Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Here is the entire secret history of California's water wars and the plan for a Peripheral Canal

The chart to the left--obtained from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California--shows that since the year 2000, the SoCal MWD has replaced their loss of Colorado River water with Northern California water. This was all done on the sly. No publicity was given to this blatant water grab by the water agencies.
As the Colorado River allotment decreased from around 1,200,000 acre fee to a little over 400,000 acre feet, the Dept. of Water Resources increased its pumping of Northern California water south from a little over 1,200,000 acre feet to up to 1,800,000 acre feet. This made up for what the SoCal MWD lost from the Colorado.
Unfortunately, this action is what has caused the Delta "crisis" we are in today. This increased pumping caused a proportionate increase in the amount of reverse flows in the Delta and this is what has caused the levees to erode.
And now they want even more!
The Delta Water War is now heating up! All of the so-called "indepent" commissions have had their say and they all support a Peripheral Canal or some sort of through-delta conveyance; even an undergroud tunnel! Obviously, such a conveyance cannot make any new water. It's only purpose is to divert more Northern California water south to the SoCal MWD.
What they are trying to do is stay away from the phrase "Peripheral Canal." This is now known in the state legislature as a political "third rail." In other words, stay away from it because people still remember the SoCal MWD's watergrab try in 1982 campaign to vote in a Peripheral Canal. The California voters sank it back then by a 2/3 vote.

I worked in that campaign. And I'm here to tell you today the conditions that prevailed then are still the same:

1. It's cost (stated to be $11-billion, but easily tops out over $50-billion) is still too costly.

2. It's still a water grab by the SoCal MWD.

3. It will do more harm to, not save, the Delta.

If you're new to this fight, the plan is to build a 43 to 50-mile, 400-foot wide cement ditch in order to divert Northern California water from five intakes on the the Sacramento River to the Clifton Court Forebay below Stockton where gigantic 40-foot pumps will suck it out and send it to thirsty Southern California.

Environmentalists have likened the Peripheral Canal to the Great Wall of China, sure that it will easily be seen by any passing space shuttle.
Because the idea of the ditch has been a deal-breaker with the citizens of California, the plan now is to build 300-ft.-deep underground tunnels through the Delta instead. To keep up to date, we will call it a "conveyance/canal plan" because a canal is what they really want.
There is a long story here. The California water agencies have been trying to foist this conveyance on the people for over 50 years. Planning for it began in the late 50's. It began as a vital cog in the California State Water Project (SWP) but it was delayed until 1982 when its construction became a statewide ballot referendum. As I stated, I worked on that campaign. I sat in a dingy political office in Pasadena churning out press releases and staging media events to encourage people in Southern California to vote "no" on the Peripheral Canal referendum. Two-thirds of the California voters saw it for what it was--a water grab. We won; the canal lost.

But now Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his newly-found Democrat political ally, Sen. Diane Feinstein and now-governor Jerry Brown, have resurrected this big cement ditch as a part of their new $11-billion (and climbing) water bill which Sen. Darrell Steinberg pushed through the state legislature this year. They say Steinberg gave away political gifts to everyone in order to get their vote.

Today, a flood of water industry propaganda by so-called public policy groups is trying to convince you that we can save the Delta, save the fish, repair the levees, protect the precious ecosystem, create a water system for the future that will meet everyone’s needs while preserving the environment and still send more Sacramento River water south–as if that were really possible!

It helps to know the history of this canal/conveyance plan because it’s never been a really viable solution to Delta water problems. Understanding this history and putting it together with what's happening today will give you a good idea of what's at stake. And you need to tell others, otherwise the devious propaganda may work and it will certainly hit you in the pocketbook.

It is no secret that Southern California has always needed more water. It’s basically a desert and deserts gulp water and the SoCal MWD, the granddaddy of all water-grabbing water districts, has always had trouble meeting the demands of both agriculture and urban sprawl–a proliferation of water-hungry golf courses and front-and-back lawns.

The SoCal MWD, in fact, has been getting water from the north ever since the construction of the California State Water Project (SWP), created in the late 1950's. The SWP was a statewide water distribution plan that was hoped would insure a constant flow of water to wherever it was needed in California. At its core was a series of mountain dams, reservoirs, pumping plants and conveyance systems, i.e. canals. A massive and costly undertaking, the project was placed on the November ballot in 1960 as Proposition One.

In the south, the SoCal MWD originally opposed the proposition because it was afraid that any more water shipped south would be siphoned off by Central Valley agricultural interests (Big Ag) before it got to Southern California. So a lot of negotiations of assurances took place before the SoCal MWD finally jumped on board. On November 8, 1960, in a statewide election, the water act was approved by the narrow margin of 173,944 votes from about 5.8 million ballots counted statewide. California would get it’s state water system and the MWD and Southern California would begin getting Northern California water.

As water systems go, this was a pretty good one. But as it turned out the state water wizards did not envision the massive population explosions in Nevada and Arizona, nor the disastrous consequences of pumping large amounts of water out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Ronald Robie, a former director of the Dept. of Water Resources and now a state appellate court judge was very direct about this situation. "The state and federal projects suck large amounts of water out of the Delta, create reverse flows and change the environment of the Delta," he said.

Truer words were never spoken.

The "Delta" he’s talking about is a huge triangle of inland waterways that contain a fragile ecosystem of 500,000 people, a large fishing industry, numerous islands, 300,000 acres of agricultural lands, bird migration areas, 750 plant and animal species and outstanding family recreation. The Delta begins in Sacramento at the confluence of the mighty Sacramento and American Rivers, and stretches some 60 miles west to Suisun Bay, where the Sacramento River meets the San Francisco Bay tides and then 50 miles southeast to Stockton where the San Joaquin River flows into the mix.

As the Nevada-Arizona population continued to increase yearly in the 1970's, they had to take more and more of their Colorado River water allotments. This caused the SoCal MWD to get less and less surplus Colorado River water, making it more dependent than ever upon Northern California water. At the same time, environmentalists were screaming about the sucking action of the huge pumps in the Clifton Court Forebay and how large water exports were drawing fish and their spawn into the pumps, killing them. the reverse flows are also the cause of the ruination of the Delta levees. To those familiar with the Delta, the problem has always been not how much more water you could take from it, but how much more water should be allowed to flow through it towards the San Francisco Bay Area.

What worried people living in the Delta most was that unless water flowed past the little town of Antioch at a sufficvient rate, the high tides from the Bay Area would cause a massive salt water intrusion into the Delta. This would make the water so saline that it could not be used for growing crops and the Delta farmers (a $2-billion annual industry) would soon lose everything. Not only that, the commercial salmon fisheries and sport fishing would be ruined. Everyone who knew the Delta knew that diverting more water from the Sacramento River was not the "cure" and, in fact, would only exacerbate the situation.

The SoCAL MWD couldn’t turn to its groundwater aquifers for more water because decades of seeping gasoline and industrial pollutants had left them quite toxic, especially those in the San Gabriel and San Fernando Valleys. Still the SoCal MWD was not without options. They could impose stringent water conservation measures, which is actually the least costly alternative to create more useable water, or else limit general development. But the business community saw this last alternative as anathema to a burgeoning economy.

And there has always been a valid argument that Big Agriculture and the south-valley cotton growers should switch to drip irrigation instead of just flooding their acreage with our precious water.

Thus, to solve all these problems and get the SoCAl MWD more water, the state Division of Water Resources proposed a Peripheral Canal in 1977, promising it would "fix" the Delta. The canal plan was actually conceived in the late ‘50's and recommended again in 1964, but this was the first time there was any kind of political force behind it. Predictably, opposition surfaced immediately and it quickly turned into a North-South Water War. Northern Californians were so adamantly against it that the state legislature couldn’t muster enough votes to pass it, so the Peripheral Canal was put on the ballot in 1982 as a state referendum.

The people would decide.

This time certain Central Valley agribusinesses were against this new, larger canal. They now thought that the SoCal MWD would take too much water for itself and leave them high and dry. To make sure their water supply would continue unabated, they funded the opposition campaign which employed my services in Southern California.

The campaign for the "yes" vote on the referendum used traditional scare tactics. Southern California voters were warned that without Northern California water to replace the loss of surplus Colorado River water, agriculture would suffer and there would be shortages, urban decay and a lower quality of life. It was a formidable rationale because Southern Californians loved their big, green, grassy lawns.

Obviously, the "no" position was a tough sell in the south. We knew that going in, but we needed to get at least one-third of the southern vote. When the final votes were counted the Peripheral Canal went down to defeat statewide by a roughly 62% to 38% margin. The people had spoken and we congratulated ourselves on a job well done.

Such an overwhelming vote against the canal should have brought the California Water Wars to an end, but since that time both the SoCal MWD and the state Division of Water Resources have managed to keep the Peripheral Canal idea alive, using periodical water shortages and droughts as their come-on. Nothing of any consequence has ever happened, however, because the canal idea was politically dead. No state legislator, especially those in Northern California, would touch it.

In 2003, to solve the Colorado River water debate, the Federal Government declared that the SoCal MWD had 15 years to find other sources. Since then the SoCal MWD has asked its member districts to conserve water and reclaim wastewater, but it has never stopped coveting a Peripheral Canal because that’s the only option that can fulfill all its needs for now and the foreseeable future.

In 2006, State Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) acting much like some deus ex machina, cobbled together Senate Bill 27 and dropped it on the state legislature. It was a water management bill which carefully avoided the phrase "Peripheral Canal," calling for a "conveyance" system, a more non-threatening characterization of the canal which would soon permeate all water agency literature. But both farmers and environmentalists knew that it was a code word for the Peripheral Canal and strongly opposed the bill and it was shelved in April of this year.

In the meantime, Gov. Schwarzenegger announced the appointment of a Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sept. 17, 2006. This body, loaded with academics with titles, ex-politicians who were past their prime and "environmentalists" who had sold out to the water interests, was given a two-year mission to solve Delta water problems. it's chairman was Phil Isenberg who, it was later revealed, was a PR front man for the Irwin Ranch water interests in Southern California. It’s findings were predictable: only a Peripheral could save the Delta.

Like SB 27 which was shelved, the final report of the governor’s blue ribbon task force did not once mention a "Peripheral Canal." It predictably noted that the Delta is "in crisis" and the "ecosystem is not sustainable over the long term." It also states its 12 recommendations "cannot be decided by themselves," i.e., individually. The first recommendation proclaims the "Delta ecosystem and a reliable water supply for California are the primary, co-equal goals for sustainable management of the Delta." No. 8 states, "New facilities for conveyance and storage, and better linkage between the two, are needed to better manage California’s water resources, the estuary and exports."

In baseball, you can’t tell the players without a program and in California water politics you can’t understand the code words without a translation guide, so here it is:

1. "Conveyance" or "Dual-conveyance system" means a Peripheral Canal or a through-delta conveyance--as in tunnel(s) to move more Northern California water south.

2. "In Crisis" means the water agencies are trying to pin the blame for the Delta’s deterioration on Mother Nature when it’s their own mismanagement of the Delta that’s at fault.

3. "Ecosystem not sustainable over the long term" means it’s going to be an on-going
expense–a bottomless money pit. Over $1-billion a year in operating costs.

4. "Better linkage" means even more canals will be built, probably cross-state canals.

5. "Cannot be decided by themselves" means there will be no piecemeal fixes–no matter
how necessary--means we’ll have to buy the whole expensive package.

6. The "co-equal" goals of "restoring the Delta ecosystem" and providing "a reliable
water supply"are the core of the water agencies’ new, low-key campaign to sell the
canal without mentioning it. A thorough analysis shows this to be a diversionary tactic designed to hoodwink people because the two goals are actually contradictory. Thus the entire main premise is wrong from the start.

7. "To better manage California’s water resources" may well be the most duplicitous phrase of all. It points to a water system that might well be privatized in the future–after all the costs have been covered by our taxes. Look for Californians to be told that private industry can do the job more efficiently.

All of this water agency and think-tank propaganda is designed to make people think that a "yes" vote for the Peripheral Canal will put them on the side of saving the environment. Politicos and advertising people call it "positioning." They want to claim the high ground of "saving the Delta" in order to position Peripheral Canal opponents as non-caring, selfish isolationists who couldn’t care less for their fellow human beings–when the reverse is more accurate.

Thus it came to pass that on June 14, 2008, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told a meeting of businessmen and farmers in the Bakersfield area, "We need more water. We need to build more storage, and we have to build conveyance, the canal, and all of those kinds of things." Mutilated syntax aside, this was the first official salvo of the new California Water War.

Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, "Nothing happens in politics unless it’s supposed to happen" and Gov. Schwarzenegger’s remarks immediately opened a floodgate of supportive responses from politicians, water agencies, newly-formed think tanks, idiot political columnists and editorial page editors and–horrors!–even a few environmentalists. This surge in water awareness laid the groundwork for an announcement a month later of a $9.3-billion water bond bill proposed by the governor. Surprisingly, he was joined in the effort by his newly-found political ally, Democrat Sen. Diane Feinstein.

Their new legislative water bond is designed to set aside money for reservoirs and storage devices, and "a conveyance," the familiar euphemism that the media immediately spotted and reported correctly as a Peripheral Canal.

Schwarzenegger and Feinstein wanted the water bond to be on the 2008 November ballot, but Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, (D-Los Angeles) said that the Democratic majority was reviewing the bond proposal and there was so much to consider that she doubted it would be ready for a November vote. it won't be there. Look for 2009 to be the year of the Peripheral Canal.

So the Peripheral Canal is back once again on the state’s water agenda. One must ask "why?"Why, after being defeated two-to-one in 1982 are both the Republican Governor and the Democrat Senator putting their prestige on the line in such a divisive issue? Do they each harbor a hidden martyr complex? Or has something occurred that makes the selling of the Peripheral Canal more palatable?

For one thing there is a whole new generation-and-a-half of voters out there now who have never heard of the 1982 Peripheral Canal issues and therefore have no opinion on the issue. Evidently the people running things now also feel the word "conveyance"is less threatening to new voters and might even fool some old voters. In all likelihood there is a whole new rationale ready to be rolled out in a massive statewide TV campaign that is built around saving the Delta while de-emphasizing the conveyance system. If it were not so, wouldn’t Gov. Schwarzenegger have kept his mouth shut?

Additionally, California has had two drought years and the water agencies will not hesitate to use them to throw a scare into people. And if that is not enough, they’ll throw in possible earthquakes, flooding, and all kinds of natural disasters. Make no mistake about it; they’re hauling out the big guns.

Obviously this "Save The Delta" approach is intended to fool tree-huggers, water lovers, environmentalists and young liberals who don’t read past the headlines. And by putting a "green" face on the canal plan, it will give Northern California legislators (and voters) an emotional rationale to support it. Look for the whole campaign to be couched in terms of a larger, more caring water plan which now calls for a "balanced" approach (who can be against "balance?") to fixing the Delta’s woes.

Here are some basic truths:

1) First, why has the Delta deteriorated so much in the first place? How did it get the way it is now? Mindy McIntyre, the Planning and Conservation League’s water program manager writes that the Delta’s current crisis occurred because water project operators chose "to maximize Delta pumping and increase exports by 1-million to 2-million acre feet a year...since 2000. This increase in pumping occurred despite the availability of water supply alternatives and the collapsing fish populations."

So what we have here is a situation where the SoCal MWD was allowed by the Department of Water Resources to incrementally increase its allotment of Sacramento River water almost at will. In other words, they’ve already been stealing more Northern California water for a decade and getting away with it and now they want to institutionalize their theft!

Evidently, the courts agree. A federal judge recently put the water agencies on notice that by increasing pumping allotments for the MWD, they are violating sections of the Endangered Species Act. He is expected to order limits on water deliveries from the Delta this fall.

2) Any more water diverted from the Sacramento River will interfere with the natural "flushing" action that keeps the salt water carried in by bay tides out of the Delta. Without this flushing action, silt will eventually build up and completely cut off the bay area from the Delta and doom all the fisheries and farmers who are dependent upon fresh water. Where will the salmon then go to spawn? Pinole?

3) A new, more fanciful study that pointedly stresses the need for a Peripheral Canal has been produced by a non-profit research group known as the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), which makes UC Davis its home. This body is funded, however, by none other than Stephen D. Bechtel, jr., owner of the Bechtel Corp. which, not so incidentally, builds big things like Peripheral Canals. The Bechtel Corporation is also a proponent of, and is aggressively pushing, privatized (privately-owned) water systems.

4) Recently, the DWR announced the creation of a "Drought Water Bank"–a misnomer if there ever was one. What they mean is they will allow Northern California farmers who can save water through conservation, idling crops or using groundwater instead of surface water, to sell their water to the Southland. The problem is, the plan still involves pumping more Northern California water south–further destroying the Delta ecosystem and eroding the levees.
5) There are already plans on the books to build a gigantic water barrier across the estuary at Chipps Island, west of Antioch. This is proof that the water agencies recognized that taking more water from the Sacramento River will impede flows agaist the high tides from the SF bay, hence the need for a cross-river barrier to keep salt water out of the Delta. This might save some agricultural land, but it will put all the fisheries out of business.

6) Finally, any plan which endeavors to take water from where it is needed and send it to where it is scarce is not sound economic or environmental reasoning and violates every tenet of wise water usage.

The stakes are high in this new California Water War and the tactics are not all that removed from when it all began back in 1913 when William Mulholland, the first superintendent of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, cast a greedy eye northward to the Owens Valley. He was so intent on stealing Owens Lake water that the acquisition of water rights was done on the sly by Los Angeles insiders in order to cover up the theft.

Today, the MWD and the Westlands Water District are busy buying up land around the Sacramento River at the Yolo Bypass, just above Sacramento. Officials of the two water districts say it is to protect their access to water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. They are also seeking to partnership with other landowners in the area. Although they are not buying on the sly, it is definitely 1913 water war déjà vu.

To me, a paraphrase of a statement by the 19th Century economist and philosopher Henry George vividly characterizes the south’s new try at grabbing more Northern California water: "If they robbed us yesterday, does that now give them a vested right to keep on robbing us?"

Certainly the water agencies think so; but the people of California may have other ideas. In conclusion, let's remember the prophetic words of philosopher Henry George: "To take water from where it is needed and send it to where it is scarce is simply bad water policy."
--Burt Wilson