A bedtime story about California water and politics
by Gene Beley, CVBT Delta Correspondent
November 5, 2017
• Cinderella is missing from this tale
• The regional water leader who is worthy of the governor’s direct personal telephone number
• With VIDEOS
John Varela has the governor's number. Literally
(Photo by Gene Beley)
This is a bedtime story for your children and grandchildren on how power politics works behind the scenes in California. At the Santa Clara Valley Water District’s Delta tunnel vote day meeting October 17, Board Chairman John Varela peeled the curtain back and gave full disclosure how California Gov. Edmund Gerald Brown Jr. really operates.
“I got a phone call from Governor Brown’s office saying I was invited to a meeting sponsored by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group -- Carl Guardino’s group -- along with labor,” began Mr. Varela. It was hosted by Jed York from Levi Stadium (who, along with his partner, Paraag Marathe, helped finance the stadium). The only others invited from SCVWD were Board Vice Chairman Richard Santos from District 3 and the Administrative Chief Executive Officer, Norma Camacho.
But also in the room was the governor of 28 million Californians: Edmund Brown Jr.
For those who live in regions outside the realm of Silicon Valley, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group is made up of the chief executive officers of Silicon Valley’s largest companies. It is an advocacy group that is usually involved in issues like taxes or immigration.
“We get in this room,” continued Mr. Varela, “and we’re sitting there and Carl is introducing all the principles and CEOs of various companies, giving kudos to the governor. Then he said, ‘Hold it! Time out! Thank you all for being here, but I want to talk to these two guys—us (Varela and Santos).
“He asked us a straight out question: ‘Are you supporting the tunnels or not supporting the tunnels?’
“We engaged him. We did not tell the Governor what he came to hear, Mr. Varella said. We asked him questions. We actually got him involved in the dialogue. It was quite interesting how it all ended. At the end of the day, I’m walking out and the Governor said, ’Hey, call me.’
“I don’t have your phone number,” Mr. Varela said. Mr. Brown gave him his phone number, and the Governor had him test it. “I heard a phone ringing with no caller ID,” Mr. Varela said.
“Wait a minute,” Mr. Brown said. “You’ve got my phone number but I don’t have yours.”
“I’ll text it to you,” Mr. Varela said, which he did immediately.
“I’m going to call you,” said salesman-in-chief Brown.
“Last night at 6:30 p.m. (one week later—the day before the key vote meeting in San Jose), I’m getting ready to do some personal business at home and my phone rang. And it’s Governor Brown,” continued Mr. Varela.
“So what are you going to do?” said Mr. Brown, whose grandfather came to America on a boat named Persistence.
“I’m in the same state of mind as I was a week ago with the exception now you have a copy of the resolution with seven principles and I’m very supportive of what that’s going to be.”
“He’s still pushing me,” added Mr. Varela. “And I said to him, when I heard Secretary of Natural Resources John Laird made a comment that the Santa Clara Valley Water District is not at the table and that we could not vote on the scope of the project, I asked myself, ‘Scope of the project?’
“That’s the first time I heard that there were potential alternatives from two tunnels to a single tunnel. And, as it turns out, that’s exactly what we’re proposing.”
(Watch Mr. Varela recount the experience here)
SCVWD Chairman John Varela and his new BFF Jerry Brown from Gene Beley on Vimeo.
Mr. Varela added that he got a private meeting with Mr. Laird that week, who told him, “John, we’re open to the idea of a single tunnel versus twin tunnels.”
“The Board is not aligned on a twin tunnel project today,” Mr. Varela concluded before the vote was taken that went 7-0 against the twin tunnel original plan but supportive of a scaled down tunnel plan “with conditions” based on seven guiding principles. He said for himself and the Board the long journey to that day, listening to his colleagues, the public and his new “BFF (best friends forever)—the governor, “It has been quite a challenge.”
“Is it a perfect solution? No. But it is a working document that we can start with and move forward and develop a working plan with the state of California on the largest water project since the 1960s.
The SCVW district’s vote was the most confusing vote of all time to most media reporters. This reporter came home to a wife asking how the vote went. “They voted for it, “with conditions,” I replied. The next morning, the Stockton Record headline blared “Silicon Valley water district rejects twin tunnels plan” by Paul Rogers of the San Jose’s Mercury News. My wife thought I should quit journalism. But both Mr. Rogers and I were correct. I even had other reporters emailing me asking what I thought of this confusing vote.
Those who wanted to believe they had rejected the tunnels plan and it was a victory for organizations like Restore the Delta hopefully aren’t overlooking the fact the govennor’s tunnel vision has not evaporated. It is being reinvented once again in another chameleon plan that dates back to 1982 when Californians’ rejected Mr. Brown’s Peripheral Canal.
What other Board members had to say
“I’m really cynical about the motivation of Westlands for taking a hike,” said SCVWD Director Linda LeZotte, who represents their District 4. “I think they are trying to negotiate something on the side. So what I’d like staff to note that they are aware of any side agreements that get made with Westlands or anyone else to try to get cheaper water. There needs to be a ‘me too’ clause in regards to any agreements out there.
Director Santos, the one who went to the Silicon Valley Leadership Group meeting with Mr. Varela, said he’s open for negotiations, but not a blank check. “The Governor has his way of doing things and he’s pretty adamant about two tunnels. I’m not — but that’s just me. I want to make sure our guiding principles are locked into this 2.5 plan. We have to be smart and be prepared. We’ve got to honor this contract.”
Director Nai Hsueh, district 5, who used to be an engineer, said she thought the cost estimates represented “probably the most detailed cost estimate I’ve ever seen in my career.
“But having said that, as we move forward, are there going to be changes? Or will they discover something they didn’t think about? Yes, probably, very likely. The other doubt is about the adaptive management. What is the decision making process? Can we trust those people? I guess it all comes down to whether or not you trust the government.
“What is my job as a Director? My job is to make sure there is good quality water for the future of Santa Clara County — in 2050.”
Director Tony Estremera, District six, who is also an attorney, said he wants to see more details before approving any state or federal plan. “We don’t walk to walk away,” he emphasized. “I represent the poorest people in Santa Clara County. I’m not sticking them with the bill. I’m also not going to stick them with no water. I’ve got to look out for my constituents to make sure working people have the supply they need at a cost that’s the best we can deliver. That’s why I don’t want to stop now and say no. I want to look beyond this and get to the table. I want to negotiate with the Governor and make sure we negotiate with the administration and we bring home the best package we can.”
Director Estremera also talked about how frustrating it has been to comply with the Brown Act, where not more than two board members can talk to each other about any issue outside of meetings that has not yet been voted on, which made decision making more complicated. He emphasized their job is to put Santa Clara County first.
“We hear a lot of people from Bethel Island talking about cattle running around and pre-1914 water rights,” said another director, Gary Kremen, who represents District 7, as he referred to some of the comments made by individuals from the public who spoke at the podium before the Board began summarizing their own thoughts. “That’s not who we represent. We represent the people, the businesses, the habitat, the environment and the fish that need the water are the principles we’re looking at from our perspective.
Barbara Keegan, District 2, said she realized that the costs of the project could increase because “very little engineering work has been done.” She said that if the Board saw something extraordinarily different, they should have the right to come back and look at it all over again. “One of the things I’ve heard throughout these meetings is people saying the ‘Water Fix’ is too expensive. But when you look at it in absolute numbers, the total cost is expensive. But when we look at our share of it and what is the cost per acre foot, as opposed to some of our other options, it is much more cost effective than some of the things we are pursuing anyways like recycle water and storm water recapture. And we want to have a diversified water portfolio.
“We want water at a variety of costs. But what we don’t want to do is say no to one of our lowest cost water supplies. And that’s the water we get through he Delta.” Ms. Keegan said she is someone who has spent a lot of time in the Delta as a recreational boater on vacations. “I have family members who live in the Delta and friends who live in the Delta. I do understand the concerns about water quality in the Delta but the solution shouldn’t be solution by dilution. The real solution is to deal with what causes this water quality issue.”
She said several months ago the SCVWD listened to the Delta Counties Coalition voicing their opposition to the twin tunnels “or any sort of tunnel option.”
“When I asked them, ‘What are you willing to do about runoff from agriculture pesticides and treated sewage?’ and ‘What are you folks going to do?’ there was resounding silence. I didn’t hear that they were willing to do anything and I think that is a problem that the local government should have more teeth in what they are doing in terms of minimizing the negative impacts to water quality. “
And now, Gene Beley’s best humor award for short story
An award for the most different and best humor approach to all presentations at the tunnel meetings for the past decade should go to Pat Kearns of Los Gatos, the last speaker of 41 speakers at the SCVWD meeting who were given only two minutes to compete with Governor Brown’s ability to call water district chairmen at home.
“I sarcastically urge you to vote a yes vote,” began Mr. Kearns, when he stepped to the podium and began his two-minute talk. “When Congress voted for health care they didn’t see any cost run-ups or where it was going and how it was going to impact patients or how much it was going to cost the country or taxpayers. They just forged ahead. I think you should do the same. I think that’s a good idea. You have to forge ahead. You have to be brave!
“This is going to be a bonanza for those of us who invest in bonds. California bonds are just going to be a rich harvest. I think you have to look at Kern County. Kern County is representing the rich kids. These are the people we can guarantee who will get the water for pistachios and almonds. The workers in their towns will get bottled water. So please forge ahead, be brave and go without any financial information and good luck!
“Progress in political lives depends not on promises of what will happen in the future but on who gets elected in the next election.”
The thirty-ninth speaker, attorney Michael Brodsky, representing Save the California Delta Alliance in Discovery Bay, began by saying they obviously oppose the tunnels project “But that is not what I’m here to talk to you about.”
“I have been studying this project for a number of years. I’m sure you’re not aware that the intentions is for you to not get any water that is diverted thought he tunnels. That’s Metropolitan’s water,” he said. “The plan is to split the Clifton Forebay into two halves to segregate the high quality water that is diverted by the tunnels and for that to go to Metropolitan and for your supply to continue to be withdrawn from the South Delta. That’s something I’d look at if I were in your position.
“Another thing I’d look at if I were in your position is that the taking permits were denied earlier this summer. The expectation is you will invest $3, 4, 5, 6 billion and be three to four years under construction before you know if you’ll get take permits (for water) and what conditions will be placed on those permits.”
Speaker #27, Deirdre Des Jardins with California Water Research in Santa Cruz, said they have done independent reviews of the science and engineering for the Water Fix project and found “gross misrepresentations about this project that should give the District pause in supporting it.”
“I testified on the sea level rise in the Water Fix hearing and also cross-examined DWR’s engineers. It came out that the project facilities are only being designed for 18 inches of change in water levels in the Delta. The assumption was based on an extremely simplistic equation that DWR’s own engineers acknowledged was in error. They have promised to reconsider sea level rise in the next revision.”
Ms. Des Jardins added that there is currently no proposed operations to protect Delta smelt fish. “The operations to protect Delta smelt will be determined in the future by the Trump Administration,” she told the SCVWD board.
Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director for Restore the Delta, who is usually front and center at all these key meetings about the tunnels project, was absent due to her mother having had a stroke. Her first string pinch hitter, Vielma Esperanza, read her message that the tunnels are mis-named California Water Fix.
“This will not be a fix for the Delta despite the state and SCVWD’s staff’s presentation link provided. Kern County Water Agency ran an analysis and showed in 2033 dollars the tunnels could cost us $70 billion. They only approved a 6.5 percent contribution with a 4.5 percent majority. This is not exactly a ringing endorsement. We are very much aware of the attention brought to the Board by the Brown Administration at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s meeting. This created a pro-caucus atmosphere of which water advocates cannot compete. However, we notice a majority of every day rate-payers in your district — not to mention the top 10 percent of business leaders in the construction unions are with us so the question is whom do you represent? And do you want to invest in a sustainable water future and be part of the bay Delta community at large?”
Nearly all of the public speakers that day spoke against the Delta tunnels plan, except for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, the NAACP, and representatives of labor unions who were basically affiliates of the same organizations that spoke for it at Metropolitan’s vote day in Los Angeles. One individual, Edgar Dymally, who said he represented the African American Water Leadership Coalition in Los Angeles, is a senior environmental specialist employee of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, if you Google him. But that he did not reveal in his talk.
(In the CVBT video of the meeting, each speaker is fully identified)
One of the top-level salesmen sent by the Governor to the SCVWD meeting, who spoke before the public got to speak, was the new DWR Chief Grant Davis, just appointed this August. He said his job was to be “only the co-pilot for ‘WaterFix’ to the Governor.”
“I’m here to bring down the wheels and to make sure the seats are buckled and fastened and we’re going to land on the right runway. Once “it” is determined who is in, we will deliver exactly what the cost is to be. All these projects tend to over runs. There are reasons for that. I’m here to tell you, if I’m involved to design and construct this project, we will do everything we can to build in protection to have assurances you need to know. We will do it as close to on time and on budget as possible. And just for the record, Folsom Dam’s spillway was done on budget four years early.”
The three hour, 9 minute, 25 second video of the complete SCVWD meeting includes all 41 speakers with nearly all of them fully identified, staff comments, DWR Grant Davis’s appearance, and each of the Board Directors’ comments before the vote was taken.
Santa Clara Valley Water District Board Chair John Varela reveals how Gov Jerry Brown lobbies behind the scenes for his tunnels from Gene Beley on Vimeo.