“Tyranny is Tyranny, let it come from whom it may.”
– Howard Zinn
In retrospect, state and federal water managers may wish they had sent less water out of upstream reservoirs last year. Even in an average water year, it’s a challenge to meet the needs of all the water users above and below the Delta and the needs of several runs of migrating and spawning fish as well. And what’s an “average” water year? Probably it is much dryer than anyone thought when the state and federal water projects were designed and built.
But some people at the Department of Water Resources (DWR) have been thinking about the possibility of drought. In April 2009, the Department prepared a paper titled Delta Drought Emergency Barriers that looked at nine alternative locations for salinity control barriers in the Delta. (See DWR’s webpage on Emergency Drought Barriers.) By September 2013, they were ready with a plan. That’s the date of the Clean Water Act Section 401 Water Quality Certification Application Form that was submitted to the State Water Resources Control Board by Paul Marshall of DWR’s Bay Delta Office.
(A 401 permit regulates discharges of fill and dredged material under the federal Clean Water Act Section 401 and the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act. Click here for documents related to the 401 permit for this project.)
Leaving aside for a moment the question of why we’re short of fresh water flowing through the Delta this year, let’s look at how DWR is going to implement part of that emergency barriers project that they’ve been planning for since last September.
The Department will put one rock fill barrier in the South Delta on West False River. If salty water moves up False River and makes its way to the open water of Franks Tract, it will be very hard to get Franks Tract fresh again, which is bad news for a significant number of Delta water users and fish — which are being decimated during this drought. So with severe drought conditions this barrier can be described as a bad necessity. But this barrier makes life harder for boaters and some landowners whose access to fresh water will need to be re-engineered.
DWR’s plans for the northern part of the Delta involve two rock fill barriers, one on Sutter Slough and one on Steamboat Slough. The purpose of these is to “redirect upstream flows to better repel saltwater intrusion into the Delta,” according to a presentation by Resources Deputy Secretary Paul Helliker to the Ironhouse Sanitary District in Oakdale on March 19 (also available as a link on the DWR webpage above).
At Sutter and Steamboat Sloughs, the barriers will have four 48-inch culverts to allow fish passage and downstream flow when needed “for water quality and stage.” A boat portage facility will be operated at the Steamboat Slough barrier to allow boats less than 22 feet long to cross. If you’re a farmer along one of these sloughs who relies on fresh Sacramento River water to irrigate your crops, or a boater or marina owner who relies on navigable water levels, life will be extremely difficult.
On paper, in the Drought Barriers drawings, only the False River barrier looks truly temporary. Some people have seen this project as a prelude to BDCP.
DWR has done something like this before, in 1976 and 1977. During that drought, they put one barrier on Sutter Slough to help meet water quality criteria, conserve water, and enable increased SWP and CVP pumping; and another at the head of Old River to protect fishery resources. Was the process as high-handed 37 years ago?
Six weeks ago, on February 18 and 19, the State Water Resources Control Board held a Public Workshop regarding the Temporary Urgency Change Petition for the federal and state water projects. (That’s not the kind of “workshop” that Delta residents typically attend.) For that meeting, DWR prepared a PowerPoint presentation about contingency plans for the barriers. Steps outlined in the presentation:
• Complete modeling (If completed, every day Delta people have not seen it.)
• Refine alternatives (What alternatives? DWR only picks one plan ever with no input from the people directly impacted.)
• Present to RTDOMT (Real-Time Drought Operations Management Team)
• Execute work plan – Complete environmental documents; Design barriers; Obtain right-of-way agreements; Complete permitting; Develop and implement public outreach; Installation and Operations.
They appear to have moved with lightening speed on that last step, with contracts for delivery of rocks scheduled for early this month and the barriers scheduled to be in place by May 1. One step they skipped was “Develop and implement public outreach.” What has happened is that large numbers of Delta residents wanting answers have essentially crashed a couple of informational meetings planned (not necessarily by DWR) for smaller groups. For a detailed account of the meeting in Walnut Grove, see this article in the Central Valley Business Times by Snug Harbor Resorts Owner Nicole Suard.
At a presentation to the Delta Protection Commission on March 27, DWR Drought Manager Bill Croyle and Paul Marshall got a lot of feedback on this plan that feels to Delta residents like it came out of nowhere.
Osha Meserve, attorney for Local Agencies of the North Delta, said that the northern barriers haven’t been well-justified and that the project warrants a full environmental review. (DWR plans to exempt the barriers from CEQA review.) She noted that there is no clear operation plan for the barriers.
Melinda Terry is the executive director of the North Delta Water Agency, which (unlike the Central and South Delta Water Agencies) has a contract with DWR to assure a dependable water supply of suitable quality. She pointed out that DWR didn’t initiate public meetings. She also noted that no funding for the barriers has been identified. (They could cost $25 million to install, and then there’s the cost of removing them.) And she said that the 1976 Sutter Slough barrier was installed after planting season was over. Farmers this year will not be so fortunate.
North Delta farmer Tim Neuharth noted that although this plan is supposed to benefit water quality in the Delta, the Delta Cross Channel gates will be kept open and the pumps will continue to run. This will have the effect of pushing fresh water to the east, which benefits exporters. If Delta water quality were the real objective, the barriers would be placed differently.
DWR handled this whole thing badly. South Delta landowner Karen Cunningham, whose cattle ranching operation will suffer water quality impacts as a result of the False River barrier, had pictures of DWR pickups lined up on a levee where Paul Marshall said nothing related to the barrier was happening yet. After some discussion, it appeared that DWR employees were there about a Jersey Island seepage project that just happens to be going forward right now.
It’s little wonder that throughout the Delta, residents feel like they are living in some totalitarian country where government agents show up without warning to turn people’s lives inside out. How hard would it be, really, to notify people about what’s going on? Would it have been impossible for DWR starting back in December to hold bi-weekly conference calls with reclamation districts and Delta water agency representatives to share information, receive input, and give updates? And where are the updates now on the projects and the necessity with current rain?
But that’s not how the State manages this “hub of California’s water system,” whose residents are on ongoing inconvenience to the state and federal water contractors and the bureaucracies that serve them.
This is exactly the kind of treatment the Delta can expect under BDCP.
Lots of our readers probably saw Lois Henry’s report in the Bakersfield Californian about a January water auction in Kern County. The Buena Vista Water Storage District of Kern County auctioned 12,000 acre feet of stored water to pay for a land fallowing program within its district. Sounds reasonable to us.
Tucked in a sidebar is the list of bidders. The third highest per acre foot bid was from a business called Cal Heavy Oil.
Googling “Cal Heavy Oil” doesn’t tell you anything. But a company called California Heavy Petroleum Services has a Facebook page. There’s no address, but Facebook lists some “similar places nearby”: Chevron Lost Hills, California Drilling Fluids in Lost Hills, Aera Energy LLC in Missouri Triangle (an unincorporated community in Kern County), Orchard Petroleum in Buttonwillow, and McJunkin Corp in Buttonwillow.
Henry’s follow-up article reports on who won the bidding. Buena Vista required that winning bidders use the water for agricultural operations in Kern County, which took Cal Heavy Oil out of the running. But it looks like only large agricultural operations like Paramount Farming could bid competitively with oil producers for this water.
Paramount wasn’t the highest bidder, though. Four of the seven winning bids went to Starrh & Starrh, a farming operation in Shafter.
Fred Starrh of Starrh Farms was awarded $8.5 million in damages from Aera Energy a few years back. The oil company put wastewater in percolation ponds, polluting the groundwater and ultimately killing Starrh’s cotton and almonds. With oil extraction now in open competition with agriculture for water in the San Joaquin Valley, the story about how the oil industry uses water is worth another look.
We’d sympathize even more with Starrh & Starrh if they hadn’t taken over $10 million from 1995-2012 in subsidies for growing thirsty cotton in Kern County, enabling family members to make over $50,000 in political contributions (2012 &2014) to a number of the Central Valley Congressmen who heard Larry Starrh’s dramatic testimony on how they need “their water” at the recent Field Hearing of the Congressional Natural Resources Committee. The EWG data base lists the owners of Starrh & Starrh Cotton Growers as Lawrence E. Starrh, Jay B. Kroeker, Fred L. Starrh, and Fred L. Starrh II.)
In addition, as reported back to us by a supporter, “Starrh and Starrh have struck a deal to buy over 3,700 acre feet of water from the Buena Vista Water Storage District. They share part of the Buena Vista auction with Paramount Farms, whose owners Stewart and Linda Resnick are closely associated with Sen. Diane Feinstein. That was reported in the Bakersfield Californian on 2/28/2014. Larry Starrh is on the Board of Directors of the Belridge Water Storage District that actively resells water to Aera Energy LLC for use in fracking of W. Kern / Ventura County wells. Did I mention that the Belridge Board President is William Phillimore, Ex. VP of the same Paramount Farms that shared the proceeds of the Buena Vista water auction. It is a cozy little group, isn’t it?”
Coming as no surprise to in-Delta fishing and environmental groups, Alex Breitler of the Stockton Record reports:
A critical portion of the governor’s twin tunnels plan is hard to understand, overstates the benefits for fish and fails to make clear that much uncertainty remains over the outcome, an independent panel of experts has concluded.
If you have not read the most recent criticism of Governor Brown’s Delta tunnels plan by a panel of independent scientists from throughout the country, they have “concluded that the benefit of restoring Delta wetlands for fish remains ‘highly uncertain and at least an extremely long process’ that may or may not provide the additional food needed to sustain some Delta species” To read the article in its entirety click here.
Waiving key protection measures for salmon and other species calls into question the Governor’s assurances that his peripheral tunnels will safeguard the environment and the estuary. Thus, these groups sent a joint letter by a broad range of stakeholders, including national and regional fishing and conservation organizations, in response to the government’s decision earlier this week to waive key ESA protections in the Bay-Delta estuary. These assurances will not be worth the paper they are written on if powerful moneyed interests are allowed to gain rollbacks and waivers.
Here is a link to the letter.