The only way the local neighbors and fellow Delta farmers can find to correct The Nature Conservancy's negligent farm practices on Staten Island, is to sue it. TNC is so big, so rich, so politically connected, and so arrogantly deaf to local voices, that spending the money to go to court is all that's left.
TNC's environmental management on the Delta isn't any better than its rampage of dubious and sloppy "perpetual" conservation easements to mitigate for UC Merced was.
Are they anything other than a bunch of lobbyists?
Fitzgerald: A fight over a unique Delta island
By Michael Fitzgerald
A Delta farming island crucial to sandhill cranes is so mismanaged that the levees may break, a lawsuit alleges. Ironically, the allegedly bad manager is The Nature Conservancy.
A suit by the Wetlands Preservation Foundation seeks to stop TNC’s allegedly bad, even dangerous, farming practices to avert a potential catastrophe on Staten Island in San Joaquin County.
“TNC has failed to live up to its proud environmental tradition,” says the suit, filed in San Joaquin County Superior Court.
The Nature Conservancy counters that the suit is baseless. The nonprofit is proud of its work on Staten, which is helping cranes rebound, a spokesman said.
One of the San Joaquin Delta’s larger islands, Staten is 9,200 acres between forks of the Mokelumne River in the northwestern county corner, the Delta’s heart.
Its fields are a stopover for migratory birds. It is a wintering area for one-third of the western population of magnificent greater and lesser sandhill cranes.
In the 1990s, the state used $35 million of water bond money to acquire the island from a farming outfit. The Department of Water Resources gave it to TNC to manage.
A land-preservation nonprofit, TNC may be best known locally for founding the Cosumnes River Preserve.
The group suing it, the Wetlands Preservation Foundation, is run by wealthy Stockton-area farmer Dino Cortopassi. This foundation stewards wetlands across the river from Staten on Brack Tract.
In the original deal, the DWR retained an easement allowing it access to Staten to ensure adequacy of TNC’s agriculture and wildlife habitat protection.
The suit also names DWR, alleging it has failed to police TNC.
“Far from protecting and preserving Staten Island, DWR and TNC have managed (it) in an unsustainable, environmentally destructive way,” alleges the suit.
The main culprit is “sub-irrigation.” Using this method, TNC farms an estimated 7,000 acres of corn on the island. It sells harvests but also leaves grain on the ground for cranes.
This is important because Delta farmers are planting more permanent crops such as orchards and vines — crops that erase crane habitat, said Jay Ziegler, a spokesman for TNC’s California chapter.
“Overall we’re very proud of our record on Staten Island,” Ziegler said. “We’ve demonstrated innovative practices over time that have increased population of greater and lesser sandhill cranes.′
If so, kudos. Sub-irrigation, however, causes peat soil to loosen and blow away. The suit says the island has lost millions of cubic yards of soil. The field level has dropped up to three feet.
This, in turn, increased pressure on levees by 20 percent, the suit claims, ominously worsening levee water seepage.
“If Staten Island’s levees are breached and the island is flooded, the resulting loss of Staten Island will have consequences not only for the local agricultural economy and over-wintering sandhill cranes, but also for neighboring islands and their levees, and indeed for the entire Delta,” the suit warns.
Flooding would compromise the integrity of all area levees. It would jeopardize water conveyance to cities. It would draw saltwater from San Francisco Bay, the suit says.
It would also be a major irony, given that enviros would be the culprit.
Ziegler countered that TNC spent more than $1 million on Staten levees last year alone. When nearby Tyler Island almost went under, TNC diverted its barge of rip-rap and bolstered Tyler’s levees.
“We were there to save that island,” Ziegler said, “to help our friends.”
Gilbert Cosio, the president of MBK Engineers, which works on about 40 percent of Delta levees (including two islands owned by Cortopassi), said levees must have a certain slope. They should have a buttressing “toe berm” at the inside base. And crops should be moved away from the base, Cosio said.
“In the work that we’ve done on levees (we) flatten the slopes, build a toe berm and farm out farther. They haven’t done that,” Cosio said. He added, “Everybody else realized how unstable these levees are and they’re working on stabilizing them. The state has not.”
The lawsuit also alleges that TNC is supposed to plow all harvest proceeds back into the island, but the national organization has pocketed $14.5 million.
Ziegler countered that TNC has spent more than that amount on Delta projects.
Michael Eaton led TNC’s effort to acquire Staten Island before leaving the organization in 2007. Eaton thinks TNC got in over its head by contending with gyrating corn prices and Delta reclamation.
“It’s been painful to watch the situation on Staten fall so far short of what we had envisioned almost 20 years ago for it,” Eaton said.
TNC is constantly experimenting with better practices, Ziegler said. It planted several hundred acres of rice (which doesn’t erode the soil) to see if it supports cranes as well.
Ziegler confirmed that The Nature Conservancy is open to selling Staten Island. “If there’s somebody that feels that there is a better formula that seeks to achieve the goals, we’re interested in talking to them,” he said.