We cannot wrap up the current state of California water politicking in a meaningful package today. But, one theme runs through the stories below, which are characteristic of what is happening from the federal level to the local level.
The theme is Secrecy. and when public officials behave in noticeably secret ways (beyond the usual levels of concealment always for the national security), and extend the existing forms of secrecy into new areas of crisis, we can be fairly certain that financial speculation is afoot.
In the case of the Feinstein federal water bill for California, that famous mystery wrapped in an enigma, can anyone who has followed the career of this outstanding benefactor of her social equals doubt that extent of the payoff to the Kern County Water Bank, controlling interest owned by Stuart and Lyndia Resnick (via several corporate intermediaries -- Roll, Paramount, etc.), good friends of Feinstein and her husband, UC Regent and California high speed rail contractor, Richard Blum and a heavy contributor to Feinstein's campaigns and to other members of the California congressional delegation.
The second story announces a lawsuit filed in Monterey County by California Rural Legal Assistance and Environmental Law Foundation against the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Board challenging the board's decision to allow growers to keep groundwater data secret, despite the impact of polluted groundwater on the small, predominately farmworker communities in the region experiencing major impacts to drinking water wells.
Up on the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta, farmers made news last week for offering to voluntarily cut their water usage by 25 percent. Their offer was stimulated by thoughts that the state might require worse. While this gesture made news all over the country, what appeared in lower graphs in some stories was the news that reporting of this 25-percent reduction will also be voluntary, since there is no government mechanism for recording the reduction.
Finally, we get to the City of Merced, which the state has put in its top echelon of water spenders, requiring it to reduce use by 36 percent. This, in turn, will require that water meters be installed so that officials can tell how much water people are using.
Public officials of the city, clearly following the lead of their betters at the state and federal level, saw this situation as an opportunity for Secrecy, the mystification of their own enormous authority over Nature. So they appointed an "ad hoc" water committee that lacks real agendas, whose members are not really listed, whose meetings are difficult to find out about, and which does not have to follow the California Public Meeting Law, the Brown Act, because, well, you know, wink, wink, nod, nod ....
So the ad hoc water committee decided to spend several million dollars of public funds to buy a certain kind of water meter for which there is only one supplier in the state and are now debating somewhere at some time whether city workers are going to install the meters or whether the job will go to a private contractor. They made these recommendations to the City Council, which adopted them in an emergency agenda item in a special budget session. There were explanations for the dispatch of the proceedings, mainly the need to move more quickly than proper public processes allow, to beat the deadline of the state guidelines and avoid large fines. On the other hand, all this has been brewing for months and we suggest that had there been a will to handle it truly publicly, it could have been done. The way they did it, with continuing exemptions for industrial users of municipal water, is, in the words of that most ethically sensitive former congressman, Dennis Cardoza, Shrimp Slayer-Merced, "it's troubling."
As any politician knows, there are a couple of ways you can play a situation like this, but the best one is to vote for the contractor who, being grateful, aside from sports tickets, might be counted on for a future campaign contribution for another term on the council or for a higher office ambition might aspire to.
That's how to make it rain in a drought. -- blj
As California withers, federal water bill mired in secrecy
by Michael Doyle
WASHINGTON -- Five months into a new Congress, and deep into a lasting drought, California water legislation still stymies and splits the state’s lawmakers.
Draft copies are tightly held, as if stamped Top Secret. Myriad details are in flux. The legislative timing, though a June 2 Senate hearing could yet happen, remains unsettled. Democrats are divided; some are distinctly unhappy.
It all sounds so familiar, and yet there’s still no telling how this movie ends.
“Right now, I don’t know,” a gloomy sounding California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Thursday, when asked about the prospects for a bill. “It’s very difficult to put something together. Obviously change is controversial, so to propose something and then not to be able to do it makes no sense.”
Feinstein and her staff power the Senate’s drought legislation effort, which so far has labored beneath what several California water experts independently called a “cone of silence.” Though the GOP-controlled House of Representatives will pass a drought bill this summer, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told Western growers last week, it’s the Senate that will make or break legislation.
“We’ve met with people. We’ve talked with people,” Feinstein said. “We’ve taken ideas. We have done everything we can.”
Some other California Democrats, though, denounce Feinstein’s efforts as “very disappointing” and the “same old story.” Politically, the vibes are not good.
Feinstein and House Republicans agreed last year on language to boost water exports south of the environmentally sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, encourage the completion of water storage project feasibility studies and capture more runoff from early storms, among other provisions. A version passed the House in December and died in the Senate.
Staffers for the California House Republicans, including Reps. David Valadao, Jeff Denham and Devin Nunes, have since drafted some 76 pages worth of proposed language. A House bill could be introduced in June, McCarthy advised growers.
The Senate’s followup conversations this year include getting technical questions answered from the Bureau of Reclamation, whose commissioner, Estevan Lopez, was recently touring California. Substantive policy questions are being run past Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration, which opposed legislation drafted last year. Northern California lawmakers are being asked what they’d like.
But so far, no joy.
The Brown administration, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., said Friday, seems “ambivalent at best” about Senate proposals. The Obama administration is cautious; knowing, Costa said, “enough about California water to know it’s full of landmines.”
And on Capitol Hill, Feinstein’s fellow Democrats are her biggest critics.
“We certainly hear about it, involving a sub-group of stakeholders working on drafts that we haven’t been allowed to see,” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., said in an interview. “Far from a transparent regular order, it feels like we’re right back to secrecy and exclusion, and that’s very disappointing.”
Complaints about secrecy and exclusion helped undermine legislation last year. Huffman and six other Northern California Democrats subsequently met with Feinstein in January.
That was their high-water mark. Since then, the lawmakers who represent the Delta say they’ve effectively been shut out even though they’ve been asked what they want.
“It’s a terrible way to do a bill,” Huffman said. “Instead of trying to do this right, which is inclusive, deliberate and transparent, this is a secret jam job.”
One of Huffman’s Southern California colleagues, Rep. Grace Napolitano, said she, too, “wasn’t included” in water bill negotiations. The former chair of the House water and power subcommittee, Napolitano said she hasn’t been informed how the legislation might affect Los Angeles.
“I have no idea what they’re putting in there to deal with the next drought cycle,” Napolitano said.
A third California Democrat who represents part of the 1,100-square mile Delta, Rep. John Garamendi, allowed that Feinstein’s staff had asked him what he wanted in a California water bill. But when Garamendi asked what else is in the bill, he said, he was shut out.
“Sen. Feinstein is moseying around with something, but she won’t tell us what,” Garamendi said in an interview. “Same old story. . . . Those of us that represent the Delta and San Francisco Bay are not included in the process.”
Advocates of Feinstein’s approach counter that it’s pointless to bring in the Northern California Democrats since they will never vote for the drought legislation anyway, as it could end up steering water from their region to San Joaquin Valley farms
“It doesn’t do any good to say, ‘Let us see your language so we can rip it apart,’” Feinstein said.
Portions of the legislation have been shared with certain advocacy and interest groups; including, Garamendi said, at least one environmental group. More than mere process, this matters, as the legislation’s fate could turn on the adequacy of this outreach.
“I’m going to do everything I can to make sure the voices of all Californians are heard,” Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer said Friday.
Also in the loop are select non-California congressional staffers, including one representing Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Murkowski got her first up-close look at California’s drought in early April, when she toured a ruined orchard and held a campaign fundraiser at the Sunnyside Country Club in Fresno.
Murkowski could get a followup look with a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Although nothing is publicly scheduled, some influential California water officials already have reservations for a return to Capitol Hill in anticipation of a possible June 2 hearing.
Environmental Group and Monterey Resident Sue Regional Water Board Over Water Pollution Secrecy
Current policy allows coalition of growers to prevent access to groundwater nitrate pollution data.
Source: California Rural Legal Assistance
On May 8, 2015, Carmen Zamora, a resident of rural Monterey County represented by California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. (CRLA) and co-plaintiff the Environmental Law Foundation (“ELF”) filed a lawsuit seeking an end to the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board’s policy of allowing growers to keep groundwater data secret. The suit, filed in San Luis Obispo Superior Court, claims the policy violates the California Public Records Act and the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Act.
Nitrate pollution is the main threat to drinking water for farmworker communities throughout the Central Coast Region. Contaminated water seeps into these communities’ aquifers from irrigated agricultural operations. Drinking water polluted with nitrate harms people in many ways, and children are particularly vulnerable: birth defects, cancer, potentially deadly “blue baby syndrome,” thyroid, spleen, and kidney disease.
The lawsuit claims that an agricultural group, known as the Central Coast Groundwater Coalition, keeps data related to nitrate pollution secret. State law and regulations require growers to test well water, report the results to affected users, and report to the Board on efforts to protect the users, such as providing alternative sources of drinking water. All the information is public. Instead, the Board’s policy allows only the growers’ Coalition to perform all testing, receive the results, decide whether the data are “valid,” decide whether the testing data show elevated nitrate levels, notify the polluter, and receive confirmation letters back from the grower. The Coalition keeps to itself all records of compliance and other materials; it cuts out the Regional Board and the public entirely.
The suit claims it refused a request to release any records at all under the Public Records Act. The suit also claims that the Board’s policy allowing secrecy violates California’s Water Code.
Ms. Zamora, represented by California Rural Legal Assistance, spent two years seeking documents and data and attempting to convince the Regional Board to abandon this policy. In the face of the Board’s refusal, the lawsuit asks the court to do what the agency would not: withdraw its policy and turn over the requested documents.
“Small communities like Ms. Zamora’s need to have access to information about where contaminated water exists and to be able to verify that residents have been notified about their water being contaminated,” said Pearl Kan, CRLA attorney.
“The Regional Board’s policy violates fundamental principles of democratic governance,” said Nathaniel Kane, attorney for ELF. “The Board has delegated its regulatory authority over growers to a group which is entirely controlled by the growers themselves.”
“Public agencies cannot hide behind private parties to shield what would otherwise be considered a public document,” said Cherokee Melton, attorney for the First Amendment Project, which represents both ELF and Ms. Zamora. “To allow that would render the Public Records Act and everything it stands for meaningless.”
“Low-income rural residents like Ms. Zamora have a right to know where contaminated drinking water is located in their community,” stated Mike Meuter, CRLA Director of Litigation, Advocacy and Training.
Water cuts move to senior rights-holders
SACRAMENTO (AP) — California farmers who hold rights to water that date as far back as the Gold Rush are bracing for their first state-ordered conservation in decades, as a record drought prompts some of the deepest cuts yet in the country’s most productive agricultural state.
After telling cities and towns to slash use by 25 percent and curtailing water deliveries to some farmers and others, state officials said Wednesday they would start mandatory cuts this week to the state’s oldest rights holders, historically spared from water restrictions.
Regulators said those first orders Friday will impact holders of century-old water rights in the watershed of the San Joaquin River, which runs from the Sierra Nevada mountains to San Francisco Bay and is one of the main water sources for farms and communities.
Meanwhile, a second category of senior rights holders — farmers who hold longstanding claims to water because their land lies along the waterways of the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta — are making a surprise effort to stave off that kind of curtailment order.
They are offering to voluntarily reduce their water use by a quarter. Officials promised a decision Friday on that offer, which would yield on some of the most iron-clad water rights in California, as they try to chart a path forward for a state locked in its driest four-year period on record.
“For me, 25 percent I can handle,” said Gino Celli, who farms 5,000 acres of tomatoes, alfalfa and corn in the delta. “Anything more than that, man, I’m done.”
It is unclear whether the farmers’ offer of voluntary cuts would go far enough to save waterways that are drying up around much of the state, following a winter of below-average rainfall and record-low snows in the Sierra Nevada.
Farmers use 80 percent of all water taken from the land in California. Senior water rights holders alone consume trillions of gallons of water a year, although the state doesn’t know exactly how much water they use because of unreliable data collection.
Regulators don’t have widespread remote sensors or meters to make sure water isn’t diverted.
The cutback orders instead are enforced by honor system and complaints. Only a fifth of junior water rights holders already told to stop pumping from the San Joaquin watershed have confirmed they were complying, a water board official said Wednesday.
Agriculture experts say they expect only modest immediate impact on food prices from any cuts to the senior water-rights holders.
Farmers will likely use their limited water to grow valuable crops — like almonds — and less valuable crops — like alfalfa — will be grown outside of California, said Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis.
The mandatory cuts scheduled for Friday would be the first to the state’s senior-water rights holders overall since the 1970s, and first to senior water-rights holders along the San Joaquin in memory.
“This is challenging. It’s not about making everyone happy,” said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the state Water Resources Control Board, told participants at a public hearing Wednesday on the drought. “It’s about figuring out how to make terrible choices in the most fair and equitable way possible.”
Board Director Tom Howard said that whatever he decides on the farmers’ offer will apply beyond the river delta to the entire basin of the Sacramento River, which supplies most of the surface water in the food-producing Central Valley and the drinking water to homeowners as far south as San Diego.
That deal would not apply to hundreds of other right holders with claims to water before 1914, among few groups spared cutbacks in four years of record dry, until now.
California’s water rights system — which Gov. Jerry Brown acknowledges as “somewhat archaic” — is built around the claims staked in the 19th century. Nearly 4,000 companies, farms and individuals are first in line to receive water because they made claims to water before 1914 or have property touching a waterway.
The ranks of senior water-rights holders include the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles and rural irrigation districts that supply thousands of farms.
Regulators haven’t ordered those claimants to stop pumping since 1977, during the state’s last major drought. That order applied only to dozens along a stretch of the Sacramento River, and the water board has since gained new power to punish those who illegally take water, including $10,000 daily penalties.
Delta farmer Rudy Mussi already has ordered tomato plants and prepared fields, and said he needs to know how often, or if, he can water them.
“Until the fine print is out, I don’t know,” Mussi said Wednesday about joining the farmers’ offer of 25 percent cuts. “If I can make it work, hey, I’ll do my darndest.”
Brown has come under criticism for sparing farmers with senior water rights from the mandatory cutbacks. Increasing amounts of the state’s irrigation water goes to specialty crops like almonds, whose growers are expanding production despite the drought.
Mandatory orders could put some farmers in the Delta east of San Francisco out of business, said John Herrick, manager of the South Delta Water Agency.
When the state cutback order comes, Herrick said, the farmers will immediately try to block it in court.
“That doesn’t mean we’ll win,” Herrick said. “But that’s what we’ll do.”
California farmers agree to drastically cut water use
Ellen Knickmeyer and Scott Smith
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- California farmers who hold some of the state's strongest water rights avoided the threat of deep mandatory cuts when the state accepted their proposal to voluntarily reduce consumption by 25 percent amid one of the worst droughts on record.
Officials hope the deal agreed upon on Friday will serve as a model for more such agreements with growers in the nation's top-producing farm state, where agriculture accounts for 80 percent of all water drawn from rivers, streams and the ground.
"We're in a drought unprecedented in our time. That's calling upon us to take unprecedented action," Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the state Water Resources Control Board, said in announcing the agreement.
The rare concession from the farmers is the latest indication of the severity of the water shortage in California, which is suffering through its driest four years on record.
California water law is built around preserving the rights of so-called senior rights holders - farmers and others whose acreage abuts rivers and streams, or whose claims to water date back a century or more, as far back as Gold Rush days.
The offer potentially could cover hundreds of farmers in the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, the heart of California's water system. About 25 percent of all California river water runs through the delta, according to the state's Department of Water Resources.
Some of the farmers made the offer after state officials warned they were days away from ordering the first cuts in more than 30 years to the senior water rights holders' allotments.
The state already has ordered cities and towns to cut their water use by 25 percent, and it has curtailed water deliveries to many other farmers. But in recent weeks, many city dwellers and others have complained that agriculture should be made to share more of the sacrifice.
Rudy Mussi, whose family farms about 4,000 acres in the delta southwest of Stockton, reacted with mixed emotions about state approval of the deal.
"The 25 percent savings, that gives us certainty," Mussi said. "But at the same time I'm being asked to give up 25 percent of my paycheck."
By itself, the delta farmers' offer would not go far enough to save shrinking waterways statewide. But if more farmers sign on across the state, California could save significant amounts of water, since the nearly 4,000 senior water rights holders alone consume trillions of gallons a year.
The agreement "is an illustration of creative practical approaches that water managers in the state of California are taking to help get us all through this devastating drought," said Michael George, state water master for the delta.
California produces nearly half of the fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the U.S., but agriculture experts say they would expect only modest immediate effects on food prices from any reduction in water for the senior water rights holders. Other regions would be able to make up the difference, economists say.
Under the deal, delta farmers have until June 1 to lay out how they will use 25 percent less water during the summer. That could include irrigating their crops less or leaving some of their land fallow.
In exchange, the state gave assurances to the farmers it will not cut the remaining 75 percent of the water to which they are entitled.
"When your back is up against the wall, I guess you'll do anything," said Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation and an almond grower in the Modesto area, outside of the delta. He said he is skeptical the deal will protect the farmers if the drought worsens.
Senior water rights holders last saw their water cut in 1977, but that move applied only to dozens of people along a stretch of the Sacramento River.
Ellen Hanak, a water policy expert at the Public Policy Institute of California think tank, said senior water rights holders don't necessarily face complete water cutoffs, as people with less venerable claims to water have endured.
"It's important for people to realize that there are haircuts that are partial - they don't necessarily mean shaving everything off," Hanak said.
Any accord with delta farmers would probably rely largely on the honor system. California currently does not require monitoring or meters for superior rights holders.
Merced City Council Budget Review Session, May 13, 2015
MAYOR STAN THURSTON: Merced City Council is hereby called back into order from closed session. Let's all stand and salute our flag ... (The Pledge of Allegiance said in unison, by all members except COUNCILMAN NOAH LOR, absent.)...
AMANDA LUTZOW, ASSISTANT CITY CLERK: Agenda Item F, Reports. Item F. 1, "Consideration and confirmation of emergency water meter purchase."
THURSTON: Before we do that do we wanna discuss changing the date for the next Council meeting? We can do that? All right,
CITY MANAGER JOHN BRAMBLE: As Council is aware we had originally discussed May 27th for our next Budget Review Session. We do have the University/Industrial Park, who is hosting a fifteen-minute, uh, an informational session on that evening, which know -- if not all of the council, maybe even several staff would like to attend -- so my request is could we change the council-meeting day or the budget-review day to either the 26th or the 28th day of May?
COUNCILMAN MIKE MURPHY: I'm free on the 28th. Thursday the 28th would work for me.
BRAMBLE: Is there anybody who can't make it?
COUNCILMAN KEVIN BLAKE: What time on the 28th?
BLAKE: That would work for me.
COUNCILMAN JOSH PEDROZO: That would work for me, too.
BRAMBLE: So, you will adjourn tonight's meeting to the 28th at 5:30. Thank you.
The next item is the Consideration and confirmation of emergency water meter purchase. As the City Council is well aware, Governor Brown has instituted some pretty severe and extreme water conservation measures. The Ad Hoc Water Advisory Committee of the council at the last meeting indicated that as a high priority to meet the 36-percent guideline that has been provided to us by the state water board that meters are an essential part of our water conservation program.
And so, in that consideration and looking at how we were going to meet the deadlines of June through February 2016, it was clear we were going to have to get a start on the purchase of the water meters. And so what we have here tonight is a consideration for you to confirm that emergency purchase.
However, in order to get this on the agenda, we do have to pass a motion indicating that this is an emergency and that we should proceed forward.
MAYOR THURSTON: Council member want to make a motion to that effect.
UNNAMED COUNCIL MEMBER #1: So moved.
UNNAMED COUNCIL MEMBER #2: Second.
THURSTON: Any further discussion. OK.
ASSISTANT CITY CLERK LUZLOW begins to speak, saying something like "I have a ..." then begins to cough ...
THURSTON: More an urgent item I think you could say.
(There was no recorded vote on this "emergency" item.)
BRAMBLE: Well, actually, it's two-fold. One, we know that there are a number of other communities in the state that are probably going to be out purchasing these meters. And Two, in order to get a head start, we would need -- and we're saving anywhere from 30 to 45 days minimum -- by having taken this action. Otherwise, we would have been in front of you on June 1, and then we would have had to go through the purchase process and by the time we were all said and done, we would probably be into August for our first delivery. And ah, by doing this we have received notice that we should be receiving it if not by the end of May, by very early June.
COUNCILMAN MIKE MURPHY: And this was previously competitively bid in the past or is this a state supplier or how are we doing on pricing? Kennedy Response to Ewell 5/19/15
BRAMBLE: The pricing we're doing well. The previous council in 2009 -- I believe it was November 10 but the date may not be correct -- made the decision that we should standardize on Badger meters and so we're working off of that direction.
MURPHY: There's only one supplier of Badger?
BRAMBLE: In the state, yes.
MURPHY: What's the expected total expenditure on this purchase?
BRAMBLE: I believe it is $3,157,000, if memory serves me correct.
Would it be too much for the public to ask, seeing as this is a highly orchestrated emergency vote on the vital issue of water, for the city manager not to be invoking the Muse of Memory like a Greek epic poet? BLJ is just asking.
MAYOR THURSTON: Anything else, Council? OK.
LUZLOW: I have a motion by Mayor Pro Tem Pedrozo and a second by Councilman Blake. The motion will include Measure 2015-18 approving the emergency purchase of water meters and the installation thereof by city staff. Mayor and Council, may I please have your votes ...
MURPHY: I'm sorry. You mentioned that this is not just the purchase of the water meters but also installation by city staff? Because I know we had some discussion in our water committee meeting about installation. I thought that was a separate issue.
BRAMBLE: It is a separate issue and we will start with city staff but we're coming back to the water committee to talk about ongoing ...
MURPHY: So, to make that clear ,,,
LUZLOW: Mayor and Councilmembers, please cast your votes...and the motion unanimously carries.
This most predictable "emergency" possibly in the entire brief history of the City of Merced has resulted in a $3.175 million expenditure, for starters. The measure was conceived by an ad hoc committee that does not operate under the state's Open Meeting Law for a no-bid purchase of a certain brand of water meter by a procedure of dubious legality in which, apparently the vote to put the "emergency" item on the agenda may have been rolled into the vote that passed it, masqueraded by the political coughing of Assistant City Clerk Luzlow, who evidently forgot that this one would not be done by the book or any book of meeting procedure, at least in California. -- blj