or divert attention from their own actions.
Some of the biggest exporters of water from the Delta -- the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Contra Costa Water District, the State Water Contractors and others -- are targeting Sacramento for contributing to the decline of smelt and other fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
The south-of-Delta water agencies claim that Sacramento's treated wastewater is harming phytoplankton and hurting the ecology and water quality of the Delta.
There is cause for concern. Scientists from San Francisco State University have found that high ammonia concentrations reduce production of diatom -- a type of phytoplankton -- in the San Francisco and Suisun bays, potentially harming fish.
Yet, if you were to read statements by the water contractors and some politicians, you'd think the case against Sacramento was airtight. It's not. Scientists must still determine if ammonia harms phytoplankton in the Delta in the same way it seems to do in the saltier San Francisco Bay. The impacts of ammonia must also be weighed against other factors, including exotic clams, pesticides and water diversions.
The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board has started to more closely examine these questions, which is appropriate. The Sacramento sanitation district has plans to expand its discharge by 40% by 2020. Before it does so, regulators need to understand the consequences.
It would be helpful if everyone involved would help to advance the basic research. Determining if ammonia from Sacramento's treatment plant is actually damaging the estuary would be money well spent, especially since ammonia removal could cost up to $1 billion.
Sadly, instead of taking such a proactive approach, the Sacramento sanitation district's board hired a local public affairs firm to launch a "strategic communications plan" to counter any suggestion that ammonia might pose a threat.
Such is the nature of water politics. Instead of resolving conflicts and letting science drive policy, water agencies devote enormous sums of public money to litigation, perks, wasteful spending and -- above all -- spin.
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