Note: This is the first in a series of three in-depth articles on water policy and water politics in California, supported graciously by the Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fund Fellowship, a project of The Fund for American Studies (TFAS).
The sun dips low over a seemingly improbable landscape, less than an hour east of Oakland. Dense rows of corn, ready for the harvest; an array of yellowing grapevines heavy with sweet, ripe fruit. The cool, blue waters of the Sacramento River meander through the lush plain, the coastal hills looming on the horizon in the evening light.
This is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta Estuary, also known simply as the “California Delta.” It is inland, an inversion: whereas most big rivers extend fingers of sediment into the ocean, the waters of this estuary seem to fan out into the interior.
Like so much else in California, what seems natural here is really a joint effort of God and man. The farmland was “reclaimed” from the marshes in the 19th century using dikes and canals, through a mix of public projects and private initiative. And what seems serene is really a system in motion: millions of acre-feet of fresh water are being pumped from the lush Delta, southwards, to slake the thirst of Southern California. Far greater volumes flow through it to the Pacific Ocean, as does at least half of the state’s overall water.
The state’s challenge remains today what it has been for a century: how to move water from the north, where it is plentiful and the population is relatively sparse, to the dry south, where the majority of California’s people actually live.
And in recent decades, a new challenge has emerged: to balance the needs of the environment — and the ideas of environmentalists — with the practical needs of farmers, factories, and communities that rely on water to survive.
The media theme of fish-versus-farmers is by now a familiar one, supposedly dividing Californians by left and right, urban and rural.
The real picture is far more nuanced and complex, and almost impossible to comprehend.
California’s water system seems almost to have been designed to be too complicated to manage, or to explain. There are layers upon layers of water rights — riparian rights, pre-1914 rights, and others — and a maze of laws, agencies, and contractors.
Water policy is such a Gordian knot in California that the quickest way to cut through, as one farmer told me cynically, is to steal it. California’s water history can be told as a story of large-scale thefts.
Then there are the various stakeholders involved, who are much more diverse than the news headlines might suggest.
Farmers, for example, are an extraordinarily diverse group. They all rely on water, and want more of it, but their views on any particular water policy or project often depend on where they draw their water — and, in some case, whether they can sell it.
A plan that is a “water grab” to some farmers may be a welcome public works project to others.
Moreover, California’s coastal cities are infamously liberal. Hippies in San Francisco and Hollywood stars in Los Angeles cultivated the modern environmentalist movement.
And yet both urban areas, which dominate the state’s politics, depend on imported water and irrigated crops.
While “green” activists may dream of seeing the O’Shaughnessy Dam demolished, and the Hetch Hetchy Valley restored, even San Francisco Bay Area politicians have fought the idea.
There are growing fears that water will become more scarce in the future. Proponents of the theory of climate change, for example, note that the state is becoming drier, even as its population grows. Even without climate change, there is not enough rain, snowmelt, or groundwater in dry years to fulfill the wilderness dreams of environmentalists and the needs of farmers and urban planners.
Hence, an endless conflict.
In this three-part project, I set out to explore the issue of water in California, through three lenses.
First — the allocation of water, dealing with the question of how water is to be distributed among the state’s users.
Second — the storage of water, which theoretically could make more of the state’s water available for use.
Third — the creation of water, the possible use of desalinization technology to relieve pressure on scarce resources.
As I began work on this first article, a perfect example of a debate over allocation arose: the fight over the Bay-Delta plan, a policy administered by the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) for the watershed that drains from the Sierra Nevada into the Delta.
The plan, created in the 1990s, governs two major river systems: to the north, the Sacramento River and its tributaries; to the south, the San Joaquin River and the rivers that flow into it.
The plan was updated in 2006, and the SWRCB will vote on new proposed changes November 7 — conveniently, the day after the 2018 midterm elections.
The proposed changes purport to address the problem of dwindling native fish populations. Environmental groups; commercial fishing and sport fishing interests, Native American tribes, and sporting associations argue that diversions of water from the San Joaquin system for agricultural and household use threaten the survival of these species by lowering the flow of rivers and, consequently, raising the water temperature to levels fish cannot tolerate or that hinder their migration to and from their spawning grounds..
Agricultural interests, as well as the rural communities that depend on farming and on the rivers themselves, argue that increasing the amount of water in the rivers — which can only be done by decreasing the amount of water available for irrigation, households, and industry — threatens the local economy and public services. They also argue that the real challenge to native fish is the arrival of alien predator species, and not the flow of the rivers.
This is a classic environmental policy problem of the type described a quarter-century ago by Kai Lee in Compass and Gyroscope: Integrating Science And Politics For The Environment — a primary textbook when I studied environmental science at Harvard in the mid-1990s.
The various parties in the dispute have two broad areas of disagreement. First, they disagree about the science itself — i.e. what is actually happening; second, they disagree about what should be done — i.e. what policies are best.
But the controversy over the new amendments to the Bay-Delta plan has an even broader context. This is not the first time that farmers have been asked to give up water for fish.
For the past ten years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has restricted the amount of water that can be pumped out of the Delta because of the danger to the Delta smelt, a small endangered native fish. The judges of the infamously liberal Ninth Circuit have upheld that policy. Farmers feel they have continuously given up water, and worry about the erosion of water rights, as well as the overuse of groundwater. The later has led to the subsidence of land in the Central Valley, which is slowly making some areas unsuitable for farming.
In addition, California Governor Jerry Brown has proposed a massive infrastructure proposal called WaterFix (once known as the Twin Tunnels Project). The project — which, at a preliminary cost of $11 billion, would be one of the largest infrastructure projects ever undertaken in the United States — would build two tunnels to carry water from the Sacramento River on the north side of the Delta directly to the pumping stations on the south side, a supposedly environmentally-friendly upgrade.
The WaterFix is highly controversial — not least among the people who live in the Delta. Some locals suspect that the true motive behind the revisions to the Bay-Delta plan is not to save the fish populations, but rather to provide the Delta with more fresh water to be pumped southwards without making the waters even more saline than it already is — one of the many conditions that is said to threaten the smelt and other fragile native species.
The details of the revisions to the Bay-Delta plan are complex. Essentially, the changes require the San Joaquin River and its tributaries — the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced Rivers — to have an average of 40% of “unimpeded flow,” i.e. the rate of flow if there were no human diversions of water, from February through June. The plan allows for some regulatory discretion of between 30% and 50% of unimpeded flow.
In addition, the new Bay-Delta plan would allow for slightly higher salinity levels in the Delta itself, raising the target to 1.0 deciSiemens per meter year-round from the previous standard, which aimed to lower salinity to 0.7 deciSiemens per meter between the months of April and August.
(Salinity is measured in “deciSiemens per meter,” which is technically a measure of electrical conductivity, since salts dissolve in water into positive and negative ions, creating a mildly conductive solution.)
Much of the public debate about the Bay-Delta plan has focused on the new flow requirements. Environmental groups say that the proposed 30% to 50% range is far too low, and that the flow ought to be maintained above 60% of unimpeded flow to preserve fish populations.
Farmers and agricultural communities, in contrast, protest that even a minimum requirement of 30% of unimpeded flow — more than double the present flow for some of the rivers, especially the Tuolomne — could be devastating for current users and residents within the San Joaquin watershed. They say the economic impacts on the region’s cities and communities will be far greater than the state suggests. And they argue that the biological assumptions behind the Bay-Delta plan are flawed, even unscientific.
In many ways, the political fight over the Bay-Delta plan resembles other battles over water in California. The debate about the Delta smelt, for example, pits liberal environmental groups against farmers, many of whom are staunch conservatives. In the clashes over the Bay-Delta plan, many of the same interest groups find themselves at odds once again, locked in a struggle over water that is as much cultural as political, scientific, and economic.
There is at least one crucial difference, however, that distinguishes the Bay-Delta plan fight: namely, that water officials in San Francisco itself have joined agricultural interests in opposing the proposed changes.
Under historic Gold Rush-era water rights, San Francisco obtains the bulk of its water from the same San Joaquin watershed as the farmers of the Central Valley. For nearly a century, the waters of Hetch Hetchy, on the Tuolomne River, have sustained the Bay Area. Today, San Francisco and its suburbs obtain 85 percent of their water supply from Hetch Hetchy.
The new Bay-Delta plan would thus make less water available for San Francisco and other communities near the coast, including Silicon Valley, the state’s economic engine.
That does not mean there is uniform opposition to the new plan in the Bay Area. In August 2018, the city council of Palo Alto, in the heart of liberal Silicon Valley, voted to endorse the Bay-Delta Plan’s changes. It did so “despite objections from the city’s water suppliers and its own Utilities Department,” local media reported. They were warned the plan could lead to water cuts that would, in turn, leave Palo Alto “without enough water for job growth and fully operational businesses, hospitals and public institutions.”
Local officials viewed the issue through the lens of national politics — embroiled in the divisive battles between President Donald Trump and the so-called “Resistance.”
Palo Alto Vice Mayor Eric Filseth, quoted by Palo Alto Online, said: “I find it unconscionable that we in our state, the bluest of blue states in the nation, would damage our environment to prop up Silicon Valley industry … If we do that, we’re no better than the federal government that is damaging the environment to prop up the fossil-fuel industry.”
Still, the fact that water authorities in the “blue” cities of the Bay Area took the same dim view of the Bay-Delta plan as leaders in “red” rural areas did suggests that the debate has created some strange bedfellows.
It was with that in mind that I journeyed to the Central Valley, the Delta, and the Bay Area to speak to locals who would be directly affected by the Bay-Delta plan, and who had joined the fight to sway the views of the SWRCB members before they voted on the proposal.
For example, I contacted a member of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors and asked if I could meet with any local officials to discuss the Bay-Delta plan. Little did I suspect, when I arrived in the town of Modesto in mid-September, that there would be so much interest in telling the local side of the story.
I had expected to meet with a few members of the Turlock Irrigation District, one of several governing bodies that regulates water in the Central Valley. Instead, nearly a dozen officials arrived.
They included farmers; engineers; elected officials — from both political parties; the local public school superintendent; a fisheries biologist; and even an executive at a local hospital.
It could not have been more clear how important the issue was to them. They wished to convey to me that the issue of water allocation was not merely of concern to farmers, but to everyone else in the area, including — perhaps especially — the most disadvantaged members of the community.
Michael Frantz, a member of the Turlock Irrigation District board, opened the meeting, laying out the community’s concerns.
“We have been stewarding the rivers for 135 years,” he said. While they recognized their use of water had some environmental impact, residents were proud of their record.
The chief complaint, he said, was there had been almost no consultation or interaction between the SWRCB and local water users about the Bay-Delta plan.
This was a theme I was to hear throughout the morning: that the state authorities had either ignored the locals, or paid them only grudging attention.
Doug Demko, the biologist, said that state authorities had ignored the results of locally sponsored scientific research — even when state agencies had participated in it. That research, he said, suggested that alien predator species, not water flow or temperature, was the chief threat to indigenous fish populations.
(A scientific paper co-authored by Demko in 2017 concluded that he SWRCB’s policy of “pulse flows,” releases of water from dams to help migrating fish, over a 13-year-long period, had little long-term beneficial effect on fish populations.)
The state’s scientists, Demko argued further, had relied on research from the Pacific Northwest (where disputes among interest groups over the impact of dams on fisheries provided the case studies for my undergraduate training in environmental science at Harvard in the mid-1990s).
The problem, he said, was that conclusions from the cool, rainy Pacific Northwest could not be extrapolated to the Central Valley’s Mediterranean climate, where Chinook salmon had adapted to warmer water.
Jake Wenger, a local walnut farmer and a board member of the Modesto Irrigation District, said the state’s analysis of local needs showed little understanding of agriculture — or, indeed, of nature.
The state’s plan, he pointed out, made no provision for relief during dry years, but rather applied the same flow targets, regardless. And the idea that farmers could conserve water by planting different crops ignored the economic forces farmers faced. “The market dictates the crop, not the water.”
Jose Gonzales, the local school superintendent, described to me how his schools relied on independent wells for water. One of the wells had already run dry. If farmers could not draw the water they needed from the river systems, he said, they would have to tap even further into dwindling groundwater supplies. And if they did that, he said, the school’s sources of water would be threatened by the falling water table, meaning that children, many of them Hispanic, would be thirsty at school.
Leslie McGowan, the CEO of Livingston Community Health, said local hospitals saw the impact of water shortages — in the rising number of indigent patients, and in the rise of opioid use and other forms of substance abuse.
Michael Lynch, a staffer for Assemblyman Adam Gray, a Democrat, said ruefully that the region was the “hidden” California — the one that politicians from the Bay Area and Los Angeles left behind. The Bay-Delta plan, he said, was a dire threat.
Lynch noted that the plan fails to take into account the fact that local water users are going to be responsible for adopting groundwater sustainability plans (GSPs) by 2020, under the new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The act, designed to control the overuse of groundwater, places new burdens of conservation on rural districts at the same time that the Bay-Delta Plan proposes to add to those burdens — which encourages more groundwater use.
Stanislaus County agricultural commissioner Milton O’Haire warned of the economic impacts of water cuts, especially during drought years. Terry Winthrow, a farmer and accountant who also serves on the board of supervisors, warned that water reductions could lead to impacts “greater than the Great Recession” of 2008.
Winthrow stressed that local leaders were willing to work with the state in a spirit of compromise, and was confident that a mutually beneficial arrangement could be found. But the state seemed not to be listening.
That was another repeated theme in Modesto: the SWRCB, under pressure from environmental interests, had rejected overtures for voluntary settlements, leading inexorably to future costly lawsuits.
“Extreme environmental ideology has taken control of regulation,” Wenger said.
The irony, he and others said, was that solving the problem of dwindling fish populations seemed to be the last on the state’s list of priorities.
If fish were really important, they argued, the state would think about dealing with non-native predators, or invest in breeding native species. What really mattered to the state, Wenger said, was taking the water, he said — and some of the environmentalists did not think the farms should exist at all.
That is a deeply-held conviction in the Central Valley. And while environmental groups show a grudging acceptance, perhaps, that the farmers and the communities around them are not going to disappear, many want to reduce human use of the state’s water to the barest minimum that is necessary. They view the farming sector as a wealthy business elite that has manipulated state and federal politics for its own enrichment.
I spoke, via telephone, with John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center. Buckley, a firefighter-turned-environmentalist, was skeptical of the role of the irrigation districts and farming interests in the debate over the Bay-Delta plan: “They know how to delay,” he said.
Buckley described the SWRCB’s proposals as a steep compromise from the 60% unimpeded flows that some scientists had recommended to save the fish populations and preserve water quality. The only compensation for dropping the requirement to 40%, he said, had been a commitment by the irrigation districts to implement “non-flow measures” to help the fish population.
“There’s a middle ground that the agricultural interests and utilities don’t want to find,” he said, warning that whatever decision the SWRCB delivered, the issue might wind up in court for “one hundred years.”
About an hour’s drive north of Modesto, in the South Delta town of Lodi, I met with John Herrick, an environmental attorney who serves as general counsel for the South Delta Water Agency. His concern was less for water flows than for the salinity of both water and soil — a result, he said, of decades of over-pumping.
His view of state water policy was cynical: “It’s a giant mess,” he told me, meeting in his office in the rural city of Lodi.
The problem, he told me, is simple: there is not currently enough water for all of the state’s needs, and no one is developing more water sources. He was blunt: the great water projects that irrigated the state had also killed the fish populations, he told me.
They did so, he said, because the great state and federal water projects had committed to delivering water that does not exist. And the regulators had ignore the permit conditions under which the giant pumps and aqueducts were supposed to operate. They had relaxed the salinity standards in the Delta, creating major problems for farmers and communities in the surrounding area.
Effectively, he noted wryly, the twin tunnels of the California WaterFix would do nothing to “fix” the problem: they purport to “save” the estuary by taking out more of its fresh water for pumping southward.
Meanwhile, he noted, the state’s existing water infrastructure was under strain. The Oroville Dam, the state water project’s most important reservoir and the highest dam in the U.S., saw its concrete spillway collapse in 2017 and nearly suffered a catastrophic collapse of its emergency spillway, leading to the evacuation of nearly 200,000 people.
The constant rule-breaking, inadequate fixes, and increased demands on the system seemed to be leading to eventual statewide disaster, he said.
The fight over the Bay-Delta plan is not just being fought at a state level, but at federal and local levels as well. In Congress, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA), a moderate Republican, made fighting the Bay-Delta Plan a signature issue of his 2018 re-election campaign.
Denham’s 10th district was one of seven targeted by the Democratic Party in the midterm elections because voters in each chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016, though they are represented by Republicans.
Denham’s pro-immigration stance was popular in his Central Valley district, where there is a large population of immigrant farm workers upon whom agriculture depends. But it caused him trouble with conservatives, making his fight tougher against well-funded venture capitalist Josh Harder.
So Denham emphasized his fight for water, helping to organize a 1,500-person rally at the state capitol in Sacramento, together with other Central Valley politicians from both parties, the day before crucial SWRCB hearings in August.
In addition, Denham wrangled much of the Republican caucus in the U.S. House — which typically sides with farmers in California’s water disputes — behind his position. He also lobbied the White House to take sides against the state — not a difficult task, when California prided itself on opposing many Trump administration’s policies.
Denham carried out a full-court press on Trump’s cabinet, too. In July 2018, Denham accompanied Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke on a tour of the region’s reservoirs, which depend on the rivers. In August, he brought Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. And in October, Denham hosted Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator of the EPA, in the Central Valley, setting up town hall meetings with residents to discuss the impact of the Bay-Delta Plan.
As one local newspaper noted, Denham was lobbying the EPA to use its authority under the federal Clean Water Act to intervene and stop the Bay-Delta plan. Not waiting to be left behind in an election year, Democrat Rep. Jim Costa joined him in that effort, as did other representatives in the region and beyond. In the fight for water, partisan divisions were left behind — or eclipsed by even fiercer fights over the scarce resource.
Meanwhile, the city of San Francisco faced an internal battle over its own opposition to the Bay-Delta plan. As the San Francisco Chronicle noted, the city’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) — an independent board responsible for the city’s water, with a separate budget and staff from the city itself — had opposed the Bay-Delta plan on the grounds that it could threaten water supplies and that the city already participated in environmental restoration on the affected rivers.
But San Francisco Board of Supervisors member Aaron Peskin, one of the board’s 11 members, threatened to push for a resolution disapproving of the PUC’s position on the Bay-Delta plan, and to withhold approval for PUC budgets and infrastructure projects as a means of exerting pressure.
“I’m concerned that the PUC is playing footsie with the Trump administration at the detriment of the environment,” he told the Chronicle, echoing the concerns of environmentalists.
Peter Drekmeier, the policy director of the Tuolumne River Trust, accused the PUC of not representing the “values” of San Francisco residents, and expressed surprise to the Chronicle about the fact that city officials was siding with the farmers of the Central Valley over an issue where conventional left-wing opinion held the farmers were clearly wrong.
PUC officials explained that they were merely acting pursuant to their responsibilities to the city and other municipalities. Crucially, the PUC disagreed with the state about the scientific issues at stake, siding with the Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts in their claim that alternative methods would be more effective in restoring fish populations in the Delta.
Ultimately, on October 30, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously, 11-0, for a non-binding resolution supporting the Bay-Delta plan, despite the PUC’s opposition. Like the Palo Alto city council, San Francisco’s political leaders wanted to make a point about national politics, as well as the environment in general. The city’s water needs were an afterthought.
But no decision about water in California can be made in a vacuum. One of the more interesting — and, to participants, frustrating — aspects of the debate over the Bay-Delta plan is the fact that the SWRCB refuses to consider it in the broader context of the California WaterFix.
At the August hearings in Sacramento on the Bay-Delta plan, SWRCB chair Felicia Marcus told members of the public that the hearing would not be able to consider the WaterFix — though Assemblyman Adam Gray brought it up anyway, to the approval of many in the audience.
The fact that the SWRCB insists on dealing with the Bay-Delta Plan in isolation only adds to local suspicion that the real reason for the plan is not environmental, but political. Marcus’ SWRCB is a politically appointed board, not an elected group.
I wrote to the SWRCB, asking if Marcus could clarify “why the Bay-Delta process needs to remain separate from the Water Fix (when it seems like the two should at least take each other in to account, from a planning perspective), and also about whether Ms. Marcus takes a particular philosophical approach to environmental/water issues.”
A SWRCB spokesperson politely told Breitbart News, via email, that Marcus would not be able to answer those questions.
“She serves as a hearing officer for the WaterFix administrative hearings that are ongoing right now. So, she can’t engage in any discussions (whether private or public) on the WaterFix issues before the State Water Board outside of formally noticed hearings,” the spokesperson said.
The procedural — and artificial — division of roles may serve to create an impression that there is no conflict of interest. But it is also more likely to ensure poor planning and public irritation.
Environmental science is still a young field, but one of the most important concepts drilled into students at both undergraduate and graduate levels is that the environment must be thought of in a holistic manner.
“Sustainability” does not just involve economic viability, as it might have in a pre-environmental era. It means maintaining the health of the natural environment, preserving cultural heritage, social integrity, and other intangible resources that may be at stake.
Even just within an environmental framework, there is no way to isolate one part of a natural system from another, even if we humans would find that more convenient.
It makes no sense, for instance, to talk about a plan whose goal is to increase the amount of fresh water flowing into the California Delta without talking about another plan whose goal is to remove fresh water from the same body of water. Those plans may be separate, but the bodies of water themselves are not.
The SWRCB provides answers to “Frequently Asked Questions” (FAQ) that tries to preserve the divide: “The California WaterFix is a separate project from the plan amendments … Increased flows from the Lower San Joaquin River will reach the Delta. A small percentage of this could be exported under current rules but most of the water that is exported [under the future WaterFix] comes from the Sacramento River watershed, not the San Joaquin River.”
The FAQ likewise attempts to explain why the Bay-Delta plan only focuses on the San Joaquin River watershed: “Both [the San Joaquin River and the Sacramento River] are critically important to the health and survival of the Bay-Delta ecosystem but they influence them in somewhat different ways … The State Water Board is addressing the entire Delta and its contributing watersheds through two separate processes,” it says, without elaborating further.
Some observers suspect the SWRCB is tackling the San Joaquin watershed first to create political and legal precedents that it can use later for the more difficult fights to come over the Sacramento River watershed.
If the Bay-Delta plan is a necessary component of other plans, but water users along the San Joaquin tributaries cannot comment on those broader plans, it is no surprise that those who are affected by the new amendments feel they are being overlooked and their protests ignored.
It is not clear that there would be any statutory reason for the state to organize the process this way — other than to shield the SWRCB from accountability by preventing the public from addressing the underlying issues.
It may be that state authorities have concluded that there is no way to achieve anything new with regard to California’s water infrastructure through a normal legislative or regulatory process. The state’s political system is dominated by Democrats, who hold every major statewide office and enjoy intermittent supermajorities in the state legislature that allow them to pass virtually anything they want, giving the governor and his party vast power — theoretically. Felicia Marcus and the entire SWRCB board were appointed by Democratic governor Jerry Brown, with the approval of the Democrats that lead the California State Senate.
In practice, however, nothing works that way. While the political opposition is weak, the state legislature is held in check through a variety of other mechanisms.
One is the proliferation of ballot initiatives, through which voters can often enact — or repeal — legislation. Another is the recall process, through which individual legislators can be targeted to unpopular votes, as new State Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) was in 2018 for his vote to raise the gas tax in 2017.
Then, of course, there are lawsuits. It is almost inevitable that any law or regulation that actually changes something in California will be challenged in court, whether state and/or federal. The fate of the Bay-Delta Plan will almost certainly be determined in litigation.
And there is one other way to restrain the massive power of the one-party state: old-fashioned civic participation in the political process, outside of formal voting, through which major decisions are made in the state.
That is how Delta farmers Mark Pruner and Mark Wilson helped stop some of the state’s plans for the Delta itself.
Pruner, a lawyer and a farmer from Clarksburg, told me — over a mess of maps, environmental impact statements, and local newspapers — how the two neighbors organized their community to oppose a state plan to flood a significant portion of the Delta, creating new wetlands for wildlife at the expense of the community that had lived there for over a century.
Their newest obsession is the WaterFix. Though the project bills itself, in part, as an effort to restore the natural environment of the Delta, and promises to bury its twin water tunnels (or perhaps only one tunnel, due to financial constraints) underneath the Delta itself, locals are convinced that the WaterFix will be a severe disruption to their lives.
The Delta’s roads are narrow; its bridges are fragile; and its fish and wildlife populations are thought to be fragile. Yet the state proposes to spend the better part of two decades — conservatively speaking — moving hundreds of massive trucks through the area on a daily basis, churning up dust, blasting noise, and straining the local infrastructure.
Area leaders oppose the WaterFix. In late October, the “Delta caucus” of the California state legislature wrote to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to protest against $1.6 billion in federal loans for the project, warning: “This project poses devastating environmental consequences for the state’s most important waterway while threatening the economic vitality of the entire region.”
Pruner and Wilson have developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the state’s water policies through patient resistance to them. They look past the rules and processes and see water policymaking, more cynically, as an ongoing Cold War, a game of musical chairs where the goal is to be the only one left who can take water with impunity.
They told me that the estimated time for completing the WaterFix meant that, in theory, an entire generation of children from the Delta communities could grow up without experiencing peace and quiet in an otherwise rural area.
They also pointed to alliances between farming interests in the north and water users in the south, who pay a premium for water. They see the WaterFix not as an effort to conserve the Delta but rather as a ploy by southern interests to access the fresher water of the Sacramento River rather than the saltier San Joaquin.
And they told me that they worry about the consolidation of power by the contractors — the municipal utilities of Southern California — to change the geography of the rest of the state.
The contractors have mobilized in recent years to increase their influence in state decision-making — a move that matches the preferences of the state government.
Gov. Brown considers environmental issues and infrastructure among his top priorities. He has embraced the state’s high-speech rail project, and traveled the globe talking about climate change. The WaterFix is perhaps his most important legacy project.
Though Brown is generally seen — even by Republicans — as a successful governor, having brought the state’s budget back into the black and presided over an era of economic recovery, his infrastructure projects remain unpopular, and uncertain.
The “bullet train” in particular is far more expensive than voters were first promised; will run more slowly than advertised, and is taking far longer than the state’s residents were told to expect construction would be complete.
The SWRCB, critics told me, operates almost as a law unto itself. The New York Times has described Marcus, the board’s chair, as California’s water “czar” — “part empathetic confessor and part friendly scold” in the fight to conserve water during the state’s record-breaking drought (2012-17).
Originally a scholar in East Asian studies at Harvard, she was appointed by President Bill Clinton as a regional EPA administrator before landing the SWRCB role.
She has become is a key player in a state government whose outlook on water infrastructure has changed fundamentally — from the notion, in the 1950s and 1960s, that the infrastructure existed to help agriculture and provide water to communities, to the idea that the role of government should be to preserve the environment and keep human activities within minimal boundaries, to the extent possible.
Environmentalists have been particularly pleased with her performance. Dan Jacobson, who leads the advocacy group Environment California, told the Times: “She’s been really great for us — she’s an environmentalist through and through.”
The Times praised her as a mediator, reporting that “she has kept the peace between environmentalists and agriculture.” Yet the sense is that she herself falls on the green side of the divide.
(The SWRCB would not make Marcus available for comment — see above.)
To the extent that the SWRCB was designed and filled as a means to cut through the normal political process and impose the governor’s will, it is an imperfect tool, at best.
At the August hearings, the SWRCB seemed ready to vote to adopt the new Bay-Delta plan — though perhaps not ready to deal with the political fallout.
Regardless, whatever the board decides seems destined for court.
Toward the end of October, I re-connected with some of the officials with whom I had met in Modesto and elsewhere.
President Trump had signed a slew of water-oriented measures in the weeks leading up to the midterm elections, including a memorandum designed to cut through red tape and make water infrastructure projects easier to build.
Demko, speaking to me via phone from Costa Rica, said that Trump’s actions seemed to have had an immediate affect in speeding up the permitting process in federal agencies.
But Herrick, the environmental attorney, told me that Trump’s actions would not affect the SWRCB’s decision on the Bay-Delta plan. He, like many others, expected the state to approve the plan — and its somewhat more lenient salinity standard.
That, he said, meant one thing: “We’re screwed.”
His South Delta Water Agency would likely be forced to sue the state, he said — though he was a bit hopeful about the outcome, given the argument that existing water projects were already failing to meet the salinity requirements in their permits. He planned to call on scientific experts to testify that there was increased salinity in local soils.
“There’s literally no basis for relaxing the standard,” he said. “We’ve had 20-plus years of zero enforcement.”
Farmer Jake Wenger told me by telephone, with the sounds of the walnut harvest churning in the background, that he expected the Bay-Delta plan to pass — unless the state and the local irrigation districts could reach a last-minute deal. Negotiations had “fired back up,” he said, although the SWRCB seemed reluctant to budge from its 40% target.
“There’s been a little bit of progress. They’re not backing off their numbers, they’re just trying to make their numbers work, which isn’t really acceptable.”
Buckley, the environmental activist, defended the SWRCB’s work.
“The state water board … painstakingly attempted to do settlement agreement negotiations. It met in large groups and small groups, and in one-to-one meetings, including with county supervisors who often just don’t understand the issue and just show up with demands and positions with no tie to reality. ”
He said the SWRBC’s proposed 40% number was the only reasonable compromise left between the various interests involved.
“I can’t see how the state water board can step away from the compromise that it put forward — that instead of doing 60% that was the real basic need, they adopted, in the spirit of compromise, 40%,” he said.
He saw agricultural interests looking after their bottom line — and perhaps negotiating in bad faith.
“It’s amazing how much dry grazing pastureland is, even now, being converted to massive new orchard plantings and other massive new water-demanding agricultural crops, over vast areas,” he observed.
Whatever the vote of the SWRCB on November 7, the ultimate decision will likely be made years hence by an unelected state or federal judge. As with many judicial decisions today, it will tainted by politics according to who appointed him or her.
It would have been better, perhaps to reach voluntary agreement — but the state and the farmers seem unable to compromise.
Theoretically, there is an alternative: an ideal of cooperative management, where both farmers and fishermen are stewards of a scarce resource; where the role of the state is to make sure that its decisions take into account all of the externalities, and that costs are fairly shared by different interest groups.
In the serene peace of the Delta, a confluence of river and sea, that potential seems real.
Unfortunately, in California, the will to cooperate seems as scarce as the water itself.
Part II will appear in January 2019.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. He is also the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.