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The Madness of King Jerry

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Was California Gov. Jerry Brown a Manchurian Candidate for California's water buffaloes (promoters of hugely expensive and environmentally destructive water projects)? Kind of looks that way. Brown ran on a moderate platform that included a rational water policy. He promised to "fix" the broken Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, restore its moribund fisheries, and provide some equity in the distribution of state water.

Well, Brown got elected; after that, he apparently had a Vulcan mind meld with the agribusiness panjandrums of the western San Joaquin Valley. His new mantra is "peripheral canal"-- or maybe "conveyance system." It amounts to the same thing: subterranean twin tunnels that shuttle water from the Sacramento River around the Delta to the South State. And by South State, I mainly mean the corporate farmers of the San Joaquin. These plutocratic land barons will get most of this government-subsidized water, while SoCal urbanites must be content with a minority share.

Brown explained his rationale late last month at a press conference to announce his plans for the behemoth twin-tunneled conveyance apparatus that will move from 9,000 to 15,000 cubic feet of water a second (and cost upward of $50 billion). He was getting on in years, he acknowledged, and was depressed that he kept going to the funerals of old friends. Ergo, he wanted, as he so memorably put it, "...to get sh-t done."

I sympathize. More to the point, I empathize. I'll even express it in the colorful and colloquial language Brown prefers: getting old is something of a bitch. Anyone descending into ungraceful dotage, myself included, would like to get more shi-t done. But not all sh-t, of course, is created equal. And the canal is definitely bad sh-t.

That's because it makes no sense economically or environmentally. Jeffrey Michael, an economist with the University of the Pacific at Stockton, conducted an analysis of the proposal and concluded the costs will outweigh the benefits by $7 billion.

And while we're at it, the supposed "benefits" look decidedly slim, at least if beneficiaries are defined as the commonweal. Yes, South State cities need water, but they can get it without additional trips to the pork barrel -- and the accrual of more state debt.

Remember, most of the water from Brown's "chunnel" will be used to irrigate the western San Joaquin Valley; this vast expanse of selenium-tainted soil already produces millions of acre feet of toxic agricultural drainwater that is a clear and present danger to human health, fisheries and wildlife. Cities must therefore be given priority over industrial agricultural for government project water. Second, we need to pick the low-hanging fruit. Recycling, conservation, desalinization plants and rain recovery systems for new residential and commercial projects will all help assure California's water security without a Ceaucescuesque public works project.

Too, Brown and his allies disingenuously claim a canal is necessary to restore the biological health of the Delta. Exactly wrong. The chunnel will remove more of what the Delta needs: fresh water. It is the annual infusion of fresh water from the Sacramento River and rivers coming off the west slope of the Sierra that maintains the brackish conditions necessary for robust biological productivity in the Bay/Delta estuary. Brown's Orwellian doublespeak belies the fact that the chunnel's promoters are seeking a 50-year exemption from the U.S. Endangered Species Act. In other words, the Sacramento River's water can be blithely shuttled south for five decades before anyone has to worry about impacts on California's salmon runs. At the end of that period, of course, it's highly unlikely any salmon will be left. No salmon, no ESA restrictions - no problem. For the water buffaloes, at least.

This is nothing new. Southern Californians were scammed by a grandiose water export scheme before. Allow me to transport you back to the halcyon year of 1991, when voters approved the "Coastal Branch" of the State Water Project's California Aqueduct. It tapped the main aqueduct near Kettleman City in the San Joaquin Valley, ultimately supplying the coastal communities of Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, and San Luis Obispo. Its 116 miles of pipe and five pumping stations were supposed to cost taxpayers no more than $270 million. By 1995, construction costs had spiked to $595 million; water deliveries to South Coast cities, however, have been no more than 36 percent of the total stipulated by contract. When all the hot air and construction dust settles by 2035, the total costs of the Coastal Branch are expected to exceed $1.75 billion.

And that's without Brown's Folly -- I mean, peripheral canal. If this monumental boondoggle goes through, the South Coast could very well wind up paying more for less water. A study by the California Water Impact Network (C-WIN) notes that Santa Barbara residents only need state water during droughts - precisely the times when such water is not available. Meanwhile, Santa Barbara's four South Coast water districts must continue to meet their bond obligations for the Coastal Branch - regardless of whether water is actually delivered. C-WIN observes that the Montecito Water District will shell out almost $5 million this year - or about 40 percent of its budget - to satisfy its Coastal Branch debt, even though it does not need and will not receive any state water. Construction of Brown's chunnel will only make things worse, increasing the price of water for California's ratepayers and ensuring the destruction of the richest estuary on the West Coast of the continental United States.

Brown is doing everything he can to avoid a public decision on the project. The last time voters weighed in on a "conveyance system" was in 1982, during Brown's first tenure as governor. In that year, voters soundly rejected a referendum on a peripheral canal. The chances are very good they'd do so again. No surprise, then, that chunnel supporters are pushing for the issuance of state revenue bonds to fund the project; that route doesn't require voter approval.

It's sad that Brown has been reduced from the "People's Governor" to agribusiness shill in the twilight of his career. But it's sadder still that Californians may have to suffer the crushing debt and environmental degradation that could result from his megalomania. We expected - and deserved --better from him.