Mike Dunbar

In this horror flick, we’re playing the part of Victim No. 1

When the State Water Resources Control Board conducted a public hearing in Modesto last December, residents packed the Center Plaza conference room. Hours of testimony in Modesto, Merced and Stockton doesn’t appear to have had any impact on the board’s plans.
When the State Water Resources Control Board conducted a public hearing in Modesto last December, residents packed the Center Plaza conference room. Hours of testimony in Modesto, Merced and Stockton doesn’t appear to have had any impact on the board’s plans. Modesto Bee file

At the climax of most horror movies, the mask gets ripped away and we see the face of the villain – Jason, Leatherface, Freddie Kruger, Jerry Brown.

We’re living our own slow-motion horror movie, in which the state has been plotting for years to steal the water that sustains our lives and a third of the Northern San Joaquin Valley’s economy. The plot is really boiling now, so let’s pull off some masks.

Governor Puppetmaster – Gov. Brown waited until 11:48 last Sunday night to veto Adam Gray’s Assembly Bill 313 – which would have inserted some fairness into resolving water disputes. As it is, the State Water Resources Control Board staff writes the rules, brings the charges then decides the cases. Disagree with their decision? Then the dispute moves to the board’s governor-appointed commissioners; no wonder it never loses.

The agency is cop, prosecutor, judge and appellate court. That’s fair in North Korea, not so much in Northern California.

Gray’s bill would have put appeals before a neutral third party before sending the decision back to the board. The board could still overrule it, but that might look, well, fishy.

Brown’s veto message conceded the process doesn’t appear fair, but he worried about costs, finding water experts, blah, blah.

What he’s really worried about is that an impartial arbiter might put obstacles in the way of the Water Board’s grab of vast amounts of our region’s water; and that might trip up his legacy-fulfilling California WaterFix.

Plundering Bureaucrats – The Water Board recently released its Phase II fact sheet, which was supposed to be about the California WaterFix’s impacts on the Sacramento River. By Page 4, its real subject was clear.

The report described salmon as being “deprived” of “cold water” they “need for survival” followed by dire warnings that this “sometimes fatal” issue will be exacerbated by climate change. To save the salmon, the state wants strong pulse flows, colder water, constant and vastly higher “inflows” to the Delta.

Where are these “inflows” flowing from? The Stanislaus, Merced and Tuolumne rivers.

But peer-reviewed studies done here show that to be effective, “pulse” flows should be smaller; that fish take migration cues from factors scientists don’t fully comprehend (like rain and turbidity). Sometimes scientists don’t know what they’re doing, killing more fish than they save.

Do state bureaucrats care? No, because it’s not really about fish.

The governor’s 40-foot-wide twin tunnels will send most of the much-colder and four-times larger Sacramento River under the Delta. With reduced “inflows” from the Sacramento, more of the far smaller, much-warmer San Joaquin River will be needed to keep the Delta from becoming pickle brine. And the only way to assure those “inflows” are cold is to take what’s deep behind our dams.

What’s left?

The Phase II fact sheet mentions reaching “voluntary” agreements. It confuses victims with volunteers.

Our irrigation districts are developing their own plans – which we hope will include higher flows and restoration of riverbeds and floodplains to help trout thrive. Trout?

Many scientists say salmon are already functionally extinct in our rivers. With Sierra runoff warming, is devoting higher flows to save salmon just whistling in the graveyard?

Mean Greens – The Tuolumne Trust’s Peter Drekmeier has written several times for The Modesto Bee. But just before the state released its Phase II report, he targeted The Sacramento Bee’s audience to complain that our water districts have resisted giving up even a “modest” amount more water.

When environmentalists write about the water they want, it’s always a modest amount. When they write about water someone else uses to grow food, then “big ag” is “consuming” 80 percent of “our water.” Not exactly a lie, but certainly not the truth.

Half the state’s fresh water flows into the ocean every year – far more during wet years. Of what’s left, farming uses 80 percent. From that 80 percent, many districts provide water for wildlife and fish.

Over a year of quiet negotiations, our water districts offered to give up 100 percent more water. What did the state and environmentalists say? Nothing; they ghosted. Getting twice as much water wasn’t enough. What they really want – it’s in the Phase II fact sheet – is 75 percent of all flows (350 percent more). Plus the cold water behind the dams.

What we want is an admission that the people of Modesto, Turlock, Oakdale, Merced and San Francisco have invested billions in dams, canals, tunnels, pipelines, pumps, treatment plants and, yes, environmental restoration. Without water, those investments are worthless.

Mean Greens disdain farmers, but weep for salmon fishers. Drekmeier said commercial fishers lost $255 million when salmon fishing was banned in 2008-09. Seriously? California’s entire commercial salmon catch was worth $8.1 million in 2015. (About what local beekeepers got for their honey.) And if they’re not catching salmon, they’re catching other fish.

Why ridiculously insist losses hit $255 million? To justify crippling a $9 billion regional industry for the sake of a few San Francisco fishing boats.

Cannibal Farmers Farmers like to think other farmers wouldn’t betray them. When Kern County’s water agency voted to back the governor’s WaterFix, they did it unanimously while dreaming of filling their tomato fields with lucrative tree crops now grown best here. Westlands Water District rejected the tunnels, but as others line up at our spigots expect Westlands to take a second bite of this apple. And out of us.

Meanwhile, water districts in Castaic, Coachella Valley, Contra Costa and, of course, goliath Metropolitan Water District are all in. Santa Clara’s water district voted only to fund one tunnel. We’ll see if the governor is willing to split his baby. Regardless, the impact will be the same here – less water.

Bottomless Pit of Thirst – Last year, The Los Angeles Times editorial board chastised farmers here for being unwilling to give up more water to help the noble salmon. But when Westlands refused (for now) to pay its portion of Uncle Jerry’s tunnels, the ouraged Times bellowed: “It comes down to this: We need the tunnels.”

But what about the saintly salmon? With so much water bypassing the Delta, how will they ever find their way up the Sacramento to spawn? What about people living in the Delta? What about the thousands of families in Stanislaus, Merced and south San Joaquin counties who will lose their jobs as the fields are fallowed?

“Stop waffling over the delta tunnels and dig” thundered the Times.

They’ll be digging our graves.