by Tim Stroshane, Policy Analyst, Restore the Delta
The headline for Water Deeply’s interview this week with Public Policy Institute of California scholar-celebrity Jeff Mount, “The Mysteries of Delta Islands Sale” about the recent Delta islands purchase by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, took us aback for its seeming naïveté from an acknowledged expert on the Delta and California water politics.
To Delta folks, it is obvious what Metropolitan Water District wants by purchasing five islands here (Chipps, Webb, Bouldin, Holland, and Bacon): greater control over the destiny of its export supplies from the Delta. What’s so mysterious about that?
The point about control was succinctly argued in 1960 by an aging water lawyer named Walter Gleason, whom most of us have never heard of. Mr. Gleason toiled in major Central Valley water litigation for most of his near-40-year career. By 1960, he knew from experience the changing landscape of state water policy and law.
State Senator Stephen P. Teale, then chair of the state senate interim committee on water projects, published an opinion by Mr. Gleason just days before the November 1960 election that narrowly ushered in the State Water Project. (The project’s bond referendum won by a threadbare margin of 174,000 votes.) While it was too little too late, Mr. Gleason’s views are prophetic in light of MWD’s purchase of the five Delta islands.
Mr. Gleason believed that the proposed State Water Project would create unprecedented litigious water grabs aimed at northern California water, especially the Delta. The project would set up a “new hydrology” in which “for the first time in history the South will become directly and legally interested in the water resources of the Central Valley and the water rights (existing and prospective),” he wrote.
Prior to the State Water Project, southern California “might as well be in Mexico insofar as any present ability to take on or interfere with any water or water rights in Northern California [is] concerned,” he continued. But with southern California having a direct interest in Delta export affairs because of the Banks Pumping Plant near Tracy, Mr. Gleason maintained that no vested water rights in northern California (which he defined as water north of the Tehachapis) are safe from predation by either MWD or the California Department of Water Resources.
So in a legal sense, “the end result of this new Water Plan will be exactly the same as if all of Southern California were to be physically uprooted and set down at Tracy (i.e., next to Delta). In short, the length of the aqueduct between the Tracy Pumping Plant is immaterial since the South will…be sitting next to the Delta with a right to receive water out of the Delta (through its ‘water contract’ with the State),” wrote Mr. Gleason.
This is the legal reality behind Dr. Mount’s statement that “the Metropolitan Water District doesn’t do anything that isn’t in its best interests.” After talking himself out of the costly nature of developing some of the islands either for agriculture or natural habitat, Dr. Mount says of MWD’s purchase, “I gotta think it’s relative to the tunnels” for Tunnels alignment acquisition, staging, and spoils storage.
Mystery solved by the Public Policy Institute of California!
Asked whether he thinks the tunnels will be built, Dr. Mount hopes some kind of “deal” will appear as recently occurred with Klamath dam removal to benefit salmon habitat.
In Klamath, he said, “good, well-intentioned people managed to actually form a compromise.” Dr. Mount does not think so highly of Delta folks, a populace conscious of unrelieved threats to its region’s water and economic future, but not resigned to fate.
“The opponents of the tunnels have offered nothing that seems even remotely viable,” he also told Water Deeply.
Dr. Mount ignores the fact that, last year Delta farmers, when they could have flexed their senior water rights instead voluntarily reduced their water use by 25 percent to help with the drought. The Delta Watermaster found the program worked well. And in recent years, the Environmental Water Caucus issued multiple editions of a sustainable water plan for California.
We take as a backhand compliment that Dr. Mount feels that “Delta interests are very well organized.” We try harder because we have to, and because we were warned.
“It’s dangerous if [Met] ratepayers start saying this is a mistake,” Dr. Mount concluded of the islands purchase to Water Deeply.
We at Restore the Delta could not agree more.