The concept of a conveyance to divert Sacramento River water through or around the Delta was talked about by state water engineers as early as the late 1940’s. You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist even then to understand that southern California was a desert and northern California had all the water. Add to that the yearly increases in population in the Southland and it’s not hard to visualize acute water problems occurring sometime in the future.
Governor, Goodwin Knight, in 1956, to get a water plan going, approved the merging of the Division of Water Resources of the Dept. of Public Works with the State Engineer’s Office, the Water Project Authority, and the State Water Resources Board in a new entity called the Department of Water Resources (DWR).
In the years up to 1959, the Department of Water Resources was told to work up a State Water Project (SWP) to go on the 1960 ballot as a bond measure. A massive and costly undertaking, the project, known as theBurns-Porter Act of 1959, was placed on the November ballot in 1960 as Proposition One. A big part of the bond measure included building the Oroville Dam, which was promoted to northern California voters as a flood-control project.
The centerpiece of the Burns-Porter Act was a huge “Peripheral Canal” designed to carry water south around the Delta. But new Governor Edmund G. (Pat) Brown decided at the last minute to eliminate the canal from the legislation because he thought that the canal plus new water storage at the projected Oroville Dam might be seen as another potential water grab to northern California voters, causing the whole act to go down to defeat.
In southern California, the Metropolitan Water District originally opposed the proposition because it was afraid that any more water shipped south would be siphoned off by Central Valley agricultural interests before it got there. So a lot of negotiations of assurances took place before the MWD finally jumped on board.
As it turned out, Pat Brown was right. On November 8, 1960, in a statewide election, the water bill was approved by the narrow margin of 173,944 votes from about 5.8 million ballots cast statewide. That’s less than 1% of the total vote. California would get its state water system and the MWD and Southern California would begin getting Northern California water–sucked from the Delta–not delivered by a Peripheral Canal.
At the same time, in Arizona, Phoenix was rising up out of its 19th Century ashes and becoming urbanized to such an extent that there was talk of reducing the MWD’s allotment of surplus water from the Colorado River. Thus, to solve all these problems and get the MWD more water, the state Department of Water Resources revived the plan for a Peripheral Canal and it was presented to the state legislature for passage in 1977. The rationale was that it would “fix” the Delta. Opposition surfaced immediately and it quickly turned into a North-South water war. Northern Californians were so adamantly against it that the state legislature couldn’t muster enough votes to pass it, so once again the Peripheral Canal went back into mothballs.
Are we sensing a pattern here?
Finally, in 1981, new governor Jerry Brown, Pat’s son, saw a chance to complete his father’s work and ordered the state legislature to pass a bill authorizing the construction of a Peripheral Canal to divert water from the Sacramento River near the Delta town of Hood and carry it around the Delta down to the Clifton Court Forebay near Tracy. Thus, the state legislature passed SB 200, a Water Bill that included the Peripheral Canal, but as soon as the ink dried, enough concerned citizens throughout California signed a referendum to put the legislation up for a public vote on June 8, 1982.
I was on the media staff of that campaign, stationed in Los Angeles, We needed to get 1/3 of the vote in the south for a win and we did it. The total vote statewide was a 67% to 32% victory against the canal. It was the largest defeat ever for Jerry Brown. Later legislative attempts to resurrect the Peripheral Canal were all dead on arrival and the canal became known as “The third rail of California politics. Touch it and you’re dead.”
Interestingly enough, the giant farming combines J. G. Boswell Co. and the Salyer Land Co. were both opposed to the canal because they didn’t think they would get enough water. So they became the principles who financed the winning campaign against the canal.
Talk of a Delta conveyance facility was far from anyone’s mind for a number of years, but on June 14, 2006, California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger met with a small contingent of farmers and businessmen in the hot, southern valley town of Bakersfield. He spoke of the current political conditions in the state and then dropped a huge political bomb: “We need more water,” the governor said. “We need to build more storage, and we have to build a…ah…conveyance…ah…the canal, and all of those kinds of things.”
Mutilated syntax aside, this became the water agencies’ “trial balloon” to measure the reaction to yet another attempt to move more water south via a canal. They figured that since almost 30 years had passed since the last failure, they would be appealing to voters with short memories who might finally buy their “aging Delta” propaganda.
For two years the legislature kept putting off action on the bill because of the canal’s dramatic political history. Finally, in 2008, the huge business interests in California remarkably put forward their own plan. The California Business Roundtable filed with the state Attorney General an outline of what was called “The Comprehensive Safe Drinking Water, Water Supply Reliability and Delta Restoration Act of 2008.”
Thus, the most powerful business lobby in California–which had just released, along with the California Chamber of Commerce, a report that predicted a 20-million population explosion in California in the next 20 years with most people expected to settle in southern California–cut through all the legislature’s dalliance and the water bureaucracy’s red tape to try to get what they always wanted: more water sent south to fuel new development in the high desert areas east of Los Angeles–the only place left undeveloped in the Southland.
The bill’s language came out of the legal offices of Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Mueller & Naylor, the top politically connected law firm in the west. The bill itself was filed by California Chamber of Commerce president Allen Zaremberg, signaling to one and all the strength of California business interests who wanted a canal built.
The politically-concocted designation of this new water bill included, for the first time ever, a nod to environmental restoration in the Delta. This was a smart move as it added an incentive for environmentalists to support the bill, something the other water bills did not. Commenting on why the state’s business interests fathered a water bill, Zaremberg said, “We felt it necessary to file these measures today in order to preserve our options and have adequate time to gather signatures for the November ballot.”
In short order Gov. Schwarzenegger, who got the message loud and clear, announced the formation of the Blue Ribbon Delta Vision Committee to do a de rigueur “study” of Delta needs and come up with a plan of action.
The final report of the task force predictably notes first that the Delta is “in crisis…aging” and the “ecosystem is not sustainable over the long term.” Among its 12 recommendations was “new facilities for conveyance and storage, and better linkage between the two, are needed to better manage California’s water resources, the estuary and exports.” The Blue Ribbon committee obviously envisioned a canal, but couldn’t bring themselves to verbalize it.
In the meantime, California Business interests, full of their own hubris, helped staff the board of directors of the newly formed Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), an organization dedicated specifically to come up with a conveyance plan for the Delta. They stacked the board with water agency people and water contractors. It’s first efforts failed, however, as their Environmental Effects Analysis Report was trashed by the National Science Academy as “nothing but a lot of justifications for a conveyance.”
In a short time, the board of the BDCP was gerrymandered and many of the water agency people were “retired” with their positions filled by persons who appeared to be less self-interested. They also hired Dr. Jerry Meral, a close friend and confidant of Gov. Brown, to lead the embattled agency. Meral was Brown’s “fixer,” but his main contribution to reform was to form 14 different committees to attack different aspects of a conveyance plan. Inside of three months, this was cut down to one, big “Public” committee as his try at a “divide and conquer” ploy didn’t work out.
The 2008-9 state legislature managed to craft a Water Bill (SBX 1-7) which included money for a conveyance and was slated to be a statewide general obligation bond measure on the November, 2010 ballot. It passed the state legislature in November, 2009–largely due to Senate Pro-TemDarrell Steinberg giving away “the store” in providing fantastic incentives to reluctant legislators to bring them on board. Assembly leader Karen Bass got her own park in LA and Steinberg himself got $1-million for his own historical library–later taken out when the public got wind of it. No one was all that proud of what they did, but they did know their political futures depended on their vote.
Instead of signing the bill in his office in Sacramento, then-Governor Schwarzenegger chose to go to Los Angeles where a platoon of water agency people, politicians, construction union people and the Metropolitan Water District hailed his action in “bringing water to southern California” and practically raised Arnold to the level of Saint! You can watch it all on YouTube (Schwarzenegger, Nov. 2009) and if you ever thought the state’s rationale for the Delta Conveyance was really a “reliable water supply for California,’ you’ll see that it is southern California that is rejoicing the most!
One of the provisions of the 2009 Water Bill was the sanctifying of Phil Isenberg’s Delta Vision Committee into a legal state agency assigned to come up with a “Delta Plan” based upon the so-called “Co-equal goals” of 1) a reliable water supply for California and 2) restoration of the Delta eco-system. These goals were enshrined into law as part of the State Water Code. Critics allowed that they were really mutually exclusive as you can’t preserve the Delta’s eco-system by taking more water out of the Delta. It was water diversions the ruined the Delta in the first place
So, while PhiI Isenberg’s Delta Stewardship Council was busy carving out a place for itself as the new Delta landlord, the BDCP went through a number of conveyance options before finally settling on twin tunnels, 40-ft. wide, 35-miles long, with three intakes which can collectively suck out 9,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) but with a little tinkering here and there can up that to 15,000 cfs if necessary. The promised “State of the Art” fish screens are still on the drawing boards, but the core feature is just smaller holes.
The Delta Stewardship Council is legally bound to include the BDCP’s twin tunnels into the “Delta Plan” if all the environmental and engineering plans pass inspection by higher, vetting authorities. Unfortunately the critical sophisticated requirements have so-far eluded the BDCP which is struggling with the process in getting it finished by the end of this year. Pres. Obama has told Gov. Brown that he will have government agencies fast-track the vetting process once the Environmental Impact Reports and numerous other reports have been completed.
As 2009 came to an end, Gov. Schwarzenegger, thanks to a private poll that showed his cherished Water Bill going down to defeat if it included a Peripheral Canal–or any kind of conveyance–pulled the conveyance section out of the Water Bill for the 2010 ballot. It was a humiliating defeat! The bill with the canal included was supposed to be the one, big triumph of the 7-year Schwarzenegger administration and now it was gone with a stroke of his own pen.
Finally, this year, the Delta Stewardship Council adopted its Delta Plan, a 20,000-page document that makes it the new 800-lb. gorilla in the Delta. The DSC was immediately hit with seven–count ’em–seven lawsuits that are mostly based on alleged California Environmental Quality Act deficiencies. Even the Westlands Water District is suing because they are afraid they won’t get enough water–shades of J. G. Boswell in 1982!
This is where everything stands today. The truly remarkable thing is that a statewide protest against the tunnels and the Delta Plan has increased in numbers in the past year and is directly challenging the DSC and the BDCP plans to the public’s delight. More and more people are discovering what’s really going on with the Delta and are coming out against the twin tunnels. Despite the water agencies’ propaganda efforts–that the “aging” Delta needs to be “fixed”–the people in northern California are sure it’s just another water grab and the people in southern California know that the price is way too high and that they will have to get used to much higher water bills to pay for this miasma.
Remarkably, nobody will get to vote on the twin tunnels! That Gov. Brown is skirting the traditional general obligation bond ballot measure of putting this huge, public works project up for a vote by the people of California and, instead, letting the private water contractors provide the financing for the twin tunnels can become a huge political issue if Brown decides to run for a second term. Observers say he’s doing it this way because he couldn’t stand another campaign loss like he had on this same issue in 1982. But should that little political thing turn the governor into a dictator?
One hundred years from now, when historians look back at the political history of California they’ll say, “My, my…nothing but a succession of water grabs!” True. And as philosopher Henry George characterized it, “If they robbed us once, does that give them the right to keep on robbing us?”