Like Old Man River, another year has rolled by in California’s water world and, as usual, things have gotten worse. The year started with recurring news reports of the continuing decline of several critical fish species in the Bay-Delta Estuary, which is also the source of drinking water for 23 million Californians.

Then in the wake of Hurricane Katrina last summer came sobering news that the fragile Delta levee system near Sacramento and Stockton could collapse in a major earthquake or a horrendous storm event, causing massive destruction and loss of life. Undeterred, developers proposed another 100,000 homes in the Delta region — below the levees!

Last month the state’s Little Hoover Commission released a report (PDF) criticizing “CALFED,” the consortium of state and federal agencies created in 1994 to “solve” the problems of the Delta. More than a decade and $3 billion later, the Little Hoover Commission report notes CALFED has little to claim in the way of improvements for the Delta or the state’s water problems.

“Frustration with CALFED is warranted,” the commission told Gov. Schwarzenegger and the legislature in a November 17 public letter.

[T]he winds of Hurricane Katrina have reached California — blowing out the flicker of confidence that officials had in the ability of Delta levees to withstand earthquakes, rising sea levels and inevitable winter floods. Some $3 billion have been spent trying to fix the Delta. But the Delta smelt that some consider to be the estuary’s coal mine canary are even harder to find than stakeholders who are willing to put up their own money to continue funding CALFED.

The fundamental problem, in my view, is that the two primary agencies in CALFED, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Bureau) and the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), have spent the last several decades building a water-delivery system primarily for agribusiness, and they still act like it’s the 1960s. Other agencies in CALFED, such as the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the California Department of Fish and Game add window dressing to CALFED’s prestige, but rarely have the final say.

Thus, while the Delta fishery is collapsing, the Bureau and DWR are both pushing increased exports from the Delta — as much as 25 percent more.

And the Bureau, in a process occurring outside the CALFED framework, wants to provide Westlands Water District in the western San Joaquin Valley a 25-year water contract (with a virtually automatic 25-year renewal clause) for over one million acre-feet of water. An acre-foot of water is 325,851 gallons and will meet the domestic needs of two families of five for a year. In other words, the 400 growers in Westlands will get enough water to meet the needs of a city of 10 million people.

This massive amount of water apparently will be provided even though the 600,000-acre Westlands has unsolvable drainage problems caused by the trace element selenium and plans to take as much as 200,000 acres out of production. Westlands drainage water containing selenium poisoned the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge more than 20 years ago.

Even more amazing, the Bureau wants to build another Kesterson evaporation pond facility — three times larger than the original one — for Westlands’ 400 growers, at a cost of nearly $1 billion. Bureau officials claim birds will be protected, but don’t say how. State and federal scientists are incredulous. Again, this scheme is being proposed outside the CALFED process.

DWR, meanwhile, is promoting the water interests (both irrigation and selling water) of big growers and water marketers in the Tulare Basin of the southern San Joaquin Valley, including cotton billionaire J.G. Boswell and Beverly Hills billionaire Stewart Resnick, who has been buying tens of thousands of acres of farmland and jumped into water marketing.

In my view, California’s water crisis will never be solved as long as these two agencies — who see their mission as providing all the water agribusiness wants — continue to call the shots. California has more than two million acres of farmland planted with crops subsidized by American taxpayers (cotton, rice, corn, grains), using water subsidized by California taxpayers. Even the conservative Heritage Foundation decries this massive waste of public funds and precious water.

Meanwhile, urban water system infrastructures throughout California continue to decay. Underground drinking water pipelines and deteriorating wastewater lines in Sacramento alone will cause $4 billion to repair. San Joaquin Valley farm towns report recurring problems with drinking-water quality.

Will the governator take charge? After two years in office, he has yet to give a speech on or show any interest in water issues. His staffers hint he will mention water in his State of the State message early next year. A mention isn’t going to change anything.

With California’s population estimated to reach 46 million in the next few decades, water use clearly will shift away from agriculture to cities and growth. The agricultural San Joaquin Valley, which is poorer than Appalachia, is expected to add five million people by the year 2050. Who will profit from this shift of water?

Thanks to state and federal laws passed in 1992, irrigation districts and individual growers are now free to sell their cheap irrigation supplies at retail market prices. In other words, growers can buy water from these two agencies at $10 to $100 an acre-foot and sell it to Southern California developers for $600 an acre-foot.

Which is why smart growers know that water is the new cash crop.

What will become of the Little Hoover Commission report? What will become of cries for repairing the Delta levees? Don’t hold your breath. The public generally doesn’t care about water issues unless the water poisons them or drowns them, as Katrina proved. Hard water decisions are the third rail of California politics.

My guess? The report is likely to gather dust on a shelf until California’s version of Katrina hits.