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Delta Fish Rebound Endangers Already Troubled Water Bond, Claim Opponents

Oct 18, 2011

Califronia Progress Report

By Dan Aiello
California Progress Report

The Department of Fish and Game’s announcement this month of a remarkable turnaround in the populations of the Bay-Delta estuary’s endangered Smelt and Salmon species spelled more trouble for proponents of the state’s 2012 water bond measure.

Delta legislators and environmentalists were delighted by news of the recovering populations within the Delta but, assured an epic election battle where they expect to be heavily outspent by water interest groups, continue to promote science, conservation and regional sustainability over what they claim is a monolithic funding measure that's bloated with unnecessarily expensive statewide solutions to what amount to regional water woes.

As for the Delta's Salmon and Smelt, these species had already been written off by many biologists who predicted their extinction before a 2007 judicial ruling restricted the increased pumping of Delta fresh water flow to ever more thirsty regions of Southern California. Since that ruling, water contractors, primarily in the south but also in the San Francisco Bay Area, have sought legislative ways to circumvent the court's endangered species-responsive ruling which decreased fresh water pumping from the fragile Delta-Bay estuary.

The ballot measure (SBx7 2), the Safe, Clean and Reliable Drinking Water Supply Act of 2012, delayed by its supporters until the November, 2012 election after it became clear economy-weary voters would defeat the measure in 2010. The measure is intended to fund through a general obligation bond an $11.1 billion dollar statewide storage and conveyance plan even larger than the state's original water solution, the California Aqueduct. The goal is to address what are essentially a multitude of regional water storage, supply and conservation issues throughout the south as well as some central and northern water districts in the golden state.

SBx7 2 funds, in part, would circumvent the judicially-mandated protection of the Delta ecosystem by paying to move the current water pumping operations from the southern part of the Delta north above the estuary and building a new canal or tunnel for water conveyance. The plan would effectively cut in half the amount of fresh water entering the Delta during years of average rainfall.

According to Doug Obegi, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Western Water Project, the turnaround in the Delta species populations, which some biologists had predicted would soon become extinct, is vindication for the scientists at the Department of the Interior, California Department of Fish and Game and other state and federal agencies who, Obegi states, have been the recipient of “unjust attacks” from proponents of the legislative plan for further water conveyance south.

 

Feldman Yolo Reserve

 

The funding measure’s opponents, including elected officials from both parties, taxpayer and good governance groups as well as environmental advocates, argue that because of well-funded water interest lobbyists, California's reputation as an environmentally-sensitive state is only a myth. Case and point, California operates without any statewide or regional population growth strategies or development planning of any kind - all rejected by water interest groups that have forced governance-by-reaction to a prodigious number of population growth forecasts - each summarizing the eventual exhaustion of what is, factually, a finite natural resource, whether SBx7 2 is passed, or not.

Even the State Water Project's own population forecast shows the additional water transferance predicted by supporters of the $11.1 bond measure would be exhausted a decade before the bond is paid off, much as Californians today are still obligated to pay off the last third of the state's first water bond for an aqueduct touted to 1960 voters as a "permanent solution" to the state's water needs.

In November, 2009 State Treasurer Bill Lockyer (D) warned then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and state legislators not to pass the $11.14 billion dollar measure, estimating the state debt may already exceed a half trillion dollars and holding the $800 million dollar annual obligation of California taxpayers could further jeopardize the state's credit rating. Lockyer's warning was ignored and the legislation passed Senate Bill 2 in its 7th extraordinary session, giving the qualifying ballot measure the distinction of SBx7 2.

Delta legislators State Senator Lois Wolk (D-Stockton) and Assemblymember Mariko Yamada (D-Yolo), joined by environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Planning and Conservation League, have continued to advocate regional solutions and sustainability over what they consider to be the failed past policies being pushed forward in the water bond measure by special interests that would benefit financially from the taxpayer-funded solution.

In many cases, special interest political powerhouses like the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California are the same water contractor interest groups that have historically cast sad nets over politically weak regions rich in water resource but poor in political clout. Ever-growing communities in the south instigate these water wars while defiantly, shamelessly refusing serious consideration of politically unpopular water conservation measures, claim environmental opponents to the measure. They say MWD is just one of the organizations that has knowingly destroyed wildlife species and pristine estuary habitats in the past and seeks to repeat what measure opponents call its mistakes from the past.

 

 

From the Owens Valley and Mono Lake to the loss of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, these are California's open wounds and healing scars from the state's internal battles over water rights and environmental wrongs.

"It’s no surprise, all you need is water,” said Wolk of the statistics showing a rebound in the populations. “Fish need fresh water, the delta needs fresh water to survive.”

Both Wolk’s and Yamada’s call for preservation of the Bay-Delta estuary were ignored by the five bills that eventually made up SBx7 2, causing both legislators to withdraw their authorship of SB 458 in 2009 following major amendments that Wolk describes as a “Christmas Tree” of special interest bloating of billions of dollars to SBx7 2.

“I remain wholly opposed to the water bond and I will be working against it,” Wolk told California Progress Report. “The bond is full of unnecessary expenditures. We can't afford it,” she said. “There is a need for regional bond funding and a need in the Delta for restoration of levies, but [solutions] have to be designed for the needs of each region” of California, “not a wish list” encompassed in a statewide bond.

Assemblymember Yamada describes a dirty legislative amendment process in the Capitol’s historic Assembly Hall. “The bill I voted no on grew by hundreds of millions of dollars, literally overnight,” recalled Yamada. “I remember members being peeled off the [Assembly] floor one by one, being asked what they wanted [for a yes vote], before returning in favor of the bill.” Eventually, Yamada says she was asked, “by people I won’t identify, ‘what do you want’ to support the bill?’ I told them, ‘I want this bill to be cut in half and the Delta to be protected and preserved.’

Both Wolk and Yamada believe SBx7 2 “represents the water politics of the past” and both legislators say essentially, because of science, the DFG and DOI studies, and economy and budget-weary voters, times are changing when it comes to the huge statewide water solutions for regional issues.

Yamada points to a provision in SBx7 2 as proof the claim the bill seeks to restore the Delta is subterfuge for the real intent of the legislation, to largely drain the Delta of fresh water. “About 2.5 billion [of the $11.1 billion dollar funding measure] is set aside for Delta restoration, but there’s a 50% match for that funding. We’re the only region required to come up with matching funding,” Yamada told CPR.

Wolk sees the water bond delay as a benefit to opponents of the bond measure, who are expected to be significantly outspent by its supporters between now and the 2012 election. “Opposition has only increased because of the economy. The canal, or tunnel, is truly a pipe dream at this point,” Wolk told CPR. “It's a boondoggle and we'd be better off to focus on what kinds of things we can do regionally to sustain water independence,” not conveyance. Wolk said she believes in the concept promoted by PCL of regional sustainability. “Rate payers are most supportive of regional solutions because they’re the ones who have to pay for it in this tough economy. It is regional solutions and regional structures that will gain the support of voters,” said Wolk. “A 48 mile or 100 mile long highway for conveying water with uncertain or possibly reduced yield,” will not be supported by the economy weary California of 2012, Wolk predicts. We'd be more practical if we support regional solutions to regional issues.”

Wolk and Yamada believe 2012 voters, like the predicted 2010 voters, will reject SBx7 2 as too costly and too large.

“Conservation and efficiency are the most reliable solutions” for the state’s water woes, believes Bruce Reznick, the new Executive Director of the Planning and Conservation League, the environmental lobby in Sacramento. PCL works from a $600 thousand dollar annual budget, less than is spent by any of the state's larger water contractors on lobbying the legislature. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has 29 separate water contractors alone, including many Southern California communities like the City of San Diego.

The "conveyance without conservation or controls" policy of California evolved in the municipally divided Southern California region in the absence of an effective and impartial regional growth management board empowered to establish green belts between communities or determine a population capacity that protects the state's natural beauty while taking into account quality of life issues largely ignored since the day the water first began to flow. Conveyance without controls was the great fear of Northern Californians opposed to Proposition 1 fifty years ago, the bond measure that funded the California Aqueduct. Those mostly Northern California voters who overwhelmingly opposed the Aqueduct's bond measure, the Burns-Porter Act of 1960, were proven right by history as their fear that unchecked population growth would exhaust the water sent south was realized.

“We don’t do what we need and we can to conserve,” Reznick told CPR of Californians both north and south. Reznick claims Californians use an average of 140 gallons per person per day, "while globally water use per person is closer to 40 to 60 gallons per day.”

“We need to allow the [state’s] water board to figure out [what water can be shared with other regions] based on science,” Wolk told CPR.

What the water board and commission will determine may well depend on Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr.’s pending appointments to both. The commission's decisions are significant because they carry with them the right of Eminent Domain. But Brown has not yet shown his hand nor sought the input of either the Delta legislators or the Democratic leadership of the legislature, according to at least one spokesperson for Senator Darrell Steinberg, an SBx7 2 supporter.

“I hope the powers that be will consider hearing my opinions and concerns regarding the Delta,” Yamada told CPR. Thus far, I have not heard from them, but my phone number is (916) 319-2008, I’m in the book,” Yamada mused.

“I'm not sure the administration has come to the realization that times have changed,” Wolk told CPR. “The veto of 834(Wolk) was a bad sign.”

While Brown’s first two terms as California’s leader decades ago were marked by epic appointments that greatly changed state government from spending cuts in transportation, to expansion of civil rights with the high court selection of Rose Bird as Chief Justice, Wolk worries Brown may have lost the foresight he once showed in his previous appointments when it comes to dealing with the state's renewed water woes.

SB 834, legislation authored by Wolk, called for the integrated regional water management plans funded with $1.4 billion dollars in SBx7 2. Wolk's legislation would have required regions receiving water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to demonstrate how their Integrated Regional Water Management projects would reduce reliance on Delta water.

Until Brown makes his choices for water board, both environmental and water interest lobbyists are left guessing, at least publicly, as to which side the governor will favor.

“Conservation is a real job-creating endeavor,” Resnick told CPR, cognizant of the jobs-creating priority of Governor Brown’s administration, as well as his awareness of the support for the water bond by the California State Council of Laborers who see the funding measure as job-producing. “Installing conservation systems will create a multitude of jobs throughout the state,” just as the projects encompassed within SBx7 2 would have, says Reznick.

MWD has its own jobs-creating talking points, claiming as many as 130,000 (non-permanent) jobs would be created by passing SBx7 2.

The jobs Reznick claims conservation will bring are globally-exportable as water issues plague much of the world. Southern regions of California will always be thirsty for more water so long as they continue to ignore "the less expensive option of conservation," says Reznick. “I was actually in the meeting with the mayor of San Diego when he said, ‘we don’t need to conserve because we’re going to get the water from the Delta,’” Reznick told CPR. "It's hard to believe," he said.

 

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Dan Aiello is a Sacramento-based reporter for the California Progress Report. Photos were taken by Nathan Feldman, a photographer and certified field biologist. Images are of the Vic Fazio Yolo Wildlife Reserve, Yolo County, California Delta.

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