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Nature Conservancy Backs Schwarzenegger’s Big Ditch

by DAN BACHER

The Nature Conservancy, a group infamous in conservation circles for trading environmental principles for the acquisition of land throughout the world, on Wednesday joined Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign to build a peripheral canal to divert water from the Sacramento River around the California Delta to subsidized corporate agribusiness in the San Joaquin Valley.

The organization’s announcement came five days after the Governor’s hand picked Delta Vision Committee released its plan to break ground on a peripheral canal by 2011 – without the approval of the Legislature or voters. In spite of the fact that the state of California is facing a huge deficit and the Legislature and Governor have failed to reach an accord on the state budget, Schwarzenegger continues to push for the canal and two new reservoirs as part of a water bond that would cost an estimated $12 billion to $24 billion. The Conservancy is supporting the Governor’s ecologically devastating plan, with a few conditions included.

The Nature Conservancy’s backing for the canal is featured in its “Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta Conservation Strategy,” a report that supposedly “provides recommendations for restoring key habitats and species in the Delta.” The organization, in the atrocious eco-babble that normally accompanies its green washing schemes, touted the canal as part of “strategy” to “restore” the Delta when in fact it would do the opposite, diverting water badly needed for imperiled populations of chinook salmon, steelhead, delta smelt, longfin smelt, threadfin shad and juvenile striped bass, away from the estuary.

“The Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast, is widely acknowledged to be on the verge of collapse, with through-Delta conveyance being a key contributor to the system’s decline,” according to the Conservancy. “The Conservancy’s plan calls for restoration of more natural water flows in the Delta. It recognizes that a peripheral canal, designed and operated to promote a healthy Delta ecosystem, must be part of a comprehensive Delta solution. The plan also recommends improving governance to manage the Delta’s resources in an ecologically sustainable manner.”

“If we don’t take steps to repair some of the Delta’s natural ecological functions, we have no hope of saving the species that depend on this delicate ecosystem,” claimed Mike Sweeney, executive director for The Nature Conservancy’s California Program. “The Nature Conservancy’s analysis led us to the conclusion that, short of ending water exports from the Delta, a peripheral canal is an essential component to restoring the conditions that Delta species need to survive.”

“Existing water operations in the Delta are incompatible with ecosystem health,” added Anthony Saracino, water program director for the Conservancy’s California Program. “Plants and animals in the Delta didn’t evolve to live in a freshwater lake, but that’s exactly what much of the Delta has become.”

The organization describes itself as “a science-based conservation organization working and managing land in the Delta,” and touts its participation in the Governor’s controversial Bay Delta Conservation Plan and Delta Vision planning processes. However, it is apparent from its position on the peripheral canal that the only “science” the Nature Conservancy supports is “political science.”

The group’s Delta “conservation strategy” is supposedly “designed to protect habitats and species whose survival is critical to the overall health of the Delta.” The conservation targets include brackish tidal wetlands, freshwater tidal wetlands, riparian/floodplain habitat and northern clay pan vernal pools, native resident and anadromous fishes, migratory waterfowl, shorebirds and water birds.

Conservation strategies identified in the report include wetlands restoration, improvements to floodplain habitat and bypass facilities, reducing development that impacts critical habitat and increases flood risk and improvements to in-Delta flows, support for a comprehensive science program and the establishment of a “new, independent governance structure.”

“The key to success lies in the governance structure,” contended Saracino. “History has shown that the existing process for managing and regulating the Delta does not work. We are in critical need of a new, independent form of governance if we hope to meet the multiple objectives for the Delta, and we cannot afford to wait another year for this to happen.”

“The Nature Conservancy will be actively engaged in the efforts outlined in the Delta Conservation Strategy, working closely with state and federal resources agencies and local partners,” Saracino gushed. “Saving the Delta’s biological diversity is no doubt a daunting task, and success will require years of commitment from all stakeholders. But, by working together, we can find solutions to this crisis.”

However, it is clear that “working together” with the stakeholders, as Sacacino claimed, doesn’t extend to residents of the Delta or the people most impacted by the Governor’s proposed “big ditch.” Restore the Delta, a Delta-based coalition including Delta farmers, environmentalists, everyday citizens, fishermen, business leaders, the faith community, and recreation enthusiasts, strongly challenged the statement made by the Nature Conservancy supporting the construction of the peripheral canal.

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Restore the Delta Campaign Director, noted that the Conservancy does not work with or represent the interests of Delta locals.

“The Nature Conservancy does not meet with and communicate regularly with local environmental activists, fishermen, or a broad association of Delta farmers, and, thus, does not understand the water needs of Delta communities,” she said. “In fact, the Nature Conservancy is so focused on acquiring land that it has forgotten that fisheries need unimpeded fresh water flows in order to flourish.”

The Nature Conservancy, staffed by various former Department of Water Resources employees, “simply does not understand the hydrodynamics of the estuary,” according to John Herrick General Manager of the South Delta Water Agency. “If they concur with DWR’s assessment that diverting fresh water from entering the Delta and allowing salt water to intrude into historically fresh water areas will have a positive impact on restoring Delta smelt or salmon populations, they have not done their homework.”

Parrilla said the peripheral canal would “deal the final death blow” to Delta fisheries. “First and foremost, fish need water,” she emphasized. “A peripheral canal will not make more water for fisheries or for the people of California. It will simply ship California’s water from north to south, destroying the Delta’s farming and fishing economies in the process.”

Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, also blasted the Conservancy for its support of the peripheral canal – and depicted the group as the Judas of the environmental community.

“Judas only got 40 pieces of silver for his betrayal,” said Jennings. “In contrast, the Conservancy will reap millions from their support of the canal.”

He quipped, “There is so much interchange between the personnel of the Nature Conservancy and the Department of Water Resources (DWR) that they are a defacto subsidiary of DWR.”

Jennings emphasized that the canal would do nothing to solve the California Water Resources Control Board’s over allocation of “paper water.” While the total outflow of water from Central Valley watersheds into the Delta is an average of 29,000,000 acre feet of water annually, the Board has allocated “water rights” of 245,000,000 acre feet of water to subsidized agricultural diverters and other users!

The Nature Conservancy’s dark, unholy alliance with Schwarzenegger occurs at a time when California’s fisheries are in the greatest crisis ever. The Governor has presided over the collapse of the Delta’s pelagic species, including Delta smelt, longfin smelt, threadfin shad and juvenile striped bass, and Central Valley chinook populations.

Massive water exports out of the Delta, combined with declining water quality, toxic chemicals and invasive species, are the key factors behind these unprecedented fisheries disasters. The peripheral canal, in spite of all of the Conservancy’s eco-babble, will exacerbate the deplorable state of California and West Coast fish populations and the group must be exposed for being a willing partner in the estuary’s destruction.

A series of articles in the Washington Post, “Big Green: Inside the Nature Conservancy,” document the organization’s history of paying exorbitant salaries to its top staff, conflict of interest in its “restoration” programs, and collaboration with global corporations in one green washing scheme after another.

For more information about the crisis in Delta fisheries and what your can do about it, go to www.restorethedelta.org, www.calsport.org and www.water4fish.org.

DAN BACHER can be reached at: Danielbacher@fishsniffer.com

 

 

 

 

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Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher danielbacher@fishsniffer.com.

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