Yesterday, the Californians for a Fair Water Policy, new coalition that includes Restore the Delta, Food and Water Watch, C-WIN, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and others, held a media call to talk about the release of the Bay Delta Conservation plan documents. “Today the public learns about what Governor Brown is proposing to do to solve our water challenge,” said moderator Steve Hopcraft. “We believe that his plan is the wrong answer to the water resources questions. It is too costly, it will create no new water, and there are much better solutions available.”
On the media call were Bob Wright with Friends of the River, Bill Jennings with California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Zeke Grader with the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Jonas Minton with the Planning and Conservation League, and Barbara Barrigan-Parilla from Restore the Delta. The following is a transcript of the media call.
(Note: There was no media call from the state regarding the release of the documents; had there been, I would have produced similar coverage of it.)
Bob Wright, senior counsel for Friends of River
Government agencies calling the BDCP water tunnels a conservation plan is an attempt to deceive the public. The tunnels would take huge quantities of water away from the Sacramento River and in the process, away from the critical habitats for endangered and threatened species of fish upstream from the Delta. The BDCP tunnels would drive several already endangered and threatened species of fish, including winter-run and spring-run Chinook salmon, into extinction. That would violate the law because the Endangered Species Act commands that each federal agency shall ensure that any action authorized, funded, or carried out by such agency is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered or threatened species or result in the destruction or adverse modification habitat of such species.
The National Environmental Policy Act regulations require that, to the fullest extent possible, agencies shall prepare draft Environmental Impact Statements concurrently with and integrated with environmental impact analyses and related surveys and studies required by the Endangered Species Act. We have been demanding both at meetings and in formal comment letters for many months that the federal agencies comply with the law. We have been demanding that they prepare the written biological assessments and biological opinions addressing possible jeopardy and adverse modification of designated critical habitat so that the public would have this critical information concurrently with and integrated with the draft EIR/EIS documents that were issued this morning.
The agencies have admitted to us that they have not prepared the biological assessments or final or even draft biological opinions on the water tunnels project. The reason the federal agencies are flagrantly violating the clear Endangered Species Act command to produce the biological assessments and biological opinions integrated with the BDCP draft EIR/EIS is that if the scientists are allowed to do their work honestly, their bosses know that the biological assessments and biological opinions will establish that the water tunnels are not a permissible project under the Endangered Species Act.
Because of these deliberate violations of the Endangered Species Act, the public will have what it does not need to make an informed review of the water tunnels. Thousands of pages of advocacy from the consultants that is being paid for by the special interests that want to take the water. The public will not have what it does need, the federal agency biological assessments and biological opinions required by the Endangered Species Act. This cover up avoiding the requirement to produce the biological assessments and biological opinions is intentional. This violation is known ahead of time before reading through the thousands of pages of project consultant advocacy which really is simply not worth the paper it’s printed on.
Friends of the River and its allies will fight to save our rivers, the Delta, the Bay and the fish from the water tunnels in the public arena, in the courts when it is time for months, years, decades, for as long as it takes. Extinction is forever. We and then our replacements will fight it forever, if that is what it takes.
Bill Jennings, Executive Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance
Since the State Water Project began exporting water in 1967, water exports have increased by more than 60% and outflow to the Bay has declined by more than 40%. And since 1967, the flow and water quality standards protecting the Delta inflow, outflow, export ratios, and salinity have been violated hundreds of times without a single enforcement action taken. Likewise, water rights, area of origin, and watershed protection statutes have been ignored. And since 1967, Delta fisheries have collapsed. Population indices of Delta smelt are down 98.9%, striped bass 99.6%, longfin smelt 99.7%, American shad 89.1%, thereadfin shad 98.1%, and splittail, 99.4%. That’s the biological tapestry of an estuary.
Anadromous fisheries have experienced similar declines. For example, steelhead and winter-run salmon are down 91.7%, and 95.5%, respectively. And now the architects that orchestrated this biological catastrophe propose to divert more water around an estuary already hemorrhaging from lack of flow. Moreover, they want to build the tunnels now and decide how to operate them later. This is a death sentence for an estuary.
Federal agencies and independent scientists have scathing criticized the draft versions of the scheme as biased, flawed, and highly speculative, and that it will likely lead to species extinction. The State Water Board has acknowledged that the tunnels will provide less water than presently exported if instream flows and cold water pools sufficient to protect fisheries are established.
Independent economists have pointed out that the huge financial risks will saddle the public with vast debt and undermine regional water self sufficiency, and that the water will simply be too expensive for farmers unless heavily subsidized by urban rate payers.
This water grab is not likely to survive legal challenges for violations of endangered species, water quality, environmental review and water code statutes. Should it though, a fatal obstacle still remains. The projects simply don’t have legal rights to the water they’ve been embezzling for decades. Central Valley water was fully appropriated before 1914. Legal claims exceed actual water five-fold. As the most junior claimants, the projects are essentially left with paper water.
Before a single spade of dirt is turned, we will trigger a full legal adjudication of Central Valley waters. Something then Governor Earl Warren and the water board said was critically necessary more than 60 years ago. And after adjudication, the tunnels, if built, will be left sucking air not water. We cannot allow our fisheries, our farms and communities and future prosperity to be sacrificed to enrich fat valley industrial agriculture that comprises about 3/10ths of one percent of our state economy and is predicated among massive public subsidies, unrestricted pollution, and subsistence wages.
Zeke Grader, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations
The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations represents commercial fishing men and women along the west coast. Among the species we harvest are Chinook salmon from here on the Pacific Coast. Most of those are produced in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Rivers and migrate to the Bay Delta to the Pacific, so we have a direct interest in those fish. I’m also speaking on behalf of the Golden Gate Salmon Association of which I’m vice chairman.
The BDCP from our perspective can be best described as a triple platinum lie – that is, they promised that they are going to save the salmon, after all it’s the salmon that helped trigger this habitat conservation plan under the endangered species act, but in fact, most likely it’s going to destroy our salmon resources and with them, our salmon fisheries certainly in California and Oregon that depend directly on these stocks.
Next, because the screens and the intakes that they are looking at are totally untried and so far have not proven themselves, nor is there going to be an effort to try and test them before the two tunnels go in. Moreover, there’s the question of how the project’s going to be operated and whether we will in fact have the type of flows necessary to get the fish through the rivers and out into the ocean. There’s a type of pulse flows that are required for having a safe estuary where these fish can thrive, so from the standpoint of the salmon, rather than saving them, our best look at this and I think many scientist would agree, it’s going to destroy them, that in fact is the first of what we are calling the platinum lies.
The second platinum lie here is that they are going to conserve the Bay Delta estuary. Well in fact, they are looking at maintaining the current level of diversions, if not increasing them; that is certainly what’s anticipated in the construction of these two massive tunnels. The fact of the matter is that if anything, the Bay Delta needs additional freshwater inflow; it is, after all, an estuary, not a reservoir, and estuaries by their nature require that freshwater inflow to mix with the tidal flows to create that rich biologically-rich brackish water that’s going to be important not only for young salmon, to build strength before they go to sea, but also important for other fish species as well, whether it’s the pacific herring that come in and use the San Francisco Bay for spawning or if it’s Dungeness crab with uses the San Francisco Bay as a large nursery area. So, it’s not going to conserve the Bay Delta estuary, but rather it’s probably going to destroy it with what’s anticipated here.
The third of the platinum lies in this whole BDCP of course is the fact that this is going to provide a reliable water supply. And from our look at it and from looking at climate change, not just acknowledging it but understanding what some of its implications are is that simply this is not the type of system that’s going to provide California with a reliable water system; rather we believe that we’re going to have to be looking increasingly upon local self-reliance and a combination of additional conservation measures, water reuse, and probably the development of an ecologically-acceptable forms of desalination. I think that’s really the way we’re going to be able to get to a reliable water supply and certainly a better water system than what is being proposed here by the BDCP which would destroy our salmon fishery and the most important estuary on the west coast of the Americas. That’s the reason why commercial fishing groups uniformly as well as the salmon fishing coalitions generally are opposed to the BDCP.
Jonas Minton, water policy advisory with the Planning and Conservation League
By way of context, I was actually a deputy director at the California Department of Water Resources that is now promoting this scheme. I call it a scheme because it is not open or transparent. Taxpayers are being asked, pardon me they are not being asked … there are special interests that are going to saddle property tax payers and water users throughout California with about $50 billion of debt. These same special interests have consistently blocked any public vote, be it by the electorate or even the legislature on whether this makes sense. That is taxation without representation.
Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, Executive Director with Restore the Delta
We did launch today at the capital our campaign, Californians for a Fair Water Policy, which is made up of nearly 60 groups to begin with, and while we were holding our rally at the capital, our associates were speaking at the Santa Clara Valley Water District, and the Metropolitan Water District, and those associates, like us, are all opposed to the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, the Brown Administration’s boondoggle peripheral tunnels which was released online today in preparation for what we term a skimpy 120 day public comment response period. 120 days is what citizens of California are being given to review a total of 30,000 pages of documents on perhaps what is going to be the most important decision economically and environmentally for the state of California to be made in the next decade.
What we think is very interesting is that instead of celebrating their seven years of planning today when they released these documents, state officials were on tours at these urban water districts trying to raise that additional $1.2 billion to continue planning the BDCP. This is $1.2 billion that they need to raise that would be placed on the backs of urban water ratepayers through the Metropolitan Water District and the Santa Clara Valley Water District.
In a recent meeting at the Westlands Water District, one of the agricultural units, officials had told their board that truly the project was only 10% designed, but yet today we’ve been given an environmental impact report on a project that needs over $1 billion of additional planning. The Westlands Water District and the Kern County Water Agency receive more water each year than Metropolitan Water District and Santa Clara Valley Water District combined. We think that is very important to make note of, especially when you consider the millions of residents that live within the boundaries of those two urban districts. Yet the big agribusiness growers in Westlands and Kern contribute less than 3/10ths of one percent to the state’s GDP. Westlands is growing almonds on those drainage impaired lands to ship to China, and billionaire farmer Stuart Resnick is growing pistachios on taxpayer and ratepayer subsidized water, all to the detriment of San Francisco Bay and Delta fisheries, Delta family farms and communities. In fact, just recently, friends of the Bay estuary released several letters online they had written to the Resources Agency really questioning where in the BDCP had the analysis been done on the effects of diverting that much water on the San Francisco Bay.
While we’re beginning to reanalyze the BDCP documents in hand, we think it’s important to note today what they are missing. They are missing a finance plan and there is no cost benefit analysis. It’s important to remember that Californians are being asked to give up so much so that Westlands and Kern can continue shipping pistachios and almonds around the world. We’re being asked to sacrifice the greatest estuary on the west coast of the Americas, we’re being asked to sacrifice the largest strip of prime farmland in the state of California, sustainable Delta farms, we’re being asked to sacrifice upstream rivers, part of our Wild and Scenic heritage, we’re being asked to sacrifice Northern Californians groundwater supply, we’re being asked to sacrifice Sacramento River salmon and greater sandhill cranes, and we’re being asked to sacrifice the San Francisco Bay. On top of all that environmental damage, we’re being asked to sacrifice our economic stability once again by taking on more general obligation debt to clean up the mess made by years of excessive Delta water exports and we’re being asked to do this all under the guise of a habitat conservation plan.
You cannot restore an estuary without having significant and essential water flows. We don’t’ think that the sacrifices that we’re being asked for are fair or just or for the benefit of Californians. But the most important takeaway today if for people to remember that there is enough water to protect the Delta and the Bay and to share with our Southern California and Silicon Valley neighbors and their economies that produce and distribute so much to the state. We can share this water in a much more cost effective and sustainable manner than what is being proposed in the BDCP. Regional self-sufficiency is the answer.
Question: The Governor has said that he does not need any more permission from the state’s voters, either financially or authorization-wise, to go ahead with the project. I am wondering what the coalition and the organizations you represent are going to do to stop the tunnels, given that situation?
Barbara Barrigan-Parilla: To answer that question succinctly: One, public outreach to put pressure on the Governor’s office because when people understand the project, they are against it by a significant margin. Two, all kinds of litigation, and the litigation strike team here will probably want to speak about that. And if one and two fail, then we move on to a ballot initiative.
Bill Jennings: I would just point out that there are a lot of hoops that this process has to go through. Certainly beyond the certification of the environmental documents which will be challenged, the docking with the Delta Stewardship Council’s Delta Plan which is already being challenged, and as its merged, it will be challenged again; the change in the point of diversion which is an evidentiary process that will be challenged in court; the development of the water quality control plan, which will be challenged; the 401 permits which will be challenged; the 404 permits, the Corps permits, will be challenged; and then we’ll go through a decade nightmare for California of adjudicating the state’s waters, which should have been done years ago, something that the water boards and previous governors had urged because they knew that the basins had been overappropriated. Adjudication, as Governor Earl Warren said, should precede operation of the Central Valley Project. And as a last resort, I can almost guarantee you there will be a ballot initiative, so this process has a long, long way to go.
Bob Wright: The project is simply not permissible under the federal ESA and that’s why the federal agencies have not prepared and released the required biological assessments and opinions because the bosses of those agencies know that that’s the case. This thing’s going to be stopped one way or the other; beyond litigation and frankly I think more important than litigation, like so many huge environmental disasters, this project is also a giant boondoggle where they are trying to put benefits for huge corporate agriculture on the backs of urban and suburban ratepayers in the cities and suburbs as well as on the taxpayers and so I think across the board, I think this thing’s going to be rejected both in the court of public opinion as well as in the courts of law.
Jonas Minton: That is a particularly timely question. Apparently, many people have forgotten the experiences in the early 1980s where the same governor also tried to force through a peripheral canal project. At that time there was a referendum. It’s not at all impossible that this time there would be an initiative. What is different right now is that BDCP’s proponents are right now asking water districts to advance another $500 million of their ratepayers and in some cases property tax payers $500 million on the bet that this project will make it through. So there’s more to risk than just the loss of face. In this case it’s another half a billion dollars, roll of the dice.
Question: Is anyone aware of any substantive changes from the documents that we saw last spring and over the summer?
Bob Wright: I think one thing you’re going to see is that we’re told at the meeting we had with the federal agencies in November that while the state is going to declare the water tunnels to be the preferred project, the federal agencies are not going to state a preference for the preferred project, and it’s our understanding that that reflects their own belief that their own scientists had been telling them that this is simply not a lawful project under the ESA.
Bill Jennings: I have talked to several people who had received advance copies as participating agencies and had at least gone through searches as to whether their questions were answered, and unanimously they weren’t. I did a quick look to see if they had addressed the issue of the Bay, which was totally ignored in the draft documents and I can’t find where they’ve acknowledged that the Delta outflow is critical to productivity in the bay. I’m not expecting, given the time frame since the draft documents and giving the really scathing comments by the agencies, the federal agencies, the State Water Board, and the US EPA and Fish and Wildlife Service, even the Corps of Engineers was highly critical; given the time frame, I can’t see that they could have made the fundamental changes to answer those concerns. Of course the Delta Independent Science Board heavily criticized it as well as the National Academies, so we’ll go through it … I realize we’re going to have to read 300-400 pages a day, for the 120 days, read, analyze and prepare comments, but we’ll do so. The games afoot.
Jonas Minton: It is significant that the federal government did not identify the tunnels as a preferred project. This increases the risk that a project would actually not be permitted by the federal agencies that participate. That would be the NMFS and US FWS, so again, at the time when the water contractors are being asked to advance half a billion to keep this going, it increases the likelihood that at the end, this project does not happen and those funds of the ratepayers and taxpayers are all down the drain.
Bill Jennings: I hope everyone noticed that there was no joint response from the proponents – the feds were no shows, which probably led to the fact that there’s no formal announcement, just an EIR released, and I think they’ve done a quick press but the feds have not joined in.
Barbara Barrigan-Parilla: It’s also probably worth noting, I’m looking at statements made by water agencies that are part of the BDCP, including the MWD, it’s probably one of the shortest releases I’ve ever seen done by them, there’s no celebration, there’s no recognition of a milestone or achievement or great accomplishment, they just think the plan is great because of course in their eyes it doesn’t continue the status quo where we know it’s just extension of the status quo.
Moderator Steve Hopcraft concluded: We are assailing the failure to conduct the cost benefit analysis of this proposal in addition to the lack of a finance plan, and we want Californians to be aware that the costs would fall on them to subsidize unsustainable mega-growers who get the lion’s share of this water. We believe this project is too big not to fail and that there are much better solutions. We are urging the Governor to rethink this and to embrace a more sustainable water solution.