The (Water) Fix Is In
the fix is in, idiom — used to say that the outcome of something, such as a game or contest, is being controlled or affected in a dishonest way — Merriam-Webster
On March 2, members of WATER traveled to Redding to attend a scoping meeting for a Notice of Preparation (NOP) concerning the Delta Conveyance Project and commented on the proposed tunnel which would divert water from the Sacramento River, upstream of the Delta, and deliver it to the California Aqueduct pumping facilities. While we shelter in place from Covid-19, planning for this project and others including the Shasta Dam Raise is afoot in preparation for another giant water heist.
On March 26, the Trump Administration ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to suspend its enforcement of environmental laws during the ongoing Coronavirus outbreak. The shift allows for factories, power plants, production facilities, and other producers to self-regulate in reporting air and water pollution and waste management practices indefinitely.
Trump has always benefited from the noise around his endless controversies. Now the effect is multiplied. Bob Shrum, a political science professor at the University of Southern California, said: “He’s building the wall, he’s closed the border, put out all these EPA regulations that roll back Obama regulations. You can do a lot of things when people are huddled at home in fear of a fatal disease.”
So in the meantime, engineering studies for the Shasta Dam Raise are proceeding apace and an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) is being prepared for the Delta Conveyance Project. The Delta Conveyance Project, formerly called the Water Fix under Governor Jerry Brown, has been modified from two tunnels with a capacity of 9,000 cubic feet per second of water (cfs) to one tunnel under Governor Gavin Newsom which would carry between 3,000 cfs to 7,500 cfs depending on the analysis of the EIR required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
The tunnel is part of Stage II of the State Water Project (SWP). Stage I provides water to much of California, especially Southern California, with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California the largest contractor (45.8%) followed by the Kern County Water Agency (23.5%). Additional proposed projects included in Stage II include the Sites Reservoir to be located near the community of Sites northwest of Maxwell, the Los Banos Grandes Reservoir several miles south of the San Luis Reservoir and a possible enlargement of the San Luis Reservoir. The Shasta Dam Raise should also be considered part of this scheme but technically it is part of the federal Central Valley Project (CVP).
The Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta already suffers the lack of half its historical water flows, with up to 90% of the San Joaquin River’s flow diverted to Southern California. The high seasonal freshwater flows during the rainy season would be further held back or diverted to these reservoirs depriving the rivers, Delta and the San Francisco Bay of the transport of nutrients and the flushing out of toxins from the river beds. Diversions to the Sites Reservoir could take as much as 60 percent of the Sacramento River’s flow at times.
Current pumping facilities for the CVP and the SWP even cause the Delta's flow to reverse direction, disturbing the natural salinity patterns. Formerly large populations of Delta smelt, Chinook salmon and other native fish have crashed, with the loss of returning salmon depriving the river watersheds of the return of nutrients they provided. Diversions upstream at the tunnel would further reduce flows through the Delta allowing the farther intrusion of saltwater also impacting farms in the Delta.
Compounding these problems, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board (CVRWQCB) granted a 25 year permit to the Westlands Water District allowing polluted agricultural runoff to be discharged into the San Joaquin River. This runoff is high in the selenium naturally occurring in the soil of the Westlands District. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) has reported over 80% of fish collected from the Delta suffer spinal deformities due to selenium. This runoff previously destroyed the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in the early 1980’s by causing widespread deformities in the wildlife due to selenium poisoning.
The corrupt and Byzantine story of California’s water, water rights and water distribution is a very deep rabbit hole intentionally kept shrouded, but sometimes a ray of light shines upon it. In the since-withdrawn NOP for the Shasta Dam Raise, it was stated that during wet years when Lake Shasta becomes full, the Westlands Water District would magnanimously agree to share this bounty. But in drought years, the additional water would be solely for the benefit of the District.
The Westlands Water District lies on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley stretching from Firebaugh down to Kettleman City. The district serves some of the country's wealthiest and most politically influential corporate farmers including billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick - owners of Paramount Farms, the world’s largest producer and packager of pistachios and almonds, and the largest farming company in the United States. The Resnicks also grow Halos, the mandarin oranges irrigated with fracking waste water supposedly diluted to safe drinking water standards.
In 1994, under threat of legal action over pumping reductions decreed to protect the endangered Delta smelt from being puréed in the Water Projects’ pumps, the state ceded ownership of the Kern Water Bank, used to store water underground, to the local water districts including Westlands in exchange for junior water rights that existed only on paper since there isn’t enough rainfall most years to fulfill them. In fact, the allocated water rights across the state are twice the average available amount of water and only during very wet years are they ever fulfilled. The Resnicks, who’d given up the most paper water rights, came to hold a majority vote on the bank’s board and own the majority of the Kern Water Bank's very real water.
Although the Kern Water Bank Authority oversees a vital water resource, its staff is tucked away in the offices of the Resnick’s Paramount Farming Company. According to an investigation by the Contra Costa Times, between 2000 and 2007 the Resnicks bought water for as little as $28 an acre-foot (1 acre-foot = 326,000 gallons) then sold it for as much as $196 per acre-foot to the state, and used it to supply other farmers whose Delta supply had been previously curtailed. Paramount executives have also had talks with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power about selling “an as-yet-unspecified amount of water.”
Although the Westlands Water District withdrew from Jerry Brown’s Water Fix, balking at the $3 billion dollar price tag for its participation, it is considered to be one of the prime beneficiaries of the Delta Conveyance Project. It has recently been awarded a permanent water delivery contract from the CVP in exchange for paying off its $480.7 million debt to the federal government for its share of the Central Valley Project construction cost. This award is being contested.
Work has begun for the world’s largest solar complex on 30,000 acres in the Westlands Water District made unusable by the excess salt pollution from selenium and other toxins leeched from the soil. Over 100,000 acres have been removed from agricultural production due to a chronic lack of water as well. The future of the Westlands Water District seems to be solar farms, but the valuable water rights remain available to be resold by the property owners in the District. The Westlands Water District in truth has only 350 farms which stand to profit greatly from this water grab.
The Delta Conveyance Project and other proposed State Water Project reservoirs will be funded by the $7.5 billion approved by voters in 2014.
The public will have a chance to comment on the Draft EIR. I urge you to do so and advocate for a decision of no project. Also lobby your state representatives to divert this money to returning the salmon to their historic range and restoring the ecosystems of the Delta and the northern rivers.
If you are interested in learning more, I would suggest watching Water and Power: A California Heist available for streaming on Netflix and for rent on Amazon, YouTube, iTunes and Vudu. The links below are also a good primer on this topic.
Finally, a good book on the history of California water: The Dreamt Land by Mark Arax.
President of We Advocate Thorough Environmental Review (W.A.T.E.R.)
W.A.T.E.R. submitted comments to the California State Department of Water Resources (DWR) on the Delta Conveyance Project, the Delta Tunnel project formerly known as the Water Fix. The letter identifies the many areas that may potentially be impacted by the construction and operation of the delta tunnel. As part of Stage II of the State Water Project (SWP), the operation of this tunnel would divert even greater amounts of the Sacramento River's flow toward Southern California affecting water quality in the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta, a water source relied on by millions of people and aquatic life.