Mike Dunbar

We don’t trust water board’s chair. Please, Governor make a change


The problem with Felicia Marcus is that she never stopped working for the environmental movement.

Yes, she’s paid by the state to represent all Californians as chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board.

Yes, her position of authority requires her to balance competing needs in making economic life-and-death decisions.

Yes, as leader of the quasi-judicial board, she’s supposed to view all the facts then find a wise path for water use.

Yet, she has utterly failed in her duties to the state, treating this job as an extension of her old one – attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Smart, gutsy and glib, Marcus has proved to be a great friend to those whose job it is to sell environmental fanaticism to the public. For everyone else, she’s a political target.

Her term as chairwoman of the water board ended Jan. 15; and a new chair must be appointed in March. Marcus desperately wants to keep the job – lobbying sympathetic media along the coast and pulling every string she can. For the sake of salmon and a million Northern Californians, she must be replaced.

If not, every water board decision will be suspect and many of them will be challenged in court. It’s already happening.

After the water board voted 4-1 in December to implement the outdated and scientifically debunked Phase 1 of the Bay-Delta Plan, eight different water agencies have sued. The San Joaquin (River) Tributaries Authority (which includes the City and County of San Francisco and Turlock, Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts) filed a lawsuit. So did the Modesto and Merced irrigation districts and the California Farm Bureau, among others.

Even environmentalists are suing, with one already filed and five more reported to be in the pipeline. They, too, challenge the board’s bad science.

Reappointing Marcus doesn’t just invite endless litigation, it slaps one of the state’s poorest regions – i.e., us – in the face. Allowing her to remain will be seen as a betrayal by a new governor who has been making significant inroads among people who had been skeptical of his politics, but now are looking for reasons to give him a chance.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is as smart as any politician in America. He was raised in San Francisco drinking water from the Tuolumne – just like the people of Modesto. He knows what’s at stake.

He also knows Marcus can’t be trusted. She knifed him politically even before he became governor.

In November, when he was still governor-elect, Newsom and Gov. Jerry Brown co-signed an unprecedented letter asking Marcus and the board to delay its contentious decision to implement Phase 1. The governors knew negotiating with those who for over 100 years have held the rights to use the water on the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers was the only way to reach a durable, equitable and workable agreement to save salmon and a $4 billion a year farming industry.

Grudgingly, painfully, angrily, the board granted one month.

What happened next? Exactly what the governors had hoped.

Their emissaries – Karla Nemeth, director of the Department of Water Resources, and Chuck Bonham, director of the Department of Fish and Game – conducted marathon talks with people from here and the Bay Area. Water districts vowed to create more floodplain, provide greater flows at crucial times and restore riverbeds where salmon spawn. Because it’s the right thing to do, they agreed to provide billions of gallons of additional water to help salmon grow strong ... before they swim to their deaths in a thoroughly degraded Delta.

Bonham’s job is making sure wildlife (and hatchery-raised salmon more or less qualify) can thrive in our state. He not only negotiated the deal, he and Nemeth presented it to the water board in December. He told the board they were close to a similar agreement on the Stanislaus. They just needed more time to finish.

Instead, the water board voted 4-1 to implement their flawed Phase 1 plan, effectively ending further negotiations. After voting, Marcus and another board member high-fived.

In the words of one close observer, “she flipped the bird to not one, but two governors.”

But not just the governors. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has accepted the similar Tuolumne River Management Plan. So has the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service.

People in our region will act in good faith and to do what they promised. But they no longer have any faith in Marcus or the process.

Meanwhile, lawsuits are spawning faster than salmon. And more are coming.

Soon, water board staff – an agency Marcus has surrendered to the environmental lobby – will release its Phase 2 recommendations for the Sacramento River. Staff is expected to nod along with the Natural Resources Defense Council and others to demand up to 750,000 additional acre feet flow into the rip-rapped ditches of the Delta. If staff asks for less, a judge might ask why farmers here are treated so much more harshly than farmers on the Sacramento.

The smartest people studying fish Peter Moyle, Doug Demko, Delta watermaster Michael George, even Metropolitan Water District’s top scientists – know the key to improving fish populations is better habitat, killing the predators who feast on young salmon and smarter flows. Simply sending more water down the rivers – as Marcus insists – is “scientifically lazy,” in their words. And destined to failure.

The well is poisoned. No one in this region – or the state’s entire ag community – trusts the board’s decisions or Marcus. She’s seen as an advocate for the Big Green environmental profit machine. That’s where she should be getting her paycheck.

Mike Dunbar is the editor of The Modesto Bee and Merced Sun-Star editorial pages. 209-578-2325