VIDEO: The day SoCal was put on the hook for the governor's tunnels
by Gene Beley, CVBT Delta Correspondent

October 22, 2017 9:01pm
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•  Metropolitan Water District historic tunnels vote offers an education on money and power politics in California

•  “I’m shaking now because I’m really really angry at some of the things I’ve heard today”

Editor’s Note: CVBT Delta Correspondent Gene Beley has been writing about the governor’s tunnels project for nearly a decade. In the following, he includes some of his personal observations based on that experience. The reader is also encouraged to click on the video link at the end to watch the MWD meeting.

What does one get out of attending three out of four of the biggest water district tunnel vote decision meetings in the past month?

First, for nearly eight years, I’ve wondered how Gov. Edmund Gerald Brown Jr. has so much power to push multi-billion dollar projects without a vote by Californians. I believe I got my answer at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California meeting that voted to support the governor’s scheme to build twin water tunnels beneath the California Delta.

First, the 38 board members on the stage represented 26 member agencies. Instead of representing one county or even smaller areas, like most I’ve attended in Northern California, including in San Jose, Metropolitan represents all of Southern California -- the cities of Los Angeles and San Diego and all points in between. And during the public speaking time, there was a parade of union leaders and leadership organizations that made it sound like I was attending a job fair instead of a water project discussion.

When Kris Murray, the first speaker from the Anaheim City Council spoke, he said, if the board would vote yes for the tunnels, “I will be indebted to you, along with my family and friends.” I wondered if he meant “in debt” after the cost overruns and surprises any such project brings. As California politician Willy Brown once said, the original price told to the public on any public project ends up being just the down payment. And then the goal is to dig a big enough hole that they have to find enough money to complete it.

Wes May, executive director of the Engineering Contractors Association in Southern California, said they serve the underground and heavy construction industry in 11 counties. In his speech to the Metro Board, it was like a sales talk to get business. Mr. May said his organization’s interests include sewer and water lines, storm drains, pipelines, underground utilities, trenching, excavating and grading and tunnels. That’s why in my video of the entire meeting, I’ve added not only the speakers and directors’ names, but whom they represent and if they own a private business that reveals more than their speeches supporting MWD that day.

Many sitting in the audience were union workers with orange safety jackets. They rose with supportive signs each time a union speaker would go to the podium. Sara Huego, a Paramount resident, said she had come to talk about “honesty, integrity and legacy.” She asked the board “to consider not just Beverly Hills, not just San Diego, not just these union members that are paid to be here today but the residents that aren’t here and not getting paid because their water rates are going to be even higher than they are already.” Of course, her comments about the union members being paid got immediate boos and further negative comments from other union speakers that day.

“You need to consider people from cities like Paramount, Compton, Lynwood, and South Gate who are making an estimated $40,000 a year,” Ms. Huego concluded.

It was like Metropolitan had sent out command attendance memos to each union and sub-contractor they work with to give a speech that day on Metro’s behalf. Shomari Davis, who represented International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 11 in Los Angeles County and a commissioner on the L.A. County Workforce Investment Board the past nine years, said their members are in the Metropolitan Water Supervisors Association who supervise and operate and administrate MWD’s facilities and “can attest to the need of this important project.” He continued, “This project will fix aging infrastructure and provide a comprehensive and permanent solution to tens of millions of water users in southern California without negatively impacting residents and the environment.” Of course, that became controversial and picked up on by subsequent anti-tunnel speakers.

The Opposition Speaks

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, the executive director of the Stockton-based 50,000 member anti-tunnels group Restore the Delta, told the MWD Board that the Delta tunnels will never be built. She said the Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation do not have a water right in order to change their point of diversion. “And they won’t be able to prove so in front of the State Water Resources Control Board. The petitioners carry the burden of proof at the State Water Resources Control board to not cause injury to any Delta water rights holder as a result of moving the Delta intakes.

“They will not be able to prove no injury. Regardless of what Roger Patterson [MWD assistant general manage] says regarding Westlands, the project has a $8 billion hole in funding because not one Central Valley contractor has agreed to pay for the project.

“Many of the best minds working in water in California will spend years fighting this project until it stops,” said Mrs. Barrigan-Parrilla. She urged them to work with the Delta people to create real solutions “so you can have a sustainable yield of water and so we can begin protecting the Delta, S.F. Bay and making sure that water distribution is equitable throughout California.”

Beverly Hills councilman and former mayor John Mirisch comes from a famous movie family. His grandfather, Walter Mirisch, produced hit movies like “Some Like it Hot,” “The Magnificent Seven” and “West Side Story.” His father was also a movie producer.

Three days after the Metro meeting, the councilman wrote online that, “The irony here is that the tunnels would be paid for by the ratepayers, while the Delta farmers want the taxpayers of the entire state to finance their unsustainable way of life by paying for an aging and near-obsolete system of levees. These provincial interests view water, which doesn’t originate in the Delta, but from the Sierras, as ‘theirs’ and also view the taxpayer dollars generated from Southern California, home to almost two-thirds of the state’s population as theirs as well.

“They bring to mind the Talmud’s archetype of the wicked person who says, ”What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine.” Mr. Mirisch goes on to say this “anti-Southern California bigotry now threatens our ability to secure our water supply.” Then in his online essay, just as when he gave his speech at the Metropolitan meeting, he quoted entertainer Taylor Swift as allegedly saying, “Haters gonna hate, we can’t let the bigots turn off our spigots.”

Beverly Hills got its share of publicity during the drought, when everyone was cutting back and many were installing Arizona type landscaping. Beverly Hills resident David Geffen used 25,000 gallons a day between June 2 and August 2, 2016, approximately 60 times what the average Los Angeles family uses or about 9,000 gallons more than he was allowed, according to a March 14, 2016 Los Angeles Times article. His bill? More than $30,000 for 1.6 million gallons of water in his Warner Estate property. Allowed usage was 1.1 million gallons. And at that time, Mr. Geffen had applied for a well permit to tap the underground aquifer so he wouldn’t have to continue paying the city for his water.

John Hanna, an attorney for the Government Affairs Council for the Southwest Regional Council of Corporations with 50,000 members in the carpenter-training field, was another one who blamed Delta people for all the troubles. He said that Southern California is in a semi-arid region, where almost 85 percent of the water is imported and 30 percent comes from the Delta. “That will not be environmentally sustainable partly due to the people who live up in the Delta and over hundreds of years, have degraded that system.” He said water deliveries are halted for the protection of fish and this results in unreliable delivery of water and stoppage of water deliveries. “And the water flows out to the Pacific,” he said.

When I first moved to Stockton, I lived on a boat at Village West Marina in 2005. I used to see masses of Delta smelt in our boat slips that fishermen used for their bait. I’ve watched those disappear rapidly after the Tracy water pumps killed millions of them. Now I’ve lived long enough to hear someone blame Delta people for these troubles.

Mr. Hanna also seemed well trained by Mr. Brown’s supporters to use the earthquake scare argument of how the Delta levees will fail that “will result in a loss of 30 percent of our water for six months to two years” and cause a “resulting economic recession that will make the 2008-2009 recession pale in comparison.”

Floyd Smith, Midland Park Water Trust utility company, said, “Build the tunnels! Nothing else has worked!” He added, “The tunnels will save lives, our water supply and native fishes.” He said the solution is “We need more education for life, peace and happiness."

Martha Rodriquez, representing Dignity and Power Now, as well as Restore the Delta, asked if they would be having to pay more for water that they don’t get? Charming Evelyn, chairman of the Water Committee for the Los Angeles and Orange counties Sierra Club, said one of the many reasons they oppose the tunnels project is California needs $44.5 billion for infrastructure.

“That infrastructure is not just these tunnels,” she said. There are leaking pipes that we have every day. We can spend more on conservation and give subsidies to the poor to pay their water bills. They are the ones suffering the most. And to someone who said there is no environmental damage from the project, let me assure you the salmon and the Delta smelt will be different.”

Ms. Evelyn said the Sierra Club is already suing the California Department of Water Resources because the modeling used is incorrect. “Don’t be fooled by what you heard today,” she cautioned.

Again, politics is about money and influence. Richard Lambros, managing director for the Southern California Leadership Council, said that they had three ex-governors as their leaders— George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson, and Gray Davis.

Metropolitan’s fifth public speaker of the day was Liza Tucker, a consumer advocate with Consumer Watchdog, who was there to ask for a negative vote. She said a yes vote would be in the interest of Coca Cola and Anheuser-Busch Companies LLC, “who are huge users of water in the state, dwarfed by the Wonderful Company that uses more water than all of Los Angeles combined. That company is owned by Stuart and Linda Resnick. They are the nation’s second largest growers of produce at their mega-farm near Bakersfield. Ever since the U.S. put an embargo on Iran selling pistachios during the Jimmy Carter presidency, the Resnicks have been making a fortune on pistachios alone. Their political contacts with friends like Sen. Diane Feinstein seem to have continued that Iranian embargo to this very day. And they also managed to get a major interest in the Kern Water Bank that used to be owned by the state. Other companies they own include Teleflora and Fiji Water. They also own the largest mansion in Beverly Hills. Undoubtedly they can match or beat Mr. Geffen’s home’s water bills.”

Craig Barry, a Los Angeles resident, said he didn’t want to pay extra for the water to be used in someone else’s community. “These big corporations are going to get the money from our paying the taxes. The people who do the research will actually find out where the money is coming from. Metropolitan wants the money to come from us but where the money is going to go is the big corporations. It is not going to help the people who need the water and the people who can’t afford to pay the rates.”

Doug Obegi, the San Francisco based senior attorney for water programs with the Natural Resource Defense Council in New York City, said, “This is a tough issue. Unfortunately, the current proposal is not consistent with the Metropolitan mission to provide water that is both affordable and in an environmentally sustainable manner.”

“The California ‘Water Fix’ is worse than the status quo in the Delta,” he said. “It worsens water quality in the Delta for both farmers, communities and for fish and wildlife. For Southern California it diverts billions of dollars away from sustainable solutions. Your member agencies are already planning to buy less water from the Delta — dramatically less than what Metropolitan projects in its own hierarchy.”

He added, “I suspect, if the Board does vote in favor of this project, you will not come back later in the day and say, ‘We do not have the money for local storm water capture projects or water recycling projects, because you committed to ‘All of the above.’”

“I find it very disturbing when people get up here and use words like colonial and parochial,” said Yvonne Watson, representing the Sierra Club in Los Angeles and Orange County chapters.

“And this is California?” she yelled into the microphone. She criticized the outreach of the MWD and said, if it hadn’t been for the Sierra Club, she would not have known about the governor’s tunnels. She said it doesn’t make any sense to take the water away from Northern California and would put a “terrible strain on the eco-system of the Bay Area.”

“It is a natural environment and needs to have that fresh water to flush it out every now and then,” she said. “If you take more water that’s not going to happen. So this is a very bad project for the environment and bad for Southern California as well because we will become more dependent on imported water instead of less dependent.

“I’m shaking now because I’m really really angry at some of the things I’ve heard today. I am an unpaid volunteer. I’ve been coming to these meetings over and over and over again. I don’t get paid one cent. When I come here, I take public transportation.”

She concluded by saying, “I want you to think really hard who is supporting this project” and asked the board to vote no.

Actress and producer Jessica Salans, a Los Angeles resident, said she was enjoying the “political theater” of the 20 speakers that preceded her speaking part on the historic vote day. “You all know how you’re going to vote today,” she began. “I wish what I said would matter. We sit in a room, we talk with the Governor, we talk with each other, and we come talk to you at these meetings. You don’t read the materials we present to you or the analysis. Southern California rate payers who do know about this project don’t want it.”

She continued to say the California “Water Fix” and the MWD Board “do not represent the people in our community” and vowed that “Metropolitan will no longer be able to stay in the shadows and avoid public accountability.” She said she and organized groups will demand transparency on how ratepayer money will be spent on the Delta tunnels and promised, “If you vote yes today, we will see you in court.”

“To be honest, I didn’t really feel like coming here at all,” began Sarah Yang, a Long Beach resident. “It seemed kind of pointless and it takes over two and one half-hours of my time just commuting on the train. But ultimately I came because I felt guilty thinking about all the regular people out there — the rate payers who can’t take time out of their day to come in the middle of the day to voice their opposition to the project and really the average person out there doesn’t even know about this project, which is kind of disturbing, thinking about how massive it is and how it’s going to effect every rate payer.

“You would think you would put it before the public (for a vote). If the merits are truly what the supporters and backers claim, you would let it stand on its own merits and make the supporters and backers really sell the project. If it’s too complicated to explain and for the public to understand, that usually means there’s something fishy about it.

“My main concern is that I don’t feel the claimed benefits are justification or that it benefits the price of $17 billion. The cost of that same price could convert the Los Angeles and Long Beach corridor to reduce carbon emissions.”

She cited worldwide examples of what the city could accomplish with that kind of money. “I think we can do better at coming up with a wiser plan that really offers a real solution, not a 20th Century solution, but a 21st Century solution,” Ms. Yang concluded.

Sally Ascot, Glassell Park resident, said she felt very out numbered by strong organizations. “I’m very concerned about vetted pronouns like “my water, our water, your water and also, what is this project — Is it your plan? Is it our plan? I’m very aware of the shifting plate of this business like an atomic plate. I feel the beginning of the end — perhaps nationwide.”

“I would highly recommend using the money we have before we hoodwink a whole lot of people. I absolutely agree with one gentleman who said ‘We don’t need a glossy tunnel to bring you some ‘maybe water.’”

Each of the Board members had their time to comment and can be heard on the video.

A Press Conference Reveals More

During a press conference after the meeting, when reporters in a private room asked about scaling the twin tunnels down to one, MWD Chairman Randy Record said his concern is that “in today’s world, bigger is better as far as infrastructure because the flexibility that allows us in operations and we can be more concerned with the environment, which is huge. It’s hard to do that with a small project.”

When asked about Los Angeles and San Diego being reluctant partners, Mr. Record said, “they have their own issues they are dealing with and a lot is going on behind the scenes.”

When pushed by a reporter who asked if MWD. would endeavor to find ways to pacify San Diego and Los Angeles, the reply was, “It’s always a balance. We have a lot of cities and a lot of agencies. You do the best you can.” He said they would see where it goes from here.

Your CVBT Delta Correspondent asked Mr. Record to comment about the standard answer we get in the north that they will not take one more drop of water from the tunnels if they get built. “I think that’s true,” said Mr. Record. “We’re not looking for more water than what we used before we had the biological things that were impacting our ability to pump. I’d like to get back to the reliable supply because it is a base of supply of high quality water that helps us in our service area to do recycling and everything. We need to reuse that water as many times as we can. So I really don’t want more water — and I’m not talking about drops of water. Remember on average 40 percent of Delta water is what Southern California needs for half the state’s population. We want to be able to have enough to pump during high flows. We’ve built storage. We’re out to keep that storage full. We want flexibility, which creates reliability.”

When asked if all the labor speakers that day giving their support means that if the tunnels are built, will they import the labor from southern California?

“You might expect that to happen,” said Mr. Record. MWD General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said the estimates for jobs that would be created are about 125,000 full timers for Northern California and in the Delta region. “That’s where the job pool will be for the unions,” he said. Mr. Kightlinger said in regards to the dangers of damages to the historic towns of Locke and Walnut Grove, “They are not going to be impacted.”

“We aren’t taking (properties) through those communities. We have made a number of steps and had a number of committee meetings where those were addressed and those communities were fully supportive of the changes that were made.”

Mr. Kightlinger said there is no push out there right now for federal funding for the tunnel project.

43 speakers spoke at the historic Metropolitan Water District's Delta tunnels vote day--15 for, 21 against the tunnels from Gene Beley on Vimeo.

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