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The Dark Heart of California’s Water Politics

When I was at the March for Science in Sacramento a month ago, a friend asked to get me on video and talk about what is the crux of water issues in California, what is the overriding, central issue behind the different water battles. That’s one that includes the Delta Tunnels, the failure of the state and federal agencies to address environmentalists’ concerns with the safety of the Oroville Dam and spillways, the salmon and other fish collapses and the pollution of our drinking water by agribusiness, municipal and oil waste.

I told her the problem is that California is portrayed as the green leader, but the reality is much different. The state has some good environmental laws that protect our rivers, lakes, streams and ocean waters, but they’re enforced very poorly. These laws includes the California Endangered Species Act, California Environmental Water Quality Act, California Coastal Act, Marine Life Protection Act and a host of others.

Why? It’s because from top to bottom, the regulators are captured, from the Department of Conservation to marine protection panels.

This is a presentation that I recently developed from her idea.

The dire situation: Salmon and other species are collapsing 

The Delta smelt, maligned as a “small minnow” by corporate agribusiness interests, is an indicator species that shows the health of the San Francisco-Bay Delta Estuary. Once the most abundant fish in Delta estuary, the Delta smelt population is so small that you can almost name them now. The most recent California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW)  fall midwater survey shows that the Delta smelt is the second lowest in CA history, while the related longfin smelt population is the also second lowest.

The Delta smelt collapse is part of an overall ecosystem decline, including dramatic reductions in winter, spring and fall-run Chinook salmon and steelhead populations, driven by water diversions by the federal and state water projects. From 1967 through 2015, populations of striped bass, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, American shad, splittail and threadfin shad declined by 93.7 percent to 99.7 percent (99.7, 98.3, 99.9, 97.7, 98.5 and 93.7 percent) respectively, according to Bill Jennings, Executive Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

Then on Tuesday, May 16, some alarming news was unveiled by California Trout and the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences in a press teleconference discussing a new report that indicates if present trends continue, the majority of California’s imperiled native salmon, steelhead and trout are likely to be extinct within 100 years.

The report forecasts that 74 percent of the state’s native salmon, steelhead and trout are likely be extinct in the next 100 years  — and 45 percent of these fish in 50 years — if the current trends continue.

It details the status of 32 salmonid populations in California and identifies opportunities for stabilizing and even recovering these species.

The causes outlined for the dire forecast include  drought, climate change human-induced threats, including residential development, major dams, agriculture, fire, alien species, transport, logging, fish harvest, estuary alteration, hatcheries, mining, in stream mining, grazing, urbanization and recreation.

I would add record water exports in recent years –  and poor state and federal management of dams. Inexplicably, the report failed to list the biggest threat to Sacramento-San Joaquin River and Trinity-Klamath River salmon, steelhead and other species — Governor Jerry Brown’s Delta Tunnels.

Not Such A Green State: Big Ag Regulatory Capture, Proposition 1   

While there are many examples of corporate capture of water regulators in California, no example shows the corporate and billionaire control of California water politics than Proposition 1, Governor Jerry Brown’s Water Bond campaign in the fall of 2014. Proposition 1 opponents warned voters that the water bond would do little to address California’s water problems, including maintaining and upgrading infrastructure such as the spillways at Oroville.

What was Proposition 1? Bill Jennings, Executive Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, summed it up best: “Prop. 1 is a poster-child of why California is in a water crisis: it enriches water speculators but accomplishes little in addressing the drought, solving California’s long-term water needs, reducing reliance on The Delta, or protecting our rivers and fisheries.”

Proponents of Proposition 1 contributed a total of $21,820,691 and (spent a total of $19,538,153). The contributors were a who’s who of Big Money interests in California, including corporate agribusiness groups, billionaires, timber barons, Big Oil, the tobacco industry and the California Chamber of Commerce.

Stewart Resnick, the Beverly Hills agribusiness tycoon, owner of The Wonderful Company and largest orchard fruit grower in the world, contributed $150,000.

Corporate agribusiness interests, the largest users of federal and state water project water exported through the Delta pumping facilities, contributed a total of $850,000 to the campaign, including the $150,000 donated by Resnick. The California Farm Bureau Federation contributed $250,000, the Western Growers Service Association donated $250,000 and California Cotton Alliance contributed $200,000.

Resnick and his wife, Lynda, have been instrumental in promoting campaigns to eviscerate Endangered Species Act protections for Central Valley Chinook salmon and Delta smelt populations and to build the fish-killing Delta Tunnels – and have made millions off reselling environmental water to the public.

The largest individual donor in the Yes on Prop. 1 campaign was Sean Parker, who contributed $1 million to the campaign. Parker is an entrepreneur and venture capitalist who cofounded the file-sharing computer service Napster and served as the first president of the social networking website Facebook. He also cofounded Plaxo, Causes, and Airtime.

Four members of the Fisher family, who own the controversial Gap stores, collectively donated $1.5 million to the Yes on Prop. 1 and Prop. 2 campaign. They also own the Mendocino Redwood Company and Humboldt Redwood Company, formerly the Pacific Lumber Company (PALCO), more than half a million acres of redwood forest lands in total.

Doris F. Fisher contributed $499,000, John J. Fisher $351,000, Robert J. Fisher $400,000 and William S. Fisher $250,000. The Gap become notorious among labor and human rights advocates for employing sweatshop labor in the Third World to produce its clothes.

In a major conflict of interest, Robert Fisher profits by logging North Coast forests while he serves as co-chair of a little-known cabinet-level body in Sacramento called the “California Strategic Growth Council (SGC),” according to reporter Will Parrish in the East Bay Express. (www.eastbayexpress.com/…)

The oil industry was also a major contributor to the Yes on Prop. 1 Campaign. For example, Aera Energy LLC, a company jointly owned by affiliates of Shell and ExxonMobil contributed $250,000 to the Yes on Proposition 1 and 2 campaigns.

In contrast with the $21,820,691 contributed and the $19,538,153 spent by backers of Prop. 1, opponents of the measure raised only $101,149 and spent $86,347 during the campaign. To put it in perspective, Stewart Resnick alone spent $150,000, nearly twice the entire amount of money spent by Prop. 1 opponents!

Proposition 1 opponents warned voters that the water bond would do little to address California’s water problems, including maintaining and upgrading infrastructure such as the spillways at Oroville — and would help facilitate the Delta Tunnels project.

Then in April 2015, an administration official admitted that the state could use money from Proposition 1, the water bond, to pay for “habitat mitigation” linked to the construction and operation of the massive Delta Tunnels. (www.sfgate.com/…)

Big Oil Regulatory Capture  – Western States Petroleum Association 

The oil industry is the biggest contributor to squashing environmental laws in the Legislature — and to thwarting the enforcement of existing laws that protect people, fish, aquifers, rivers, lakes, bays and ocean waters from oil and gas industry pollution.

The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) topped the list of California lobbying expenditures in the first quarter of 2017, spending a total of nearly $1.4 million for general lobbying.

The rest of the top three lobbying spenders from January 1 to March 31, 2017 were the Howard Jarvis Tax Association, with $1,387,602 spent, and Chevron and its subsidiaries, with $968,370.

During the 2015-2016 Legislative Session, the oil industry spent a historic $36.1 million to lobby California lawmakers. During the last 6 years, the industry has spent $122 million in Sacramento, more than any other interest group.

The Western States Petroleum Association was the top overall oil industry spender during the 2015-16 session, spending $18.7 million. Chevron, the second overall oil industry spender, spent $7 million in the session.

WSPA and Big Oil use their money and power in 5 ways: through (1) lobbying; (2) campaign spending; (3) getting appointed to positions on and influencing regulatory panels; (4) creating Astroturf groups: and (5) working in collaboration with media.

The classic example of regulatory capture is when Catherine Rehes-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, chaired the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative  Blue Ribbon Task Force to create “marine protected areas” in Southern California as her husband, James Boyd, was vice-chair of the California Energy Commission. Reheis-Boyd served on the Central Coast, North Central Coast & North Coast panels, in a huge conflict of interest.

The so-called “marine protected areas” created under the leadership of Reheis-Boyd and her partners on the privately-funded task forces still fail to protect the ocean from fracking, offshore oil drilling, pollution, military testing, energy projects and all human impacts on the ocean other than fishing and gathering.

More articles by:

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

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