After three years of intense talks aimed at solving California's water problems, key people have quietly gone behind closed doors to negotiate an agreement in the months before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger leaves office, Bay Area News Group has learned.

At stake is the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, already $100 million over budget and far from its goal of completion by the end of the year.

Now, regulators, environmentalists and leaders of some of the state's biggest water agencies are meeting privately away from a larger committee that has been deliberating in public.

Supporters say the closed-door talks, which began in late August without notice to committee members, are needed to try to break a logjam. Critics see another example of a long practice of secretly settling high-stakes California water issues in ways that end up favoring powerful water contractors while harming the Delta.

The closed-door meetings are legal, but the committee's sole Delta representative was not invited.

"When the going gets tough, when the contractors feel threatened, a secret meeting is held and, of course, the Delta once again becomes a political pawn in a game of power," said state Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, a staunch critic of the administration's water planning. "The future of the Delta, for the next 50 years, is being determined in secret by a select few, none of whom represent the Delta."

The centerpiece of the plan is a canal, tunnels or pipelines that would carry water from the Sacramento River around or beneath the Delta and reduce reliance on south Delta pumps. A recent estimate put the cost of building two tunnels at more than $11 billion.

Despite more than three years of meetings and studies, the committee working on the plan has come to little or no agreement on any of the big-ticket questions.

For example:

  • What, exactly, do they plan to build and how much water would a canal or pipeline carry? They don't know.

  • How will water be divided between farms and cities on one hand and a vital estuary on the other? They don't know.

  • What is a realistic goal for the recovery of declining fish populations? They don't know.

  • Where will the money come from? Although water agencies say they will pay for much of the cost, there is no agreement on what the general public should be billed for and how that money will materialize.

    Just months before a draft plan was supposed to be completed, questions remain about a description of why the project is needed. That wording leaves open the door for a massive increase in Delta water exports that regulators say would be highly damaging.

    "Now it's time for those who are responsible to step up and narrow down the choices," said state Resources Secretary Lester Snow, who is coleading the closed-door sessions, which include top officials at water agencies and regulatory agencies and three representatives of environmental groups.

    Supporters of the plan and many scientists contend that the south Delta pumps kill too many fish and that it makes sense to separate water delivery conduits from the channels in which fish live.

    But critics worry that the new plumbing would pull too much water from the Sacramento River -- the Delta's largest source of fresh water -- and let it fill with brackish Bay water and polluted drainage from San Joaquin Valley farms.

    A report last month by the State Water Resources Control Board concluded that water users would have to cut in half their demand for Delta water to allow a healthy estuary to flourish.

    Snow said when a draft outline is completed in November it will be the first time people will be able to consider the whole project, including key details about how water would be divided between farms and cities on one hand and the environment on the other, as well as a number of measures to protect fish and wildlife.

    "They can see trade-off and how things fit together," he said.

    Water agencies proposed a conservation plan in 2006 to address the threat that a collapse in the estuary's fish populations posed to their water supplies.

    By seeking an alternative response to endangered species laws, they could achieve two goals: eliminate the short-term regulatory permits they blamed for cutting into their water supplies and provide a strong rationale to build a "peripheral canal" to deliver water around the Delta.

    In exchange, the water agencies would commit to a comprehensive 50-year plan to help restore Delta smelt, salmon and dozens of other sensitive fish and wildlife species.

    It appears to be the most complex "habitat conservation plan" ever attempted under the federal endangered species law, and it appears to also be the most complicated "natural communities conservation plan" under state law.

    Nevertheless, Schwarzenegger's team set out in 2006 to finish it in record time.

    Even simpler conservation plans -- including one that governs housing in East Contra Costa County -- have taken a decade or more to complete.

    The Delta plan is more complicated because it involves numerous competing economic interests in California, dozens of species and the knotty ecological problems of a highly altered, major estuary.

    Even if there is an agreement to build a structure to carry water, it is likely to take at least a decade to build -- and committee members have made little progress on what to do in the meantime.

    The initial phase of studies was supposed to cost $140 million, but earlier this year that was determined to be short by $100 million.

    Although the Bay-Delta plan remains ill-defined, water agencies consistently point to it as the solution to the state's water problems.

    For example, when the powerful State Water Resources Control Board adopted an advisory report in July that concluded, in essence, that water users would have to cut by half their use of Delta water to ensure a healthy estuary, several of the state's leading water officials urged board members and the public to effectively ignore it and look instead to the conservation plan for answers.

    But the Bay-Delta plan committee has no such numbers and it is unclear whether it can develop any acceptable to water agencies, regulators and environmentalists.

    Negotiators also are grappling with recent criticism of one of the most basic parts of the plan: its "purpose and need" statement. That statement now suggests water contractors could get up to the full amounts of water in their contracts, which at more than 7 million acre-feet would shatter records for water deliveries from the Delta.

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently suggested that water users depending on Delta pumps should not expect any more water than the status quo.

    The EPA "questions the goal of increasing exports out of a severely distressed estuary," the agency wrote in June.

    Mike Taugher covers the environment. Contact him at 925-943-8257.