Melinda Terry: Listening to the Delta

This is the first of a three-part series of posts written especially for Maven’s Notebook by Emily DeMarco that will take a look at the Delta and California water through the eyes of those who are on the front lines of the debate.  We begin with Melinda Terry, Manager of the North Delta Water Agency.  Next Wednesday, Kate Poole of the Natural Resources Defense Council is profiled, and we’ll wrap up the series the following week with Chuck Bonham, Director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

Terry 3Melinda Terry had reached a breaking point. She set her jaw, gripped either side of the wooden podium, and lectured the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) Finance Working Group in a voice laced with frustration and anger. Although known for bringing an emphatic but respectful, clear-eyed manner to the often heated conversations about the BDCP, this time Terry’s disappointment with the draft Statewide Economic Impact Study sharpened her tongue.

Discarding “sham” and “deceitful” as adjectives too charitable to describe the draft report, which estimates the statewide benefits of the proposed BDCP, she settled on “fraud” at the August 8th meeting. Her severe assessment comes from what she sees as the state’s continued failure to plainly communicate the true costs of the proposed tunnels on Delta communities.

Since 2008, Terry has managed the North Delta Water Agency (NDWA) while simultaneously serving as the Executive Director of the Central Valley Flood Control Association. As head of the NDWA, Terry is a key link between Delta communities and policymakers, and she strives to voice certain concerns of Delta residents to officials while translating the techno-speak of official documents for her constituents. She represents North Delta landowners, mostly farmers, on 300,000 acres that are ground zero for the two proposed 40-feet wide tunnels.

The NDWA exists solely to administer and enforce a 1981 contract between the agency and the state Department of Water Resources (DWR) that assures “a dependable water supply of suitable quality” for the agency’s constituents. The contract cannot, however, protect North Delta residents from other adverse impacts of the proposed BDCP. Terry contends that “some Delta residents will be forced to abandon their homes without just compensation because of lowered property values, construction noise and vibration, lack of potable water for everyday living, and inability to farm.”

She is familiar with these impacts because she has spent evenings in her Sacramento office doing what a number of people in the world of California water management will find familiar, pouring over page after page of documents for the BDCP, the Delta Plan, and the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan among others. She’s the first one to tell you, with a weary laugh, that her job keeps her busy with “lots and lots of reading.” The BDCP alone is over 40,000 pages while the Central Valley Flood Protection plan, adopted by the state in 2012, was over 20,000 pages. Her eyes get tired, and her vision gets blurry. But she keeps at it, reading for up to 20 hours a week sometimes, because she believes that “words have meaning” and that you “really have to understand what [state officials] are doing here.” For the North Delta communities she represents, she has been their eyes on thousands of pages and their pen on hundreds of comments, trying to tease out and call attention to the details of the BDCP that will have the most important impacts on communities like Courtland, Hood, and Walnut Grove.

She admits, “I’m chasing my tail most of the time, trying to stay one step ahead of comment deadlines and meetings.” It doesn’t help that her office consists of only her and her administrative assistant. Her longest days are when the duties of her two positions overlap, and she finds herself flipping between paragraphs about tunnel dimensions and levee vegetation management strategies.

For many people, the tunnels are only two lines drawn on a map.  They begin around Clarksdale and stretch to just north of Tracy, neat and clean. But Terry can already hear the hammering of thousands of pile-driving strikes each month. She can feel the vibrations from rumbling machinery. And she can see the muck piles—heaps of Delta soil exhumed to make way for the tunnels—that will litter the Delta landscape. Individual piles are proposed to cover between 100 and 570 acres and reach 25-feet high. In order to dig, construction crews will lower the water table in the vicinity of the tunnels. Terry worries about abandoned houses and fields when wells dry up. “No one in those exported areas would allow something similar in their areas. No one. There’s no way you can deny it’s sacrificing one part of the state for another,” she noted.

IMG_3776Terry wants public meetings, that discuss these “unavoidable impacts”, and she wants some of these meetings to take place in the Delta itself, amongst the people whose lives will be altered the most. “It’s still really hard to do communications in an area like the Delta,” she says. Social media and email don’t work as well, according to Terry, because they’re not as personal. Communication still works best here by getting face to face—in meetings at Lions Clubs and Rotary Clubs—and Terry seeks out these places to speak with the people she represents.

She doesn’t shy away from these encounters. Her background as a lobbyist, where she “got paid to talk,” has prepared her for getting out and doing this sort of face to face communication. And she’s “come to truly appreciate the Delta area, the sanctity of 6 – 7 generations of family farmers  . . . and the importance of maintaining the Delta as the tranquil, agrarian society that it has been for 150 years,” she says. Having her constituents express their appreciation for the effort she puts in her work is what keeps her going. Her motivation: the “constant thank-you’s that I get from people.”

Even with her frustrations, Terry says that it’s a myth that the North Delta Water Agency is flat-out against the BDCP. She wants to see the process succeed, but she’s uncertain the state is on the right track. “Are you sure we’ve evaluated all the opportunities? Is this the only way? Or are there others, without making these drastic, permanent changes in the Delta?”

Others have echoed Terry’s concerns that the BDCP planning process has not adequately included Delta communities. At a state Senate joint informational hearing on the BDCP in May, Senator Wolk noted that, “The Delta is not involved. You will never solve this problem without them being at the table.” Senator Hannah Beth-Jackson followed up by saying, “If that’s the problem, let’s fix the problem . . . It makes sense to me that we figure out how we get the Delta to the table.”

On August 15, BDCP officials released proposed changes to the locations of the tunnels, shifting them further east and away from towns like Hood and Courtland. The changes are in “response to landowners concerns,” says DWR. Natural Resources Secretary John Laird noted that the changes “reflect conversations with dozens of Delta residents and landowners.”

Still, Terry’s sense of outrage continues to grow on behalf of fellow Californians she feels are being shut out of the process completely or included in name only: “We expect some response and empathy from the state and to be an actual part of the process. People shouldn’t be made to feel like the public meetings are just the state dotting it’s i’s and crossing it’s t’s. People would like to feel like they mean more than that to their state.”

Emily DeMarco is pursuing a master of environmental science and management at the Bren School at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is currently specializing in water resources management and environmental communication. 

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