“One wonders if they couldn’t deliver the project more quickly and more efficiently,” he (Jeffrey Mount, a water expert with the Public Policy Institute of California) said. -- Kasler and Sabalow, Sacramento Bee, Feb. 13, 2018
“Putting someone who is in charge of DWR who you might say is married to the Metropolitan Water District in more ways than one sort of makes sense if you look at it from the governor’s standpoint,” said George Hartmann, a Stockton attorney who represents Delta farmers. “But is it ethical? I don’t think so. Is it proper? I don’t think so.” -- Sabalow and Kasler, Sacramento Bee, Jan. 19, 2018
A ‘water grab’? Southern California water agency eyes possible control of Delta tunnels project
By Dale Kasler And Ryan Sabalow
In a dramatic twist on the Delta tunnels saga, Southern California’s powerful water agency is exploring the feasibility of owning the majority stake in the controversial project, a move that raises fears of a “water grab.”
Under the plan floated Monday by three board members, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California would pour an extra $6 billion or more into the tunnels plan beyond what it has already pledged, enabling the twin tunnels to get built at the same time. Last week, facing a significant funding shortfall, the Brown administration announced it was scaling back the project to just one tunnel for now.
One of the Metropolitan board members, Brett Barbre, said Tuesday the agency’s increased involvement could ensure both tunnels get built. Metropolitan could then sell some of its surplus water to San Joaquin Valley agricultural districts that, to this point, have refused to pledge any dollars to the tunnels project because of its staggering cost.
Barbre said he believes the farmers “will eventually come in, and I think it’s important and imperative for Met to provide that leadership.....If we can work out a deal down the road where if they take the water, they pay for the water, that makes sense.”
Metropolitan’s heightened role could revive the faltering twin-tunnels approach. The tunnels project, known officially as California WaterFix, is is in the midst of being scaled back.Lacking the $16.3 billion needed to fund both tunnels at once, Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration last week said it expects to phase in the project, starting with one tunnel for an estimated $11.1 billion. A second tunnel could get built years later if the rest of the dollars materialize.
So far the concept of Metropolitan taking on a larger share of the project is in its exploratory stages. The Metropolitan staff is pulling together financial analyses at the request of Barbre and fellow board members Rich Atwater and Steve Blois, who introduced the idea Monday at a meeting of Metropolitan’s water planning and stewardship committee.
Jeff Kightlinger, Metropolitan’s general manager, said Tuesday he’d like “Met to take a hard look at this.”
“I do think it’s important for people to step up and still do big things,” he said. “It would be good for California, frankly, if it were all done. It’s going to be hard to go back and do that second (tunnel) phase. ... Once you’re in the ground, you should build it the right size.”
The project, regardless of size, is to be paid for by south-of-Delta water agencies. The Brown administration is leaving it up to them to figure out the financing.
“It’s up to the participating agencies to hammer out the best way to fund the project they need to protect their water supply reliability,” said Lisa Lien-Mager, a spokeswoman for Brown’s Natural Resources Agency.
Urban agencies have embraced WaterFix because they can spread the costs over millions of ratepayers; Metropolitan believes its customers would get rate increases of $1.90 to $2.40 a month for its share of a single-tunnel project. The Metropolitan board voted last fall to contribute more than $4 billion for a roughly 25 percent share of the twin-tunnels project.
But farmers who rely on Delta water could see their costs quadruple or more. Only one agricultural district, the Kern County Water Agency, has expressed interest in participating.
A bigger role for Metropolitan raises the specter of a Southern California “water grab” in the Delta, where landowners, local governments and many environmental groups already view the project with deep suspicion.
“It would certainly raise a lot of concerns to have Metropolitan controlling the Delta tunnels,” said WaterFix critic Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Management of the Delta is supposed to be by the state on behalf of all the state’s citizens ... and giving Met greater control really undermines trust that the facility would be operated responsibility and that would be operated with the benefit of all Californians.”
Northern California critics were dismayed when Metropolitan spent $175 million buying a cluster of islands in the Delta in 2016, possibly to help with construction of the tunnels.
Obegi called the idea of Metropolitan controlling the Delta tunnels a “William Mulholland fever dream,” referring to the legendary and controversial Los Angeles water official who led efforts to build a 230-mile aqueduct to move water from the Owens Valley to the city.
Mulholland’s efforts to secure water from east of the Sierra Nevada mountains allowed Los Angeles to grow into one of the nation’s most populated and prosperous cities, and it forever enshrined his name on the iconic Mulholland Drive. But the loss of its water turned the once-fertile Owens Valley into a dust bowl.
Now wary environmentalists say Metropolitan, the successor to Mulholland’s agency, may be taking a similar approach to obtaining Northern California’s water.
“It certainly does have an even greater feeling of ‘Chinatown’ being revisited here in the 21st century,” said Ron Stork, senior policy advocate for Friends of the River. Mulholland’s maneuverings were highly fictionalized in the 1974 movie “Chinatown” staring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.
WaterFix is Brown’s plan for overhauling the Delta’s plumbing to ensure reliable water deliveries to farmers and urban Southern Californians and improve the estuary’s troubled ecosystem. Currently the giant pumps that deliver water south sometimes have to be throttled back to protect endangered Delta smelt and other fish species.
Jeffrey Mount, a water expert with the Public Policy Institute of California, said the idea of owning a majority stake in the tunnels makes a certain amount of sense for Metropolitan. The agency has a recent track record of building major water storage projects on time and under budget. The proposal also could pencil out for Metropolitan because it would offset the construction costs to its Southern California ratepayers by charging other water districts to use the tunnels.
Mount said the “political optics ... of a Southern California water grab” have discouraged Metropolitan from going this route in the past, but with the tunnels project bogged down, the agency may be willing to reconsider.
“One wonders if they couldn’t deliver the project more quickly and more efficiently,” he said.
How Trump’s pumping plan is dividing California over water – again
Dale Kasler And Ryan Sabalow
They gathered this week at Sacramento’s federal building on Capitol Mall, carrying protest signs and vowing to resist the Trump administration’s plan to pump more of Northern California’s water through the Delta to the southern half of the state.
The government “wants to suck our lifeblood dry,” said Noah Oppenheim, leader of a group representing commercial fishermen. An ally hoisted a sign that said, “Don’t pump the Delta to extinction.” Dania Rose Colegrove, a Hoopa Valley Tribe member, said the Trump proposal would suck more water from the Trinity River, a place her tribe considers sacred, to keep wealthy farmers’ crops growing hundreds of miles south.
The scene couldn’t have been more different the following night in Los Banos, on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, where farmers gathered at a community center to voice their support for the Trump administration’s proposal. They see it as Trump making good on a campaign promise in Fresno in 2016, when he derided efforts to “protect a certain kind of 3-inch fish” – the nearly extinct Delta smelt – and promised to bring more water through the Delta to agriculture.
“I finally have some optimism,” said Mitch Coit, a grower in the Los Banos area.
Nothing sharpens the political divide in California like a fight over water. Just before New Year’s, the U.S. Bureau of Administration announced it would try to “maximize water deliveries” to the agricultural districts that belong to the federal government’s Central Valley Project. A series of public comment hearings this week, in Sacramento, Los Banos and Chico, illustrated the vast gulf between the warring factions.
In Sacramento on Tuesday, nearly three-dozen environmentalists, tribal representatives and others held a brief protest outside the federal building, then marched inside to blast the plan in front of Bureau of Reclamation employees.
They believe moving more water through the Delta pumps would bring more environmental ruin to the troubled estuary and kill more Delta smelt, Chinook salmon and other endangered fish species. The harm would spread as far north as the Oregon border, where rivers would get sucked dry to feed the Delta pumps, they said.
Gary Mulcahy, 63, a Winnemem Wintu Tribe member from Shasta County, nearly broke down as he described a salmon population decimated by water shortages. “Now, you could sit there for hours and not see a single salmon come back,” he said.
Mocking President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, Mulcahy wore a red hat that read, “Make America Sacred Again.”
The Trump administration’s plan, which will take about a year to finalize, is based in large part on a 2016 law signed by former President Barack Obama. The vaguely worded law creates some additional protections for the Delta but also directs pump operators to deliver more water when possible to customers of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project. Many environmental groups condemn the law, but its backers, including California’s U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, said it served as a compromise between environmental and water-supply needs.
Reclamation officials said they won’t run roughshod over the environment in their effort to bring more water south. Rather, they want to take a fresh look at Delta waterways to see if there’s a way to help farmers while still protecting fish.
“Both sides are struggling,” said Austin Ewell, a recent Trump appointee who is the Interior Department’s deputy assistant secretary for water and science. “The current system is not necessarily working for whatever party.”
Reclamation’s effort comes at a pivotal time. Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to announce soon whether to downsize the Delta tunnels project, his $17-billion plan designed to improve fish habitats and water deliveries by rerouting how water reaches the state and federal pumping stations. Meanwhile, two federal agencies that oversee the Delta’s struggling fish populations have launched a review of decade-old pumping regulations, and California’s State Water Resources Control Board is examining the Delta’s water quality with an eye toward reducing pumping.
Where does all that leave Reclamation’s plan to “maximize” water deliveries? In Los Banos, farmers said they expect California officials, who have fought Trump on everything from immigration to climate change, to use powerful state laws to limit the effect of the Reclamation proposal or halt it altogether. State officials have vowed to protect California’s fish and wildlife as they scrutinize Reclamation’s plan.
“We’re seeing more evidence of a state that’s willing to backstop environmental protections and push back on any federal intrusion, particularly from the Trump administration,” said Cannon Michael, a farmer from the Los Banos area and chairman of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, a major valley water agency.
Still, the mood among valley farmers and their leaders was one of cautious optimism. Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, told the crowd gathered in Los Banos that Reclamation’s plan could reverse more than 20 years of declining water deliveries, brought on by court decisions and regulations, that have devastated valley farm communities.
“Places like Los Banos, Dos Palos, Mendota have felt the burden of the lack of water,” the congressman said. “It breaks your heart.”
Among farmers, the Reclamation proposal affirms their belief that they have a friend in Washington in Trump.
“He has at least come out and said, ‘We’re going to do something about the water,’ ” said Joe Del Bosque, a prominent valley farmer from Firebaugh. “We’ve been through years with no water.”
New state water chief is married to SoCal water strategist. Critics say that’s too close
Ryan Sabalow And Dale Kasler
Critics who say state water policy tilts too far toward Southern California got additional ammunition last week, when Gov. Jerry Brown named a new director to run his Department of Water Resources.
New DWR Director Karla Nemeth is married to Tom Philp, an executive strategist with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Nemeth’s duties include overseeing the State Water Project, which delivers water from Northern California to the southern half of the state, and forging ahead with Brown’s controversial Delta tunnels project.
Metropolitan, which serves 19 million people, is the State Water Project’s largest customer. It’s also a key backer of the $17.1 billion tunnels proposal, which is fiercely opposed by many elected officials in Northern California as well as Delta farmers and environmentalists.
In the contentious world of California water policy, battle lines tend to be drawn between north and south, and anything that would appear to give Metropolitan more influence is met with instant suspicion among water advocates in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the Sacramento Valley.
“Putting someone who is in charge of DWR who you might say is married to the Metropolitan Water District in more ways than one sort of makes sense if you look at it from the governor’s standpoint,” said George Hartmann, a Stockton attorney who represents Delta farmers. “But is it ethical? I don’t think so. Is it proper? I don’t think so.”
Ethics specialists say the situation is complicated. Robert Stern, co-author of California’s Political Reform Act, an anti-government corruption law, said there’s nothing illegal about Nemeth running DWR while being married to a Metropolitan employee. And so long as her decision-making is limited to issues affecting statewide water policy, there is no ethical violation, either.
The relationship could be problematic, however, if Nemeth has to make a decision that specifically affects Metropolitan, he said.
Hana Callaghan, a government ethics expert at Santa Clara University, said the relationship creates the perception of a conflict of interest, and she agreed that Nemeth should shy away from decisions involving Metropolitan directly. “It does raise some red flags,” she said.
State officials said they see no problem.
Nemeth and Philp’s relationship breaks no rules and “poses no conflict,” DWR spokeswoman Erin Mellon said in an email. “Karla’s marriage has long been public knowledge and has no bearing on her work for the state,” Mellon said. “Whether at the Resources Agency or now at the Department of Water Resources, her focus remains on doing what’s best for all of California, and her experience speaks for itself.”
Nemeth had been deputy secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, a role that already put her on the front lines of the debate over the tunnels and other state water policy issues. Her new salary is $194,600.
Philp, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer for The Sacramento Bee, is an executive strategist who works on communications for Metropolitan, including its advocacy of the tunnels. His salary is $211,723, according to the public employee salary website Transparent California.
Philp declined to comment through a Metropolitan spokesman, but executives at the Southern California agency said the marriage doesn’t raise ethical concerns.
“I don’t believe there’s any conflict there at all,” said Roger Patterson, Metropolitan’s assistant general manager.
Nemeth’s appointment comes as the DWR has been criticized for its handling of the Oroville Dam spillway crisis last winter. An independent forensic team the state hired to determine what caused the spillway to fail said the crisis was caused in part because DWR was too focused on the “water delivery needs” of its customers to the south, and gave dam safety less of a priority.
State water contractors, such as Metropolitan, store water behind the dam and pay for its upkeep.
The forensic team also alleged that top DWR officials made a series of decisions during the crisis that eventually triggered the two-day evacuation of 188,000 Northern Californians in part because they were worried about preserving the water supply for Southern California.
Officials at DWR and Metropolitan refuted those claims, saying the integrity of the dam and the safety of downstream residents were their only concerns.
Long before the Oroville emergency spillway nearly failed, north state critics argued Metropolitan enjoyed far too much influence over state water policies, especially when it came to the Delta, the hub of California’s water delivery network.
Brown’s administration insists the $17.1 billion tunnels project won’t increase deliveries south. Instead, officials say it will allow the massive pumping stations at the south end of the Delta to operate more reliably while improving the environment in the West Coast’s largest estuary. In recent months, state officials have been weighing whether to downsize the project to a single tunnel. Metropolitan is the only major water agency to have agreed to pay for the project in its current, two-tunnel form.
Tunnels opponents adamantly dispute the Brown administration’s claims that the tunnels won’t harm the environment and Delta farms and cities. They say the insatiable water demands of Southern California will ensure that more water is pumped than what Brown’s office promises.
In the Delta, “Stop the Tunnels” signs are common along roadsides and in store fronts. Anti-tunnels advocates, such as Hartmann, the Stockton attorney, call the project a blatant south state “water grab.”
When Metropolitan bought several parcels of land in the Delta to facilitate the project, critics called it another “Chinatown.” Northern Californians often invoke the the 1974 movie staring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, which presented a fictionalized version of how the city of Los Angeles took water away from farmers in the Owens Valley in 1913.
Nemeth’s appointment drew immediate criticism from the anti-tunnels camp. Soon after it was announced, anti-tunnels groups began circulating information from Transparent California that showed Nemeth was at one point on Metropolitan’s payroll, earning a six-figure salary.
Patterson, the Metropolitan assistant general manager, acknowledged that Nemeth’s name appeared on Metropolitan’s books from 2012 to 2014. But he said Nemeth was never a Metropolitan employee and her presence on the payroll was more of a technicality.
In reality, Patterson said Nemeth was working for the state Natural Resources Agency under an inter-governmental agreement, focusing on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, the previous name for the tunnels project. The tunnels project now goes by “California WaterFix.”
The state paid her salary, although the state and federal water contractors working on the Delta project, such as Metropolitan, reimbursed the state, according to Patterson.
Patterson said the arrangement changed when her duties at the Resources Agency were broadened in 2015, and Nemeth’s position then shifted to the state’s payroll.
Jay Lund, the director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis, says Nemeth’s relationship with Philp isn’t as controversial as critics make it out to be.
He said the world of water policy is a small one, so it’s natural that like-minded people with similar interests would sometimes get married.
Lund said there weren’t many complaints raised in the north state when a former DWR director, Mark Cowin, was married to a prominent environmental attorney.
“Highfalutin people have highfalutin spouses,” Lund said. “Some of this comes with the territory.”
Brown tried to smooth the way for Delta project. All he got was more friction
California officials tried to smooth the way for the Delta tunnels project by slicing it in half. Instead they’re facing more pushback and the possibility of additional delays.
One day after Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration downsized the Delta tunnels project, a host of project opponents tried Thursday to halt a state regulatory hearing that’s crucial to getting it built. They argued that Brown’s decision, after a decade of planning, creates such a monumental change that they need time to analyze the potential impacts on fish, agriculture and the rest of the Delta’s troubled ecosystem.
“It really is a different project,” said Doug Obegi of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Some project opponents urged that the hearing be delayed until June, if not later.
State officials, however, said the project is essentially unchanged and the hearing at the State Water Resources Control Board should go forward without delay. Brown’s administration has been anxious to get the project rolling before the governor leaves office at the end of the year.
While the attempted delay is essentially a procedural issue, it underscores the deep and continuing opposition to Brown’s project from environmentalists, Delta landowners and others. Obegi’s request for delay was joined by representatives of Sacramento area governmental agencies, area water districts and more.
The project, known formally as California WaterFix, would reroute how water flows to the massive pumping stations at the south end of the Delta, where it’s shipped to the southern half of the state. Pumping often gets interrupted to protect Delta smelt and other fish, whose numbers have been decimated by the effects of the pumping.
WaterFix would “move water in a more benign way” and enable the pumps to deliver water to the southern half of the state with fewer interruptions, Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth told the board, urging the panel to keep the hearing on track.
Tam Doduc, a state water board member, said the hearing will be postponed for two weeks while the board sorts out the controversy.
South-of-Delta water agencies are supposed to pay for the project but so far have only pledged about $6.5 billion, well short of the $16.3 billion needed to construct two tunnels beneath the Delta. On Wednesday, in a nod to the funding shortages, Nemeth announced that DWR is planning to build the project in two phases, with one tunnel in each phase. The first tunnel would cost $10.7 billion, she said.
DWR officials believe it can raise enough money from south-of-Delta agencies to bridge the funding gap and at least build the first tunnel.
A day later, at the state water board, her announcement touched off an intense debate. The water board has been meeting for months on DWR’s request for permission to divert a portion of the Sacramento River’s flow at three points near Courtland – where the tunnels would begin. Without permission of the water board, WaterFix can’t go forward.
Obegi and other opponents said the switch to a phased-in approach means the hearing must be halted to give them more time to analyze the environmental impacts. Thomas Keeling, a lawyer for San Joaquin County, complained that the state has just released “endless pages of new modeling” that describe how a one-tunnel project would affect water flows and more.
“This is too big of a change,” said attorney Osha Meserve, representing environmental groups, Delta wine grape growers and other critics of the project.
Nemeth, however, said the hearing shouldn’t be delayed. The state hasn’t given up on building both tunnels at once, she insisted, but is merely holding out the phased-in concept “as an additional option.”
“We are not modifying the project,” she said.