By Tom Elias, Mirror Columnist| The way environmental activists in California’s Delta region tell it, there is no part of government in this state more arrogant than the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California.
The huge MWD, supplier of water to the majority of the state’s populace, is certainly acting the part as it pushes for a project Gov. Jerry Brown is trying to make an irreversible fait accompli before he leaves office (presumably for the last time) at the end of this year.
That’s the so-called “California WaterFix” or Twin Tunnels project to bring Northern California river water to San Joaquin Valley farms and urban Southern California via gigantic culverts running around and through the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers east of San Francisco Bay. (Another desired Brown legacy is the troubled bullet train.)
No one claims the tunnels project would produce much more water than now comes from the same rivers. But Brown and other supporters assert it would make supplies steadier and more reliable.
His administration and other project backers only lately renamed this the WaterFix because that sounds more positive than tunnels. But environmentalists led by the group Restore the Delta see it not as a fix, but a problem which could deprive the Delta and its fish of much fresh water they now get.
After substantial lobbying by Brown, the MWD’s governing board without a public vote this summer committed millions of its customers to pay a large share of the project’s costs. About the only recourse customers might have would be voting out many of the myriad city council members and county supervisors who make up that board. This is highly unlikely, so added water charges for millions of customers are pretty much assured.
It’s much the same in the San Jose-based Santa Clara Valley Water District, whose much smaller board voted narrowly also to help pay the multi-billion-dollar freight. Agricultural water districts in the San Joaquin Valley that stand to benefit most were reluctant to make similar commitments.
The moves by the urban water districts were the embodiment of arrogance by public officials because they were taken with little public input and without say-so from those who will actually pay. No sooner were those votes over than the water districts and the state formed a partnership for designing and building the tunnels, a move plainly aiming to cement the project in place long before a spade is turned.
Meanwhile, the only time anything like the WaterFix plan got a full public hearing came 36 years ago, after Brown and state legislators authorized building a so-called Peripheral Canal to bring water south around the Delta via a large ditch. A statewide referendum eliminated that plan by a resounding margin. It became political anathema for decades, but the idea plainly stuck in Brown’s mind. The WaterFix amounts to an updated, more expensive, version of the ditch Brown backed long ago.
Then there is the move by a Southern California Republican congressman to cement the project via federal law.
This comes from Rep. Ken Calvert of Corona, one of California’s more secure GOP congressmen, not even close to being a Democratic target this year.
Calvert in May quietly slipped language into a proposed budget bill to ban legal challenges of the tunnels, a move that could instantly end more than two dozen current lawsuits by local governments, water districts, recreational and environmental groups and tribal governments. To Brown’s credit, his administration after months of consideration, now opposes that bill, but it is very much alive in Congress.
“A proposal like (this) raises the question: what are the supporters of the tunnels trying to hide?” wrote Democratic Rep. John Garamendi of Mokelumne Hill, the former lieutenant governor who represents part of the Delta area.
Added Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, “bypassing due process and violating states’ rights … creates a constitutional nightmare. Tunnels proponents are attempting to rewrite the rules of the game so they can’t lose.”
The water district votes and the Calvert move both represent almost unprecedented arrogance. That makes it high time for some major public and consumer protests over the manner in which Brown and his allies are rushing the tunnels into reality without permission of the people who will pay for them.