by Dave Waddell
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation came to Chico State to get public reaction to its vague new proposal to “maximize” water deliveries from the north to San Joaquin Valley farmers. The reviews from most of the two dozen or so people speaking Thursday were overwhelmingly and passionately against the notion, as well as frequently distrustful of the federal agency.
“How much harder can you twist the sponge that is already quite dry?” asked Rick Switzer. “Someone should carry the message to them that we’re all out. … Water is finite. You people do not seem to be familiar with the concept.”
The Bureau of Reclamation is taking public comments through “the close of business” Feb. 1 on the proposal to hike water deliveries to agricultural operations on the San Joaquin’s west side, while “optimizing” power production along the way. More information on submitting written comments may be obtained from the bureau’s Katrina Harrison at 916-414-2425 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Bureau of Reclamation set Thursday’s hearing after receiving “multiple requests” to do so, said Federico Barajas, deputy regional director for the bureau’s Mid-Pacific Region. Among the requesters was the water advocacy nonprofit AquAlliance.
Barajas described the water delivery proposal as in the “infancy stages” of the environmental review process. “This is not the California water fix,” Barajas said. “This is not the (twin) tunnels.”
Harrison, who’s managing the project for the bureau, told the meeting that various regulatory actions have reduced the availability of water for delivery south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. She acknowledged critics’ frustration with how broadly the project has been framed, saying “we don’t have specific numbers.”
After Caleen Sisk, chief of the Winnemem Wintu tribe, began asking questions about the project, the BR’s Barajas took the microphone and said the proposed revisions are designed to give the bureau “greater flexibility” in managing the Central Valley Project’s water.
In response, the next speaker, Barbara Vlamis of AquAlliance, said of the proposal’s description: “You just heard the nebulous nature of whatever we’re commenting on.”
Later, speaker Chris Nelson also seemed to reference Barajas’ “greater flexibility” comment, calling it “crook speech.”
Another of the evening’s impassioned speakers was fishing guide Robert Dunn of the Northern California Guides and Sportsmen’s Association, which he said opposes sending more water south to irrigate orchards of nut trees. Dunn ripped the Bureau of Reclamation’s relationship with the Fresno-based Westlands Water District, which has “you guys in their pocket.”
“Our environment is collapsing due to the over-delivery of our water,” Dunn said. “They’re selling the food overseas; they’re not feeding America.”
The declining fishery – both salmon and the Delta smelt – was a frequent theme of speakers, including Chief Sisk, whose tribal lands are on Shasta Lake and its McCloud River tributary. She said the Winnemem Wintu are threatened by discussions of raising Shasta Dam.
“We are salmon people,” Sisk said. “We need to be on the endangered species list, my tribe.”
James Dunlap, a former Yurok chairman, said that prior to the Central Valley Project’s dams and reservoirs, Klamath River salmon ran in the millions. This year, he said, there were just “600 fish for a 6,000-member tribe.”
Dunlap called on the bureau to invest in de-salination efforts and to stop the theft of project water by illegal marijuana grows.
Rain Scher advised the bureau “to listen to the voices of the first people here because they know what they’re talking about.”
Bruce Smith referenced last year’s near Oroville Dam failure and told the bureau to focus on fixing the water system’s infrastructure. “You’ve ignored it,” Smith said. “It’s going to take you out.”
Drawing the wrath of several speakers was the fact that not a single elected official from the north state – federal, state or local – was in attendance at Thursday’s hearing.
“I too am alarmed that we don’t have our representatives here,” said Debra Lucero, who is running for the District 2 seat on the Butte County Board of Supervisors held by Larry Wahl. “We need our voices to be heard.”
Scott Huber, a candidate for Chico City Council, criticized the practice of growing water-thirsty almonds in a “dust bowl.”
“The folks in this room are unwilling to give up salmon and smelt so farmers in the southern San Joaquin can profit,” Huber said.
Lucas RossMerz of the Sacramento River Preservation Trust called the declining salmon a “keynote species” in the north state’s ecosystem.
“We don’t have any more environment to take from,” RossMerz said. “When does the agricultural side of this conversation have to give something back? … Fish first! Farms can go second for once.”
Dave Waddell is news director at ChicoSol