Unasked questions about TNC Staten Island

Assemblyman Bill Maze, R-Visalia, sicced the state auditor on a Natural Conservancy-owned ranch near the San Joaquin Delta recently. Maze says the easement and TNC management of the 9,200-acre ranch stink and asks why $17.6 million in state flood protection funds is being spent on a Delta island that shows no signs of levee improvement.

The money came from Prop. 13, passed in March 2000, originally AB 1584, the $1.97-billion Safe Drinking Water, Clean Water, Watershed Protection, and Flood Protection Act authored by then Assemblman Mike Machado, D-Linden.

The Sacramento Bee article on the flap fails to raise several important questions.

For example, quite aside from the issue of who funded the project, would TNC be able to build flood-control levees according to the terms of its conservation easement on Staten Island, winter home of a TNC-estimated 15 percent of the migratory Sand Hill cranes? The plan, as best we can determine from the article is to flood the island in the winter after the grain crops are harvested to make a pleasant habitat for the traveling cranes and other flocks. Some in Merced familiar with the quality of the TNC conservation easements to mitigate for UC Merced know that TNC is not shy about taking public funds for easements that cannot stand the light of public scrutiny. And so does the state Department of Fish and Game, the Wildlife Conservation Board and UC.

Another example of questions unasked is: how much money did TNC contribute to get Prop. 13 passed? According to CalVoter archives for the March 7, 2000 primary, although no funds were recorded in opposition to the proposition, $10,502,802 were spent selling it. (Sixty-five percent of the voters approved it.) TNC, the top contributor to the Prop. 13 campaign, gave $3,022,068 -- 29 percent of all money raised for the proposition. TNC was also the top contributor, with the same amount, to Prop. 12, the Parks, Water and Coastal Protection Act Bond, according to CalVoter.

It is also a matter of political curiosity that Staten Island is on the border of Machado's present state Senate district.

Three million to make $35 million (the other half of the Staten Island funding comes from the CALFED Bay-Delta Program) isn't a bad deal if you have the $3 million to put down when the time is right. And TNC did and no doubt made many friends among the state and federal agencies in charge of dispensing these public funds. A similar return on investment could no doubt be traced to some of the other top 10 contributors to the Prop. 13 campaign.

If this background is added to the particulars of Maze's Tulare County district, represented in Congress by Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, Scourge of the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement that passed its first hurdle in Congress last week, perhaps the story below becomes clearer as part of the general California water war. But it is also evidence of the very arrogant way in which the multi-national environmental Leviathan TNC does business (as we have seen in Merced County), it gives bushwhackers like Maze their opportunity, it encourages every grant grifter in the tules to whip up a group of bogus stakeholders and write the state for the big bucks, and it darkens the reputation in the general public of every environmental group trying to do a decent job in a lawful, socially responsible way.

Bill Hatch

Sacramento Bee
Quiet island in dispute
Use of state flood grants to buy land scrutinized...Judy Lin

STATEN ISLAND – This time of year, when the sun falls earlier by the day and the corn has been harvested, is the best time to see the sandhill cranes.

The sky above a stretch of flooded farmland on this island in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta becomes speckled with white and pale gray birds.

The creatures – distinguished by long legs and longer necks – come to roost on this wetland each winter. Some have been spotted for at least 18 years.

Conservationists tout the 9,200-acre island, located south of Walnut Grove in San Joaquin County, as a successful marriage between wildlife and agriculture. They applaud the state Department of Water Resources for its willingness to invest in wildlife preservation.

But a recent state audit has raised questions about the department's decision to hand $17.6 million in flood protection bond money to a non-governmental organization that emphasizes habitat protection over flood control.

State Auditor Elaine Howle stressed the need for better monitoring as the department gets ready to dole out $330 million in additional flood protection bonds.

"DWR needs to do a better job of managing the flood protection corridor program," Howle said in an interview. "We found several weaknesses in awarding the grant, as well as monitoring how well those programs are proceeding."

The audit, which was released Nov. 5, said the department failed to show the merits of five grants in 2001, including the $17.6 million Staten Island grant. The grants, which totaled $28 million in all, were funded through the Flood Protection Corridor Program, created by Proposition 13 in 2000.

DWR Director Lester Snow agreed the department needs to do a better job of tracking grants and decisions. The audit was especially critical of the department, then under former director Tom Hannigan, for not using a scoring tool that would have ranked projects based on their merit.

Snow said more staff members have since been assigned to the program.

The Staten Island grant helped the Nature Conservancy buy the island for $35 million. The California Bay-Delta Authority put up the rest of the money.

In return for the department's investment, the state retains easement rights for flood projects.

Keeping the land undeveloped gives Staten Island the potential to absorb water in case of a flood, said Dawit Zeleke, regional director for the Nature Conservancy. The water around the island is fed by the Cosumnes and Mokelumne rivers.

"When I look at the cranes, I think it's a wise investment," Zeleke said.

Some believe the money should never have been spent on buying Staten Island.

Assemblyman Bill Maze, R-Visalia, who called for the audit, took notice of Staten Island in 2005 after reading a story in The Bee about the precarious nature of levee funding. At the time, the story found that only six of the 26 miles of levees surrounding Staten Island had been maintained.

"It should not have been used for that project whatsoever," Maze said.

Since then, the audit found that not much has improved.

"Six years after Nature Conservancy acquired Staten Island, Water Resources has yet to implement a flood protection project on the island, and it is unclear whether the acquisition will ultimately result in a tangible flood protection project," the audit states.

The audit also questioned the department's contention that the island provides significant flood protection by preventing development in a flood-prone area, given what the audit called "the current legal restrictions prohibiting such development."

Snow, however, defends the department's selection of Staten Island.

Snow said funding from Proposition 13 allowed the department to acquire easements to protect floodplains while preserving the agricultural use of the property.

"The Staten Island project," Snow said, "clearly meets the statutory criteria for the program."

In addition to questioning the Staten Island grant, Howle recommended changing the grant selection process to require the department to justify the merits of each project. She also recommended following up to make sure grant recipients spent the money appropriately.

Auditors said they had no way to review the selection committee's decisions. Of 11 projects the department considered funding, five were selected without proof of a competitive process.

Snow said he intends to adopt a ranking system for future flood protection projects as the department prepares to hand out new bond money.

Last November, voters approved two bond measures – propositions 84 and 1E – that provide the department with $330 million for flood protection projects. The money has been designated for the protection, creation and enhancement of flood protection corridors and bypasses.

At Staten Island, the Nature Conservancy says the state's investment allows the farm to export nearly 40,000 tons of corn a year and provide a home for up to 15 percent of the region's greater sandhill cranes, which are listed as a threatened species.

The cycle is simple. Farmers grow corn and wheat during the year, then flood the land after crops are harvested, creating a haven for cranes and other birds.

The cranes that winter on the island are playful. On a dirt road cutting through the farm, Zeleke looks out on the birds as they throw their heads up, fan their wings and occasionally toss grass.

"This is the ideal situation," Zeleke said. "You have the economy benefiting ... and also managing the land in a successful way that the cranes keep coming back."