Water grab

Proposition 18’s off the ballot, but the governor’s stealth water plan moves forward

Was Proposition 18, the water bond, pulled from the November ballot because Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger figured out an easier way to move Northern California water south?

Was Proposition 18, the water bond, pulled from the November ballot because Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger figured out an easier way to move Northern California water south?

Illustration By CHAD CROWE

Burt Wilson is a long-time political activist who handled media for the anti-Peripheral Canal campaign in 1982. The canal was defeated by a two-thirds vote. Wilson has remained engaged in water issues.

In a surprise announcement at the end of June, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger revealed that he had asked the state Legislature to yank his coveted water bond, Proposition 18, off the November ballot and reposition it for the 2012 elections. Last week, the Legislature gave him exactly what he wanted.

If this leaves you wondering why the governor would abandon the bill he thought would be his greatest gubernatorial victory—a wholesale revision of the California Water Plan—you’re not alone. Such a massive revision was supposed to be Arnold’s supreme political legacy.

Was it really too costly in this era of debt and deficits? Was the presence of too much pork a reason to kill it? Did the governor fear it would be rejected at the polls and cost him some prestige?

No, no and no again. I believe the water bond was pulled because the governor figured out a better way to get a through-Delta-water conveyance system that would do the job the water bill was designed to do, but without all the water bill headaches! In short, here is the outline of Arnold’s secret plan to raid Northern California water and send it south.

Most Californians never did understand the water bond completely, because it was so disingenuously promoted to the public. The deception began with the formation of the governor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force Delta Vision Committee in 2006, which defined and framed the issue as establishing what the group conceived as “co-equal goals” to “restore the Delta ecosystem” and “maintain a reliable water supply.” It was hard for anyone to argue with that.

To the casual observer, these co-equal goals seemed to be a harbinger of good water policy in the works, but far from being co-equal, the dual goals were actually mutually exclusive. In fact, the goals cancel each other out because taking more water from the Delta—to “maintain a reliable water supply” was meant for the entire state! And any more water sent to Southern California would destroy the ecosystem, not save it.

Was the committee really just about creating a smoke screen for a water grab? The answer lies in the machinations of that great hidden force in California politics, the California Business Roundtable. The roundtable foresees a population growth of 20 million new people for California in the next 20 years. Where will they go? Most of them will end up in Southern California.

The CBR and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a major force in the political maneuvering for more water, envision this gigantic influx of people to be a boon to future economic development in the southland.

But only if they can get more water.

The MWD lost its Colorado River water allotment in 2003 and, ever since, has been looking to the north to supply it with more of California’s liquid gold. Long known for its water grab in the Owens Valley, the MWD can’t get any more water from the north without a wholesale revision in the California Water Plan, principally one that mandates the equal distribution of California’s water resources over the whole state which, of course, would mean diverting more Northern California water south.

The Freeport Regional Water Project facility on the Sacramento River boasts state-of-the-art fish screens and eight pumps that can divert 185 million gallons of river water a day.

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The governor’s stealth plan began with the newly created Delta Stewardship Council, led by the crafty Blue Ribbon Delta Vision chair and former Sacramento mayor and state legislator, Phil Isenberg. (Throughout the entire committee process, Isenberg never brought up his conflict-of-interest involvement as a lobbyist for the Irvine Ranch Water District in Southern California.)

The council was created with the passage of Senate Bill 1 by the state Legislature. Its creation did not have to go to a public vote and only required a majority legislative vote, which it got. Even though the use of Delta contributes an aura of localness, its website says its members have a “broad statewide perspective” on water issues. This ties in neatly with the fact that the DSC is empowered to veto or approve anything proposed by the more than 400 water agencies scattered throughout California.

In short, Isenberg was made, literally, California’s water czar—calling the shots for the governor.

The existence of the secret plan surfaced this year, innocently enough, on April 7, with the opening of a new water intake at the Freeport Regional Water Project facility on the Sacramento River at Freeport. This facility, complete with state-of-the-art fish screens, has eight pumps that are able to divert 185 million gallons of Sacramento River water a day into a tunnel—now under construction—which would eventually serve the Sacramento County Water Agency and the East Bay Municipal Utility District.

At the opening ceremonies, plans were also revealed for five more intake facilities to be built along the Sacramento River from Clarksburg to Courtland. These intakes would handle even more capacity than the Freeport facility. Additionally, plans call for these intakes to be connected to a tunnel which would carry the water south to the Clifton Court Forebay, where it would be pumped south via the California Aqueduct system.

The professed theory behind this move is supposedly to establish a new Delta diversion point that would supplant the Clifton Court Forebay. But it’s really a new through-Delta conveyance system to feed water diverted from the five Sacramento River intakes directly into the Forebay, circumventing the violent sucking action of the two 40-foot pumps there that not only kill fish, but cause the rivers to run backwards, ravaging the levees.

Evidently, Arnold hopes that by showing compassion for the fish (which, incidentally, is the mandate of a federal judge) people will ignore the fact that he’s diverting more water south.

Plans to carry out this scenario include three possible methods to convey the water south from the Sacramento River intake facilities. The middle conveyance route is a deep tunnel running from the Courtland area straight down to the Clifton Court Forebay, where water gets pumped south.

So, to repeat, what we have here is the prospect of a through-Delta water conveyance system that would not require passage of the water bond itself! Its purpose would be to fuel the future economic growth of Southern California—an effort that will require almost double the water the MWD is getting now. Without the water, nothing can be built because all of the developers there have to assure the state of an adequate water supply in order to start any construction. This is why developers and construction companies were the largest backers of the water bill!

The big question, of course, is: Where will the money for the tunnel and the intakes come from?

This is where Arnold gets really creative. The governor has expressed privately that the authority for building such a conveyance infrastructure and the money to pay for can simply be appropriated by law due to the passage of the Burns-Porter Act in 1960—yes, 1960—which created the original California Water Plan.

Section 12201 of the updated state water code reads, “The Legislature finds that the maintenance of an adequate water supply in the Delta sufficient to maintain and expand agriculture, industry, urban and recreational development in the Delta area … and to provide a common source of fresh water for export to areas of water deficiency is necessary to the peace, health, safety and welfare of the people of the State.”

This document gives the governor the authority to provide facilities to send more Northern California water south because the state water code is state law and is, therefore, seen as a mandate for state funds. As for the money, it can be simply appropriated from the state budget or taken from the billions already set apart for improvements but so far left unspent—the public be damned.

Ultimately, the governor’s stealth plan should be revealed for what it is.

Sending more water downstate to Southern California carries huge risks for Sacramento and Northern California’s environment. Better the Delta Stewardship Council heed the prophetic words of philosopher Henry George, who said, “Taking water from where it is needed and sending it to where it is scarce is simply bad water policy.”