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Delta advocacy group grows into role as formidable watchdog

By Alex Breitler

The Record Staff Writer

March 13, 2011, Read Online

What do you get when you put a farmer, a fisherman and an environmentalist in the same room?

A Restore the Delta meeting.

But let’s not oversimplify. Joining them are attorneys, businessmen, boaters, community leaders, developers, students … the list goes on.

The anti-peripheral canal advocacy group that formed four years ago has strengthened and even expanded its diverse membership – including some people who might normally not get along.

They’ve even been known to sue each other. But now they feel they have a common enemy in those who would alter the plumbing of the Delta with a new canal or tunnel.

This is the Delta community coalescing as a family,” said environmentalist Bill Jennings, who serves on Restore the Delta’s steering committee. “Families squabble sometimes, but we stand shoulder to shoulder against outside threats.”

Restore the Delta claims 7,000 members, but only three staffers – two of them part-time – and one intern. Call the phone number listed on the group’s website and you’ll get the cell phone for campaign director Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla.

“She’s been operating out of her kitchen,” said steering committee member Natalia Orfanos, who by day works as public relations director for the A.G. Spanos Cos.

Soon, however, the group will have its own space at the Spanos building in north Stockton.

“We have an office on the first floor. We said, ‘Let’s just help them out,’ ” Orfanos said.

Restore the Delta has evolved into a spirited watchdog. Its staffers attend public meetings and report back in e-mails to members. Not surprisingly, those reports are often critical of the water establishment in Sacramento and elsewhere.

“I think it’s been successful,” Delta farmer Mike Robinson said. “The legislative community knows we’re there. They like to hear what we have to say. We’re on a credible level with everyone, and we don’t pull punches. They know exactly where we’re coming from.”

Orfanos said she was recruited by Barrigan-Parrilla a few months ago.

“The (Spanos) company is made up of people who have lived here all of their lives,” she said. “If you live in Stockton, you want to protect your area.”

Restore the Delta may have a more difficult time recruiting those from outside the area, especially those who rely on the Delta for at least some of their water supply. Put farmer Jim McLeod of Tracy in that camp.

Last week, McLeod attended the first in a series of community meetings hosted by Restore the Delta in an effort to raise its profile. He left firmly convinced that Restore the Delta is a group of environmentalists, regardless of the diversity in its ranks.

“Shoot, it’s the same old stuff: Shut down the pumps,” he said. “What do they want, all of the water? How much water has been taken away from (farmers) and given to the environment?”

Needless to say, McLeod won’t be signing up.

And enlisting more support may be a challenge even in Stockton, where many people know little about the Delta.

Restore the Delta is producing a documentary to help educate them.

“We are working on the message that the Delta is a national treasure, and everyone who lives in this area should be concerned about preserving and protecting it,” Barrigan-Parrilla said.

Contact reporter Alex Breitler at (209) 546-8295 or abreit[email protected]. Visit his blog at recordnet.com/breitlerblog.

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