Downstream vengeance in California

by Bill Hatch
Rep. Devin Nunes, a Republican from the biggest cow county in the USA, Tulare CA, booted home his San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act (HR 1837) to a big win in the House two weeks ago. An old-fashioned Western water grab got the Tea Party all hot and a few Blue Dog Democrats slithered along for the ride.
The Act is worthy of all truce-breaking acts the world over through history back to the time the goddess Athena persuaded godlike but stupid Pandaros to shoot an arrow into Helen’s husband, Menelaos, prolonging Homer’s Iliad for 23 more chapters.
Ol’ Devin sat downstream south of where the bed of the San Joaquin River ran dry all his life until last year, in a part of California where the Dairy Queen consorts with King Cotton in the Land of Fruits and Nuts. A leader of his people and defender of his region, he fired off a salvo of missiles aimed at destroying the modest advances of civilization made among upstream jurisdictions since the last dry winter. As usual in the history of irrigation societies, the downstream users are more belligerent, aggressive, autocratically organized (more corporation-like in our era), and richer than the more individualist, democratic, numerous,  and more disorganized and middling farmers and river people of the Delta.
President Obama said he’d veto HR 1837 if it ever got to him. The president is not going to get many votes down stream in the Land of the Dairy Queen, King Cotton and the Fruits and Nuts. But he’s got a good shot with the river people. In California, among the coastal urban masses, it is considered boorish to mention the subject of water.
 Ordinarily, the Great Shield against such southerly missiles would be Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA. But 78-year-old DiDi is running for reelection again this year and one of the largest supporters of HR 1937, the Shah of the Land of Fruits and Nuts, Stewart Resnick and his Queen Consort, Lynda, just did a big fundraiser for the senator. Resnick’s Roll International owns the largest citrus, almond and pomegranate orchards in the nation, two San Joaquin Valley water banks, Fiji Water, Pom Wonderful and much else besides. Old Valley hands wonder if Feinstein will “pull a Cranston,” a reference to former Sen. Alan Cranston, who sold his vote to the largest cotton farmers in the nation with an amendment exempting them on a key provision in the federal Reclamation Reform Act of 1982.
Feinstein met with HR 1837 co-author Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, on Friday. Denham, who claimed before the House Rules Committee that his home county since his recent election to Congress, Stanislaus, lies "north of the Delta," wavers between stupidity and mendacity at the best of times, so it is hard to know what might have been discussed between the two great leaders. Central Valley residents wonder if the Sutter Buttes be renamed the "Stanislaus Buttes" soon, if Denham decides to jump to yet another congressional district bankrolled by yet another Indian casino?
The malevolent intent behind the HR 1937 already threatens the fragile truce in which state and federal agencies, property owners and local, state and federal legislators attempt to simply stop the bleeding in the dying ecology of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and attempt to put water back into reaches of the San Joaquin that have been dry for 60 years and reintroduce salmon to the river. For a moment lasting several years, war weary stakeholders met around large tables, produced tons of paperwork, just recently released, earnestly tried to believe that the same kind of engineers that designed the destructive system could make it “sustainable” and “find the balance between urban, farm and ecological use” of Delta water. Meanwhile, others were working on restoring channels in the San Joaquin that had been dry for decades and dealing with seepage issues that had not occurred in the lifetimes of most of the farmers along the river.. It was a time of negotiation, give and take, trust building and slow, small, solid accomplishments – despite the rhetoric about restoring balance, creating sustainability, using the best science, and managing fairly – and with truly intense public outreach, too. It was a time when the informed public could at least have a sense that maybe a little more of what is left to save might be saved as a result of the efforts.
The bare elements of the geography are that the two longest rivers in California, the Sacramento in the north and the San Joaquin in the south, flow toward each other and meet in the Delta in the middle of the 400-mile long Central Valley. The valley north of the Delta is called the Sacramento Valley; the south is called San Joaquin Valley. The San Joaquin Valley is further divided by the San Joaquin River, which flows from its headwaters between Yosemite and Kings Canyon national parks across the Valley and then north to the Delta. Historically, the valley south of the San Joaquin River was known by the names of two lakes, Buena Vista and Tulare which, when floods joined them composed the largest freshwater lake west of the Great Lakes.
The Friant Dam interrupts the flow of the San Joaquin River at the eastern edge of the Valley and for 60 years has been diverting 95 percent of the river south through the Friant-Kern Canal. The Bureau of Reclamation felt no duty toward the anadromous fish living in the river, so on their return from the ocean they could not spawn and died.
Two gigantic canals flow south out of the Delta through the flat west side of the Valley right next to the north-flowing San Joaquin River. The water from the two canals, one state, the other federal, flow south to the San Luis Reservoir, where it is stored and released to agriculture and for drinking water in the south Bay Area and in Southern California. South of the San Luis Reservoir on the west side of the Valley the water war is always simmering if not blazing in courts, legislatures and the media because it is the worst land in the whole irrigation system and the farmers have the most junior water rights, which means the amount of water they get is dependent on the Sierra snowmelt flowing through the Delta.
Except for remote areas, most of California is developed beyond the capacity of its resources to sustain themselves. Practically, this means that every dry winter we have – and this is the arid West – causes ever rising levels of panic in downstream cities and agriculture. When, in moments of truce, we can come together enough to admit even publicly that the Delta is dying, some modest planning efforts have a chance. Then the water war breaks out again and the plans are forgotten as everyone returns to barricades. All water is local. If you want your locale to grow and prosper or even to survive, you need to secure your water supply (without attention to whose water you are securing). This is called Progress and the West, as we know, is very progressive. The San Francisco Chronicle expressed the dominant and enduring attitude of our culture to any environmental value but exploitation with this editorial in 1913 on that city’s success getting the federal government to build a dam that would flood Yosemite’s twin canyon, Hetch Hetchy, to secure a huge reservoir of Tuolumne River water.
Editorial Sept. 4, 1913
San Francisco Chronicle
"The Hetch Hetchy bill has passed the House, in spite of the factious opposition which it encountered. ... The nature men got very little sympathy and their ridiculous performances were upon the whole probably useful in utterly discrediting cranks who would divert natural resources from any important economic use in order to gratify the alleged aesthetic sensibilities of neurotics and emotionalists. The cult is cantankerous beyond measure and its members care for nobody but themselves, but there are not very many of them ... The West is and always has been a source of great profit to the country, and we who live here insist that, having long ago paid for our estate at a very round figure, we shall be allowed from now on to enjoy its full usufruct without paying further tribute to extortioners."
So much for John Muir and his crowd. Or our crowd.
Ther perverse logic continues, unabated. The districts of Nunes and his staunchest allies on HR 1837, representatives Jeff Denham and Tom McClintock, are all about half national forest and contain many dams and reservoirs as well as the core of the state’s wilderness tourist attractions from Death Valley to the Modoc County Lava Beds. Denham and McClintock are actually carpetbaggers from the coast. But, even so, they apparently have no feeling whatsoever for land. Only for money. That’s called leadership and California is just full of it.
How will HR 1837 plunge California water policy back into the fog of war?
First, it aims to change the federal Central Valley Project Improvement Act. As the Bureau of Reclamation describes it, "In 1992, Congress passed the CVPIA which directed the Bureau of Reclamation to take steps to remedy the environmental harm caused its the Central Valley Project.  The Act prohibited the Secretary of the Interior from entering into any new long term contracts until all ESA and NEPA procedural requirements were fully carried out and potential impacts considered.  It also directed the Central Valley Project to comply with state laws and to elevate fish and wildlife to a co-equal purpose with irrigation in the operation of the project. Finally, Congress ordered the Secretary to incorporate all requirements imposed by existing law into renewed contracts."
The Nunes bill requires that the 800,000 acre feet set aside by the CVPIA for environmental purposes be replaced by 2016. This “environmental water” has been one of the major factors in preserving wild fish through their life cycles in the rivers, including the sea-going salmon and steelhead. HR 1837 removes protections for the Striped bass and American shad, two of the most prominent sport fish in the Delta on the bogus argument that they aren’t native. At this point, they are as naturalized as the English sparrow and the Starling.
The dreary list continues, a catalogue of vengeance against Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez. Miller represents the south Delta and communities around San Pablo Bay. In 1992, he co-authored the CVPIA, which modified the Central Valley Project Act of 1937 to include some environmental safeguards. The CVP has been responsible for water-infrastructure projects in California from Shasta Dam to the end of the Friant-Kern Canal at the foot of the Tehachapi Range, which have made the California water system the largest, most complex in the world. Its major projects include the San Luis Dam, the Delta-Mendota Canal, the Folsom Dam, the Friant Dam and many others.
The CVPIA shortened water contracts for irrigation districts from 40 to 25 years. Nunes’ bill restores the 40-year contracts in the name of water reliance and, other backers assert, financial stability of agricultural operations. The might be so in some instances but not for Nunes’ primary financial backers, whose junior-most water rights (farthest downstream and the last land to be irrigated by the CVP) do not in any way guarantee 100-percent deliveries on contract amounts. In fact, there is a whole arcane game played on the issue of percent of deliveries. The Bureau of Reclamation starts its estimates low at the beginning of March. This year, in what appears to be a very dry winter, the bureau started with a 30-percent estimate. This is actually 5-10 percent higher than it might have been and reflects that the previous winter was wet and the reservoirs are in good shape. During a bad drought that lasted into the early 1990s, one year the bureau delivered no water at all to junior contract holders below the San Joaquin River on the west side of the Valley.
HR 1837 would remove the state Department of Fish and Game from the group of agencies – they would all be federal under 1837 – that decides on rates of stream flow. The two federal agencies the bill adds are not responsible for either terrestrial fish or wildlife.
The elimination in HR 1937 of tiered pricing and the expediting of intra-agency water transfers are code for water districts saving money on costs and streamlining profits on sales, for example, when federally subsidized water at an untiered, low rate for agriculture is resold to municipal water departments, Los Angeles Water and Power comes to mind, at rates many times higher than the cost.
The dismal list goes on but the last two examples show the slow percolations of the Republican mind. It had to be pointed out to them by “big government” Democrats that the provision removing the state fish and game department and prohibiting the state from protecting any species within the CVP profoundly violates states’ rights to manage their own water. It paves the way for Congress to override states’ water laws. The other one is just plain theft from the taxpayer and shows that if you can control a supply of water, as for example Sen. Feinstein’s good friends, the Resnicks do, you can make an enormous amount of money by converting the Public Trust into private gain. If you invest those profits wisely, you’ll have members of Congress returning your phone calls.
HR 1837 directs federal agencies to enact no regulations based on any science after the Bay-Delta Accord in 1994, which initiated a period of collaboration called “CalFed” between state and federal agencies on studies and policies to try to “fix” the Delta. A number of opponents of this bill spoke before the House Rules Committee and on the House floor against this provision, which the last 16 years of scientific study on the Delta.
The bill would also enshrine into law what former Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, did by strangling appropriations. Pombo, chair of the then-called Resources Committee, made sure the CalFed process was never adequately funded. 1837 would guarantee that no science on the Delta will ever be adequately funded again.
Moving on to other matters, HR 1837 would repeal the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Agreement of 2006. This is, if anything, even meaner than the damage Nunes’ paymasters want to do to the Delta. The Delta is broken and too big to be fixed in any known way. Perhaps ways could be invented but it would take funds, trust and collegiality impossible to imagine among the stakeholder combatants, all of whom know that all it takes in one jackass congressman claiming, as Nunes did in 2008 that “80,000” workers would lose their jobs because of environmental regulations protecting a drastically endangered fish, the Delta smelt, the victim of five years of the most massive amounts ever pumped out of the Delta. The real amount of lost jobs was in the range of 6,000. The demand causing that massive pumping and take of endangered species was the result of several factors all impacting Delta fish: the Colorado River Agreement that curtailed supplies to Southern California from that river; the biggest speculative real estate boom the world had ever seen; and huge plantations of young orchards in the southern San Joaquin Valley. The Delta smelt will probably be extirpated as a result of those impacts.
But the San Joaquin River might be fixable. After 18 years in court, a federal judge ruled that the Bureau of Reclamation could not take all the water out of the San Joaquin River, thus destroying historical salmon runs, and divert it into a canal. However, having reached that decision, based on relevant state rather than federal law, the judge urged the environmental groups led by the Natural Resources Defense Council to negotiate with federal agencies and the Friant Water Users Authority to come to a settlement agreement. This was done. The settlement was sent to Congress for appropriations to fund restoration of the river. After three years of war, Congress made the funding commitments and restoration work began and there have already been experimental reintroductions of salmon.
In the words of Revive the San Joaquin, an NGO deeply involved in the restoration: “The San Joaquin River Restoration Program is a river restoration program developed for the 150-mile segment of California’s second largest river between Friant Dam and the confluence of the Merced River.   The implementing agencies include the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service, the CA Department of Water Resources, and the CA Department of Fish and Game.” 
Nunes’ paymasters want to wipe the floors of Congress with that settlement. What they fear and hate most of all is productive collaboration between environmentalists and farmers. When state and federal resource agencies are added to the mix, it violates the underlying plutocratic agribusiness order of things. When they feel threatened they react with things like HR 1837 – crude, intimidating, defended by “passionate” men in full mendacious cry.
Last, the bill contains several provisions that would change water contracts to make them more lucrative to the contractors.
HR 1837 is just the end of another truce violated by paranoid downstream despots who have never wanted to do anything but control all the water they could to continue to irrigate desert land that is rapidly salting up due to irrigation itself and, without being too melodramatic about it, the sweat and tears of people working in the worst paid and hardest jobs in America and the majority of them, not by historical accident are illegal immigrants and have no legal protections against harassment, intimidation, and exploitations of all kinds. Someday all these hydraulic monuments to sheer engineering will fail and the arid West will reclaim itself and begin a slow process of healing, perhaps coming to sustain new generations of humanity at least until their hydraulic technology destroys them again.
Bill Hatch is a writer and environmental activist in the San Joaquin Valley. He can be reached at