Congressman George Miller on the Delta and water policy: “I think we’ve turned a bit of a corner.”

A Day in the Delta June 2013 #67On September 24th, the ‘Bay + Delta + Water: Better Together’ conference brought over 200 elected officials, agency leaders, and community advocates to Antioch to discuss the important role freshwater plays in the Delta and its impacts on ecosystems, recreation, and the economy.  The half-day conference was presented by the Association of Bay Area Governments, Delta Counties Coalition, and Friends of the San Francisco Estuary.

Keynoting the conference was Congressman George Miller, a long-time advocate for the Delta, who in January of this year, announced he would not seek a 21st term.  Among his accomplishments in his 40 years in office, Congressman Miller was the chief sponsor of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act of 1992, which mandated that the federal government’s Bureau of Reclamation manage the Central Valley Project in order to better protect the fish and wildlife.  During his speech, he drew on drawing on lessons learned, expressing his optimism that the state had finally perhaps turned a corner.

Here’s what he had to say:

Thank you so much for the invitation to come and talk with you; I appreciate it,” began Congressman George Miller. “But more importantly, I appreciate all of the work that you have done over the past many years as we’ve been through this critical stage of thinking about the future of the Delta and the various ideas of how to fix the plumbing for various reasons; it’s been intense. But I want to thank you so much for all of the organizing that has taken place, for all of the testifying that has taken place, for all of the studies and science that has been developed. It’s been remarkable. And I think that it’s given voice to the Delta-Bay area like we’ve never had in the past.”

Miller 1It’s not that I’m a hero, but there was a long time where I was the only one. And now we have a remarkable delegation of members of Congress who are deeply concerned with this issue, from the entire North Coast into the northern valley here and across the Bay Area and the southern coast, because the implications of that policy are becoming more and more apparent to everyone in a broader region, both in terms of economics, in terms of quality of life and the livability of communities, and whether or not we can support these great species of fish and whether or not they will continue to provide sustenance in so many ways to our communities and to our businesses and to our economy.”

He acknowledged the effort and support that the agencies, counties and others have spent meeting with his political peers and others on this issue. “I think it has in fact paid dividends,” he said. “I leaned over to Phil Isenberg and said, ‘I’m going to be a little optimistic today,’ and he looked at me like, ‘What the hell are you talking about,’ but it’s not about optimism of what we [the Congressional delegation] have done at this stage … really it’s about what we have done here in terms of some accomplishments and avoiding some huge premature and in fact, dangerous decisions, and hopefully have blunted what people thought they were going to be able to do in the Congress.”

[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]“The most important part about that was in [the 2009] legislation, a commitment was made to a healthy Delta, a commitment was made that these values were coequal, and .. that there was also going to be a commitment to the science and there was going to be a commitment to changing all of our behaviors.”[/pullquote]

That flight isn’t over yet; it’s on the edge of either taking off or just sort of running out the runway, we don’t know what’s going to happen there. But I would argue that those actions may be out of fashion, given the other decisions that have been made in the State and proceeding from the actions in the State. We’ve really gone from sort of just throwing chairs—in a bad barroom fight you throw chairs and get the hell out of the room before they beat you up so you live to fight another day—that’s been Delta policy for a long time. But now it’s much more consistent, it’s much more integrated, it has much more depth to it, and it’s very clear that your voices and those you represent are being respected more and more in the decision-making process, and that’s really what we didn’t have.”

I think that’s why you see not only the landmark legislative package of 2009 where the decision was that these would be about coequal goals–I spent a lot of hours with Phil saying, ‘Does this equation really work, this coequal business?’ and he assured me that it would [pause for laughter]. “The most important part about that was in that legislation, a commitment was made to a healthy Delta, a commitment was made that these values were coequal, and it was also, I think, a recognition that this was going to be a long, difficult slog, but that there was also going to be a commitment to the science and there was going to be a commitment to changing all of our behaviors.”

The drought has put all the meetings, decision-making, and legislation front and center with respect to what the state does, Congressman Miller said. “I will say this – I think that both the state and the federal agencies, working under the direction of the Biological Opinions, did a remarkable job of trying to squeeze the last bit of water out of the Delta that they could within—and this is the important part—within the Biological Opinions. There are those of us who’ve always been concerned that they would be swept aside and we’ve seen efforts to sweep them aside both legally and politically—and they were upheld. And we were able in those March events, with serious coordination, to respond to those water events and maybe improve the yield of the system in a balanced way. Obviously with some of this, it takes a couple of years to find out whether that was so or not. But I think it gave credibility to the idea that people were now dedicated to these dual values – to both a sustainable delivery system and to the Delta. I probably seem to be harping on that, but after 40 years it’s the first time I’ve seen it, so I want to make sure that we all recognize it, and that it is a continued commitment. …

Miller 2I think that there is a review to be presented to the public, both politically and operationally, about how the state, federal agencies and local agencies have worked together in this drought. It would be optimistic for the public to hear that,” he said. “But the institution that I work in, they go blind … who are these crazy people back there?–where they see nothing but fighting and fighting and disagreement and sort of, pincer movements run one direction or the other trying to grab the high ground in this issue, unfortunately. For the most part, most of the Congress has taken a look at what the Governor, the Legislature, and you all have put together and that looks much more reasonable and sustainable than these legislative attacks that have been directed at the Delta.”

The idea that people never quite understood was that there was not groundwater monitoring in California—that is a major breakthrough.  I think if you look at this, you start to see a trend that is very different than the trend that lead up to 2009 in political actions and in policy results, and I think that that’s important.”

[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]“Over my 40 years, we’ve educated Congress that there’s nothing like a good water fight.  We’ve been at this a very long time, so many of you have, but I think my conclusion would be that we’ve turned a bit of a corner.”[/pullquote]

All of the reviews aren’t in; all of the work hasn’t been completed, and there’s much to be on guard about, because as we enter the fourth year of a drought, all of the tensions are going to be substantially increased,” he said. “But that’s why you’re here today, because I think we have to think in an anticipatory fashion of how we’re going to address the public, as they enter into a time where there will be high anxiety in many, many communities and many, many businesses in many sectors of our economy. … So often, the nightly news is just on Washington, it’s not on local communities, it’s not on boards of supervisors, it’s not on city councils, and it’s not on the State Legislature to the extent that it could be.”

Although I must say that over my 40 years, we’ve educated Congress that there’s nothing like a good water fight.  We’ve been at this a very long time, so many of you have, and I can’t thank you enough, but I think my conclusion would be that we’ve turned a bit of a corner. … My theory is that people are starting to recognize that you’re not going to be able to just take what you want. That’s not going to work in this system. I don’t think it any longer works politically, and clearly isn’t going to work if in fact you’re going to follow the science.”

Sometimes it’s difficult to follow the science,” he acknowledged. “But I think we’ve educated a lot of people that to not do that is to really rain down really bad results over the long term for those characteristics that are so important in the functioning of this great estuarine system. … There’s a lot of concern with the idea that you can just make this a national sacrifice area for the delivery of water to the southern part of the state … we were always on the edge of doing exactly that. But because of the actions of so many of you in this room and so many years of dedication and expertise and talent, we’ve started to turn that corner and I say as one retiring, it’s exciting to see the sun coming up as I’m leaving. Because I thought maybe I’d turn on my water one day and there’d be a note from Westlands or something saying, “Ha, ha, ha, ha!

Antioch Bridge Mar 2012 #4As my father used to say, ‘if you’re going to get into politics, you’ve got to get into it like you’re killing snakes,’ and I’m sorry for people who like snakes but I don’t. I’ve always looked around the corner when I’m hiking and to see what’s going on, but I also tap my stick to let them know I’m coming and so that it’s been a fair fight. But we would not be where we are today without your work and that’s the key note that I wanted to leave with you. You’ve made a lot of trips to Washington and to a lot of meetings, that in some cases may sound fairly esoteric to your constituencies, on the board of supervisors and the council, but I think they have the ability to try to review what has taken place. I’ve asked that we have some sort of year-end report of how we got through these different levels of government to achieve the consensus that we have for the moment.”

We’ve got a lot to do, and there’s still work left over from the earlier acts,” he said. “I did the Central Valley Improvement Act in 1992, and I was on defense ever since then. And there wasn’t any year, there wasn’t any time, there wasn’t any month, there wasn’t any week when there wasn’t somebody trying to amend it, change it, repeal it, or what have you. But it also recognizes balance that we were not going to sacrifice our great wildlife environments for the sake of an old-fashioned way of irrigation. And it’s still alive, it’s still well, and in fact it has been superseded by some of these actions and consensus that we hope to build.

[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]“Sometimes it’s difficult to follow the science, but I think we’ve educated a lot of people that to not do that is to really rain down really bad results over the long term for those characteristics that are so important in the functioning of this great estuarine system.”[/pullquote]

You’ve done a hell of a job building that, so thank you so very very much from the bottom of my heart. I can’t tell you what it means to now have members of my delegation be fully engaged in this effort on behalf of the Delta and the Bay Estuary and the whole watershed and its impact on that, and it’s really an exciting change. In Washington DC, so much of that has been driven by your advocacy on the issues, and your advocacy in terms of the politics of the people we represent.

Thank you very much.

During the question and answer period, Congressman Miller was asked, if you were king for the day, what would you have Bay and Delta communities do together to improve freshwater flows? What can we do better as a larger community to improve the estuary?

The problem with this is, there’s a lot we can do but you also have to have a partner because there’s a whole series of individuals and entities that have their eyes on that same water, but I think what the Bay-Delta community can show is there’s actions that can take place.” He referenced how Congress stopped providing funds under Title XVI for recycling and reuse of water, as the current committee chairman has treated them as earmarks, and Congress ruled out earmarks a couple of years ago. “That’s truly unfortunate … These projects are becoming increasingly important … [we need] to get the Congress to understand these are not earmarks, these are just partnerships between state, federal, and local governments, to develop these alternative supplies of water for reuse, recycling, that can make a big difference in communities.”

This is about going back and making systems much more efficient. I think really the most important thing to me again is I think the principle has been raised that you don’t get to whack one area of the state for another. And that’s what in fact you’d be doing, because with 30+ million people, there’s not enough tolerance left in the system. So you have to figure out, as we have, how do you replace this water, how do you conserve this water, how do you reuse this water over and over again? And that can be a very successful model in terms of generating several million acre-ft. of water. Then you’re going to have to figure out how you’re going to allocate that, it just can’t be the first person past the bar, or the largest operator.

“The idea that one sector of the economy is so much more important than the other – this is a state whose economy depends on diversity. And so for that reason, I think the direction that’s started to be taken here with the dual values now suggests that the old days of we were going to steal your water or we were going to withhold your water, or however it was going to be done, is gone, because as was pointed out here, these flows are incredibly important to the health of more than half of the state. And that’s gotta be paramount. People have got to come to see that, and hopefully the California public will start to see that cooperation yields much more water than the water wars of the last 100 years. And that’s the big difference…

Photo credit: Photography of Antioch and conference by Maven (Chris Austin).

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