The Delta Blues


There is a saying in the West that water flows toward money. That saying seems to be playing out in California this fall.The California legislature is currently considering legislation that some say will fix California’s water woes and others say is intended to result in more North State Water going to powerful agricultural corporations and urban developments on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley and elsewhere in Southern California.

Governor Schwarzenegger and leaders of the legislature have been meeting with some of those water interests behind closed doors. But farm, fishing and conservation groups that make up the Restore the Delta coalition say the interests they represent – and legislators who represent the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta – have been locked out of the process.

Earlier in October California Senator Diane Feinstein announced that she was preparing legislation to address California’s water problems.  Feinstein is considered California’s pre-eminent water broker and she has consistently favored corporate farms on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley. Those corporate farms have junior water rights but senior political influence. Recently Feinstein echoed Fox News personality Sean Hannity in calling for suspension of the Endangered Species Act in order to move more water to the farms.


The states other senator, Barbara Boxer, has also been working to help corporate farms and developers in the south part of the state. Boxer was instrumental in placing a rider on a Senate funding bill earlier this month that will facilitate water transfers. Southern California developers must prove they have sufficient water under contract before they can build new developments.  Boxer is on the ballot in the upcoming mid-term election and faces a tough fight to retain her senate seat.

Back in Sacramento, the bond issue that is being negotiated behind closed doors is anticipated by the bill currently under consideration by the California legislature. But the governor and legislative leaders are keeping the bond issue under wraps.  The bill in the legislature would authorize a Peripheral Canal designed to move water flowing in the Sacramento River around the Delta.

The Restore the Delta coalition say the Delta will die if that by-pass canal is built because insufficient fresh water from the Sacramento River will be allowed to flow into the Delta and thence to San Francisco Bay. Intrusion of salt water has already been a problem in the Delta and has contributed to conditions which have placed the tiny Delta smelt on the endangered species list and at the center of California water controversies.

Restore the Delta coalition members also fear the current legislation will be used to gut California’s “county of origin” water protections. County of origin rules assure that rich and powerful water interests in the south part of the state can not gain control of Northern California water unless they purchase it from those counties where that water enters navigable rivers and streams.

The yet to be unveiled bond measure may also contain funding for a new dam and reservoir in the Sacramento Valley. Governor Schwarzenegger has been lobbying for 2 new dams and reservoirs. Critics have asked why new reservoirs are needed when California is having trouble filling its existing reservoirs. The answer may lie to the North. Southern California corporate farmers and municipalities – often referred to as “The Water Buffaloes” have long had their eye on Klamath-Trinity River water and even have looked as far North as the Columbia system.

Once a Peripheral Canal is in place the Water Buffaloes may make another run at Klamath –Trinity water. In all likelihood they would go for “surplus” water – a euphemism for high winter flows. Fisheries scientists, however, point out that even flood flows are not really surplus because they are needed to flush fine sediment, dissipate disease organisms and sort gravels in order to renew a river.  Science, however, has never yet stopped the Water Buffaloes from trying to grab more water. 

Water issues in California are exceedingly complex, fraught with ambiguities and impacted by a myriad of secret deal-making. Understanding these issues requires long and careful study which is far beyond the scope of this Blog. There is, however, one aspects of the current phase in California’s water wars that will interest many HCN readers who do not follow California water issues closely: 

As often happens when environmental politics become intense, cracks have developed in the coalition of environmental and fishing groups that until recently have been united in opposition to the Peripheral Canal as well as new dams and reservoirs. The Environmental Water Caucus includes 30 grassroots, state-wide and national conservation, restoration and fishing organizations. Two of the members - the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council – have recently signaled that they may be willing to endorse a Peripheral Canal under certain conditions. This change of heart is causing consternation among other Coalition members.

Relations between grassroots environmental and conservation organizations and the larger national environmental and conservation organizations have often been rocky. While the “grassroots” and the “nationals” have similar goals and often work together, there is also a history of rocky relations that at times have boiled up into public animosity. Typically such conflicts revolve around the “nationals” cutting political deals that undermine the positions of their “grassroots” allies.

Conflicts between national and grassroots environmental organizations are the subject of a new book by Douglas Bevington. The book is The Rebirth of Environmentalism: Grassroots Activism from the Spotted Owl to the Polar Bear. Those interested in learning how the environmental movement really works may want to check it out.