Fish out of water?

Peripheral-canal opponents claim lobbying and political donations have tainted decision process

The endangered Delta smelt is an important species in the waterway’s food chain. Its decline has been linked to the massive pumps that send Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water to Southern California.

The endangered Delta smelt is an important species in the waterway’s food chain. Its decline has been linked to the massive pumps that send Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water to Southern California.

PHOTO courtesy of california department of water resources

The three-year public process that could lead to construction of the controversial peripheral canal connecting the Sacramento River and the Delta to Southern California has been steered by private interests and campaign contributions, claim conservation groups opposed to the watery delivery project.

The Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force was launched by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in September 2006 as a tool for creating a sustainable long-term water-management program for the Sacramento-San Joaquin river system.

Proponents of the canal include Southern California and Bay Area water agencies and state agricultural interests which have collectively spent hundreds of thousands of dollars influencing the process.

Canal opponents, including environmentalists, commercial and sports fishermen groups and in-Delta farmers, claim the blue-ribbon panel was planted with key individuals likely to support building a peripheral canal and that their input as stakeholders in the process has been ignored.

“The task force ignored a great deal of the recommendations of the stakeholder group,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, campaign director with Restore the Delta, a conservation group in Stockton. “The state just ran this whole process to make it appear like the public had input, but they didn’t really listen to the public. I think it was precalculated by the government.”

John Beuttler, conservation director for the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and one of the 43 stakeholders asked to give input to the task force, shares the same opinion.

“The whole [Delta Vision] process was railroaded by the governor and his resources office,” Beuttler said. He claims the task force based its decisions on the questionable premise of “coequal rights” for water users in Southern California and those within the Sacramento Valley. “Only if there is a surplus of water should the users in the South be receiving what they are.”

Critics of the task force’s recommendations bolster their argument by pointing to lobbying expenditures and campaign donations doled out to task force members and politicians directly involved in the negotiations, including former Sacramento Mayor Phil Isenberg.

According to state records, Isenberg, the blue-ribbon task force’s chairman, received money for lobbying services from the Irvine Ranch Water District while serving in his public role. The district delivers water to more than 300,000 people in Southern California and paid Isenberg’s firm, Isenberg/O’Haren Government Relations, $224,000 between 2007 and 2009.

Isenberg ultimately recommend that the state construct a dual-conveyance canal, which would include a new canal as well as the existing pumping facilities. He told SN&R that the water district’s payments had no influence on his and the task force’s recommendation.

“I advised IRWD I would not represent their views on the task force, nor would I represent them on Delta-related issues during the life of the task force,” Isenberg said.

Monica Florian also sat on the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force. She served as senior vice president for The Irvine Company from 1978 to 2004, during which time the real-estate firm publicly supported building a peripheral canal in 1982, when it appeared on a bond package ultimately rejected by voters.

The dual-conveyance system advanced a step closer to reality last November, when the Legislature approved an $11 billion water bond to fund the water project. The package, which goes to the ballot this November, was assembled largely through the efforts of Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

Critics note that in June 2009, before the package was approved, Steinberg received $7,800 from Stewart Resnick, the billionaire owner of the agricultural firm Paramount Farms and a vocal opponent of water-pumping curtails. Resnick’s wife, Lynda Resnick, contributed an equal amount.

“The Resnicks definitely use their money to influence Democrats around the state, which is disturbing, because Democrats have usually been on our side,” Barrigan-Parrilla said.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg helped broker the deal that placed the $11 billion water bond on the November ballot.


Resnick’s office had not responded by press time.

When asked if Resnick’s contributions had influenced Steinberg’s decision, the senator’s spokeswoman, Alicia Trost, defended the process.

“Naysayers of the bill favor a status-quo approach, which the science indicates only makes the Delta more susceptible to further degradation or a possible catastrophic event that would bring economic and environmental calamity to the Sacramento region’s residents and businesses,” Trost said. “The Legislature and the unprecedented coalition that supported the bill overcame three decades of political and regional fighting and inaction by passing the historic bipartisan water package last year.”

Resnick has actively opposed restrictions on Delta pumping. On February 5, a federal management plan designed to reduce Delta pumping and protect the region’s endangered species was temporarily halted by U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger. Environmental groups filed a countermotion on February 8, and the restraining order was lifted.

However, the protective management plan remains under formal review and Resnick recently asked political ally Sen. Dianne Feinstein to review the science which resulted in the federal mandates, also known as biological opinions. Feinstein, who has received $29,000 in campaign contributions from Resnick, responded promptly by setting a weeklong January hearing with the National Academy of Sciences in Davis, where expert witnesses testified that continued water curtailments were unnecessary.

Feinstein had not responded by press time.

According to Tina Swanson, executive director of The Bay Institute, further review of the biological opinions is unnecessary.

“The science in the biological opinions is extremely sound,” said Swanson, who attended the Davis meetings as an invited speaker and expert on Bay-Delta ecology. “[The opinions] have already been reviewed multiple times, and I don’t see a need to go over it again.”

Opponents of the canal believe it could irreparably damage the already failing Delta ecosystem by removing too much fresh water for its fish populations to survive. Some research presented to the task force, however, said that building a canal to circumvent the Delta could ultimately reduce pump-related mortality of young fish.

“Most of the scientific evidence presented to us strongly suggested that moving the pumping from the South Delta would avoid or substantially minimize the destruction of important fish species during key times of the year,” Isenberg said.

But UC Davis fisheries biologist Dr. Peter Moyle is skeptical about any benefits a canal might provide for the Delta ecosystem. The dual-conveyance system, he said, will likely destroy the remaining fisheries. A single-canal conveyance could work, so long as the canal fully replaces Delta pumps, which are known to kill juvenile and adult fish. Water outtake via the canal must also never be increased from its current levels and should, in fact, be reduced.

Moyle recently co-authored two reports, one with UC Davis and another with the Public Policy Institute of California, in which he expressed his views. The task force ultimately recommended the dual-conveyance system opposed by Moyle. Isenberg said the task force believed that a well-designed-and-operated dual-conveyance system “looked like the best approach.”

Canal opponents agree with Moyle that a dual-conveyance system could be the worst option.

“The ecosystem will collapse,” said Bill Jennings, executive director of the CSPA.

Zeke Grader, the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, also doubts either a single-canal or dual-conveyance system will benefit the Delta’s fish.

“They aren’t going to build this thing to help fish,” he said. “They’re building it to take water. [Canal advocates] have always said that things will get better for the fishery, but not once in 50 years have conditions improved for the fishery.”

Instead, said Grader, long-term increases in pumping and water exports have been followed by long-term declines in fisheries health.

“They say this package will give us money for the fish, but what they need to eventually give is water, because that’s what salmon need,” Grader pointed out. “As one of my aids once said, ‘Salmon don’t swim in money.’”