By Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Restore the Delta
Today’s commentary breaks my heart.
Because Restore the Delta is focused on water quality issues, flood control issues, future planning, and training the next generation of local water experts – for that is where hope exists.
We are focused on the future because in some ways we have become very cynical about any positive meaningful change to Delta management presently — from the lack of care at the highest levels of government, to local pockets of Delta communities that will not acknowledge the deterioration of the estuary before their eyes.
Our Delta faces many threats
At all levels, we see leaders who want what they want from the estuary: unrestricted water exports; a destructive mega-tunnel; discharge of pollutants without regulatory oversight; delisting of endangered fisheries; limited, private recreation and access to waterways, so as to keep urban people (people of color) away; denial around sea level rise and needed mitigation for flood threats, unless there are deal sweeteners; elimination of the Delta’s family farms and their proud history; erasure of the tragic history of the region’s tribal ancestors and immigrant communities who built the Delta levees; new energy drilling and mechanical sequestration processes that could harm the Delta’s groundwater basin; neglect by local government to eliminate the dumping of trash in our waterways; expansion of Port of Stockton operations (including tunnel construction) without proper environmental mitigation planning efforts to protect disadvantaged communities; and lack of local plans to humanely relocate the homeless away from toxic algal blooms.
Somehow, the imperiled San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary, wildlife, and its people are supposed to survive unlimited water extraction, tunnel construction, and lack of infrastructure and basic investment in maintenance (like cleaning up trash). This neglect by government at all levels, coupled with inadequate water quality enforcement, managerial neglect and zero funding for cultural resources so communities know the Delta’s complete history — reflect how every proposal, idea, or need for the Delta becomes gridlocked because some party will be inconvenienced and will object with having to make change for the betterment of the estuary, its culture, and its people.
During this difficult year, we have felt a bit like Diogenes in our search for political leadership that will remain consistent and steadfast in doing what is right for the estuary first and all its people. With our lantern in the dark, we are seeking one elected leader who loves the estuary as much as our supporters do, and who will fight for its protection holistically – not just in opposition to the tunnel (an easy ask), or in response to sea level rise, while ignoring the water quality needs of the region’s 4 million people.
Those championing the Delta tunnel project with unrealistic water planning goals (DWR, MWD, Secretary Crowfoot and Governor Newsom), and those who won’t acknowledge the extreme threats of drought and floods to the estuary and its people as a result of climate change (San Joaquin Valley Ag, local climate change-deniers) are stuck in their positions. Sadly, nothing gets done. Throw into that mix a fair number of businesses, from small mom and pop businesses to large corporations, that won’t clean up their water discharge pollution because “regulation is bad for the private sector”—well, it can all become overwhelming – and many days we question whether we should keep advocating for the Delta.
Yet, we find daily that we are gathering inspiration from younger individuals who are seeing the entire picture of how Delta mismanagement negatively impacts the quality of life for the people, and a community willing to work for change. Improvement is not coming from government leadership or local groups who want to hold onto the idea of “this is how the Delta has always been and must always be.” Change will come from those 35 and under who are committed to living in the Delta, whether as farmers, business leaders, urban residents or environmental advocates. Change will come from those who see clean waterways and an array of affordable and accessible recreation opportunities as part of urban redevelopment. Change will come from young farmers who incorporate best practices to protect fisheries and wildlife as part of the bottom line. Change will come from those who work to clean up discharge from the small family business because stewardship is part of the business model. Change will come as the community collaborates with Stockton’s Port to become the nation’s premiere clean port, working for zero emissions and clean discharge, like some new port businesses are doing presently.
The Delta loses either way with the recall
Political funding to stop the recall effort includes $250,000 from Stuart and Lynda Resnick. If you follow Restore the Delta, you know who they are. The Resnicks have not let go of their tunnel dream as Kern County Water Agency has recently voted to participate in the Delta tunnel planning process. The Resnicks are leading the fundraising effort to stop the recall. Additionally, the Professional Engineers of California have made a significant contribution to stopping the recall effort. In other words, folks who like to build tunnels and new dams have skin in the game with their support for Newsom.
To be clear, Governor Newsom’s leadership on California water has been deeply disappointing. His first lieutenant, Natural Resources Secretary, Wade Crowfoot, doesn’t interact much with Delta groups anymore; a holdover from the Brown Administration, he is only fixated on the idea that the tunnel is the answer for sea level rise and ignores concerns around 50% reduced inflow into the estuary with extended droughts. Crowfoot has been busy crafting “voluntary agreements” for releasing flow into the Delta since January, 2019 – a deal that was supposed to be complete initially in 90 days. We understand the agreements will be released sometime and will feature small releases of water called “pulse flows” that somehow will surpass set standards for adequate water circulation for the entire estuary, required for spring fish flows to autumn’s toxic algal bloom mitigation. We also understand that water rights holders upstream will be making profit from releasing these flows – never mind the public trust doctrine or that water is a resource owned by Californians. So, being an early settler in California (after taking the lands from California Indian tribes) allows one to profit off of water sales regardless of communities need for drinking water, sanitation, and healthy waterways.
The Governor’s second lieutenant, DWR Director Karla Nemeth, who is pursuing the General Manager’s position with Metropolitan Water District, has said publicly that after the tunnel is built, there will come a point where water quality standards in the Delta will be abandoned. Apparently, Californians should not fret over laws and processes around such decision making or worry how abandoning South Delta water quality standards will directly impact the economy and well-being of millions of people. Afterall, MWD needs its tunnel; never mind the pesky co-equal goals of protecting the Delta as place and reducing reliance on Delta water exports. Nemeth’s statements to groups outside the Delta and DWR’s recent video laying claim to the Delta tunnel as an environmental justice project for Southern California is an abusive misinterpretation of the principals of environmental justice – an interpretation that we will not let stand.
Friendly outreach does not replace harm to communities.
Then there’s the case of the funding for the next round of tunnel planning. Water districts voted to spend $340 million for Delta tunnel planning and environmental review over four years. Those votes happened in November and December. But full funding has yet to be received by DWR. That amount for new tunnel planning work does not pay back the $34 million loan DWR fronted for the water contractors. While the Design Construction Authority has been transparent, accounting at DWR continues on as a black hole. We will only know what transpires if we begin with public records act requests yet once again. Promises were made about transparency; we do not feel on this front that they are being kept by DWR.
The major donors on the pro-recall side are every bit just as problematic for the Delta
The National Republican Committee, the biggest contributor to the recall effort, is as anti-regulatory as you can get and supports San Joaquin Valley congressional representatives tied up in numerous national security scandals beyond water. The San Joaquin Valley Republic Congressional delegation is all about delisting protected species, gutting the Clean Water Act, and pumping as much water from the estuary as possible. Reference the work on-line of Representative Devin Nunes and Representative Kevin McCarthy. Also, don’t forget the Northern California Republicans like McClintock and LaMalfa who want to make sure that their donors can sell water to Westlands Water District.
The Lincoln Club of Orange County, another significant donor to the recall, is part of that region’s Republican-charged effort to bring about tunnel construction, and regularly funded the coffers of US Representatives Ken Calvert and David Valadao over the last decade. Our readers may recall the effort in 2018 led by Representatives Calvert and Valadao with their cohorts at the Municipal Water District of Orange County to strip California’s residents of their constitutional right to litigate against the State Water Project or the Central Valley Project. Well MWDOC is leading the effort in Southern California once again for the tunnel.
Over the last 40 years, governors from both parties supported the tunnel. Each Governor has supported unsustainable water exports. Each has been compromised by donations from Big Ag, Big Oil, and Big Water. Each governor has squelched the authority of the California waterboards and has left them seriously underfunded to perform proper enforcement to protect our waterways. Each Governor has failed to solve the problems of the estuary. Perhaps, Governor Schwarzenegger came the closest to making things better with the Delta Reform Act, which we are still waiting to see applied to all Delta planning processes, especially the reduced reliance portion of the law. But Schwarzenegger started the efforts for new conveyance now entering the fifteenth year. Governor Newsom simply repackaged Governor Brown’s twin tunnel projects into a single tunnel, with better initial outreach and more consideration for construction impacts, but the actions and efforts by Secretary Crowfoot and Director Nemeth tell us more about the Governor’s intent than the initial pleasant rhetoric.
More importantly, the Natural Resources Agency and DWR have failed to solve our water management challenges, and drought is back on our doorsteps.
The Delta continues to be squeezed by outside political leaders for specific interest groups, and they’re too full of passionate intensity. While some caring leaders can be found in local government, too many local politicos boldly oppose the tunnel, but won’t solve illegal dumping, relocate the homeless humanely, stand up for needed Delta flows, or push the water boards to clean up discharge. State officials continue to champion the tunnel, but won’t work to solve the significant flood threat to San Joaquin County, or ensure that enough water is flowing regularly to mitigate harmful algal blooms or to restore fisheries. State officials will certainly not fully-fund enforcement and mitigation work to be completed by California Water Boards.
We will continue to work on processes and advocating for the complete well-being of the estuary and its people. We will continue to push back against Big Water’s agenda of profit from water sales over protection and proper stewardship of our most valuable resource. We won’t spend effort opposing or supporting a recall that will change little unless we see a true, bold champion step up fully for the estuary.
Until then, we are amazed by the talent and commitment of the Delta’s young people. Out of everyone, it’s the kids who are alright. The emerging water leaders of California plan to leave this estuary in better shape than they found it. We support their quest of a fishable, swimmable, drinkable SF Bay-Delta estuary, a vision that should unite all Californians, regardless of political affiliation.
Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla is on the Executive Committee at Large for Restore the Delta