26 Sep 2017

How the agribusiness camel first got its nose so far into the State Water Project tent

Bill Kier has decades of experience in California water politics, and he sends out occasional comments putting context on current events. I thought this one was worth posting here due to its connection between current policy debates and the "original sin" of a poorly made policy from decades earlier.*

Here's Bill:

This posturing over who will/won't commit to buying into the Delta Chunnels reminds me of the posturing that went on over Prop 1 on the 1960 statewide ballot, the funding for the State Water Project.**

During the run-up to that fall election DWR and the Metropolitan Water District of So Cal were negotiating Met's SWP contract. DWR desperately needed the LA Times to start editorializing on behalf the bond proposition (given that the north state was solidly opposed) but Met was holding the Times off until they'd got what they wanted from DWR. (Met’s public position was they were still weighing their options, which included building their own project on CA's North Coast -- they'd concocted an Eel River Commission with which they'd meet, wine-dine and dangle juicy offers of flood control and more).

The old-timers I debriefed 55 years ago told me that the key to DWR's success, in finally getting the Times' endorsement of Prop 1 – practically on the eve of the election – was Ralph Brody.

Ralph, you’ll all recall, was a Fresno attorney who had been with Bur Rec before becoming Pat Brown's deputy DWR director.

I’ve often wondered just what Brody offered the Chandlers that peeled them off Met. I suspect it had to do with the prospect of using "surplus" SWP water – that which would be available until such time as contractors like Met needed their full contract allotments. The Chandlers had significant holdings in the southern San Joaquin Valley. (Then, after you've used the "surplus" on nut-tree orchards who's going to take it away from you, right?)

Ralph, of course, went on to become Westlands Water District’s first General Mgr.

I can remember Ralph walking into a mtg at the Pajaro Dunes with Floyd Dominy in 1974 and the water buffaloes practically swooning – nobody exuded power like Floyd, but nobody – anywhere – was paid as much as Ralph.

Bill's Bottom Line: "California water politics -- the grist that keeps on giving."

* Other original sins: Allocating 16.5 MAF of Colorado River flows to states and Mexico when the average annual flow is 14MAF; Westland Water District's foundation in violation of the spirit and letter of the Reclamation Act; the legal separation of ground and surface water; Met's decision to build Hoover Dam for "emergency water storage" (leading to excess supply and urban sprawl) when it really only wanted cheap electricity; and the Bureau of Reclamation's use of a "portfolio" method of accounting that hides the poor returns of bad dams by combining them with good dams. I'm sure there are more, but you get the point.

** In the same email thread, someone dropped this link to a 2014 article saying that it would be cheaper to buy out Westlands for $1.5 billion than waste $25 billion plus on the Chunnels. I agree on that proposal (I said the same in 2011!), as urban SoCal could easily get along without importing more water from NorCal (and contributing to the destruction of the the Bay-Delta ecosystem).

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