John Laird talks about pork, the water bond, and Bay Delta Conservation Plan

John Laird, Secretary for Natural Resources, recently spoke at a meeting in Loomis, where he discussed the water bond and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

After opening with some stories from his days in the legislature and praise for the establishment and achievements of the Sierra Conservancy, John Laird talked about the water bond.  Now moved to 2014, Mr. Laird said that the water bond was part of the package and the compromise of 2009, where everybody gave something to get something.  The “get” for some people is in the water bond, whereas other parts negotiated in the legislative package have been realized or on the path to realization.  “There’s been some criticism saying that there are certain parts of the water bond that are so-called ‘pork’.  And interestingly, when I’ve read that, sometimes it’s been money that has been earmarked for the Sierra that has been termed that.”

Mr. Laird pointed out that the significant thing for the residents of the Sierra to realize is that 25 million of 38 million Californians receive water that originates in the Sierra and at some point passes through the Delta, and when bond funds are used to build infrastructure for those 25 million people, it ignores the 13 million people in other parts of the state.

Mr. Laird recounted serving in the legislature representing Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, two counties that did not and do not import water, and instead live off of whatever water comes to them: “It used to grate me that we would locally pay 100% for our water and then close schools and throw kids off healthcare to pay for somebody else’s water as well.  And so there is a matter of equity, and I think your task is to let people in the Sierra and the leadership in the State know that the water bond has to touch everybody regardless of whether they are served by State Water, and that is not “pork”.  I think that’s the task for you because we’re going to have to pass that bond.”

Mr. Laird then talked about the Delta’s problems and how upstream users might be affected:  “It is our goal to basically resolve the issues in the Delta and not push the problems upstream.  So there are some groups that write us about every two weeks to make sure that hasn’t changed, and I just wanted to assure you that it isn’t the case.”

When the State Water Project was financed and constructed, it was done at a time when legal questions were different, and a lot of the concerns of the Delta residents were not mitigated at the time, he said.  The pumps reversed flows in the Delta, salinity was an issue, and fish populations crashed.  “We have lawsuits fish by fish, species by species,” he noted.  And the infrastructure is aging and built decades ago.  “So we have to take a look at what is it now, what do we have to do for the next generations.”

In regards to the coequal goals, Mr. Laird said, “There is a certain ‘elegance’ to those two goals that I don’t think I saw when the package went through, that basically we have to determine what reliability can be exported from the Delta to different water contractors, and we have to restore the ecosystem at the same time.  Everybody is firmly committed to one of the two, and yet they can’t have their goal without meeting the other one.  And so that has really helped us, in the last few months, for we have created a path in a way that hasn’t existed in the last few decades.”

Mr. Laird recounted that a few months after the Brown administration took over, the NAS released the study on the BDCP that detailed problems with the process: “[the study said] there’s no analysis, there’s no scientific goals, it’s really not together, we embraced that.  And at the same time, it was not transparent, and we agreed to release documents to everybody in public at the same time.  Additionally, we created stakeholder involvement with no preconditions for participation in the process.”

In February, the proposed facility was 15,000 cfs.  On July 25, the Governor and the Secretary of the Interior announced a downscaled project from to 9000 cfs.  Mr. Laird noted that in 1982, the planned facility was 21,000 cfs.

Mr. Laird then talked about the role of science in the BDCP:  “There will be decision tree or scientific process with goals and there will be an attempt to acquire 2000 acres a year in restored wetlands habitat over the next 15 years, and when the facility begins operating, look at the success of the restoration and base the initial operating criteria on that.  That is something that puts science first.”

Emphasizing the need to complete the BDCP, Mr. Laird said:  “For the first time in years we have a path and we’re trying to embrace the dual goals and look for that sweet spot between a lot of different stakeholder needs and move ahead.  The one thing is that the status quo is so bad, fish crashing, and could continue to crash, the fact that we look at every species one-off rather than everything together, and the fact that courts are governing everything that is happening in the Delta, that it is time to make an affirmative decision with as much support as possible to move us ahead for next couple of generations, and that is what we are on the edge of doing.”

Mr. Laird said that he feels good about this direction:   “What we’re trying to do is get people to realize that this is really different.  There’s never been a time it’s been science-based.  There’s never been a time when that a project hasn’t been much, much bigger.  There’s never been a time when the status quo was worse.  And we have to think about this and people have to engage in a way that their interests are represented and taken care of.  And I feel like people are hearing that that is what we’re doing, and we’ve laid out and opened the process and given them a chance to do it.  But there are many, many different deadlines and thresholds over the next year that there will be a chance for people’s opinions to be heard, and to make sure that what we say we intend to do is in fact what the project is doing.”

At that point, Mr. Laird did take questions, but the questions were inaudible on the recording, and the recording abruptly cut off after a few questions.  This speech was transcribed from this video.

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