Water moves quickly but water policy slowly.

For decades, Gov. Jerry Brown has wanted to shore up the State Water Project, the system of canals, pipelines and reservoirs that his father helped create and that now carries Northern California water to Southern California.

In 1982, during Brown’s first stint as governor, he pushed for a big open canal to help ensure water would continue flowing south. Voters didn’t like that idea. Now, toward the end of his career, he’s backing a plan to build a pair of 35-mile underground tunnels instead.

Tuesday is a big day for that plan. That’s when the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California will vote on whether to help pay for it. Without the support of Metropolitan, the tunnels don’t stand a chance.

Last year, we chronicled how the San Diego County Water Authority has seemed to flip-flop on the issue, though the agency has still not taken a formal position on the tunnels.

San Diego can’t kill the project on its own, even if it wanted to. Even if the city of Los Angeles also opposes the project, which its representatives have suggested it might, there are probably enough other water agencies on Metropolitan’s board to carry the project over the finish line, at least initially.

That’s because a “yes” vote by Metropolitan’s board isn’t the be-all and end-all. Other water agencies across the state must help pay for the tunnels, or the project may be scaled back or never built.

But even if Metropolitan votes “no,” don’t count on the opera ending: The agency’s general manager, Jeffrey Kightlinger, has pointed out that Metropolitan repeatedly voted against the original State Water Project until Gov. Pat Brown goaded the agency into voting “yes.”

So, instead of one dramatic vote that ends a decades-long saga, there may be months more of water politicking.

Things Seen and Unseen

Michael Hogan, one of the San Diego representatives on Metropolitan’s board, has given some public indication of how he plans to vote Tuesday: He will vote against a series of agreements that would create a new bureaucracy and financing scheme to oversee and fund the tunnels’ construction – unless he can see the full text of those deals before he votes.

Kightlinger said he will provide his board with “term sheets” to vote on, but not the full contracts. (In a letter to Hogan, Kightlinger said the Water Authority’s board has made major decisions the same way. Hogan replied that’s beside the point.)

This has me thinking a lot about things seen and unseen in water policy.

When the National Resources Defense Council filed a public records request with the state to get some documents related to the tunnels, the environmental group got back a confidentiality agreement – partially redacted – that had this stunning language in it: “To the maximum extent permitted by law” water agencies that signed the deal agreed to act in a manner that protects their records from public disclosure. Why not release those important documents to the maximum extent allowed by law?

A related point: For an agency that harps on alleged governance problems at Metropolitan, including lack of transparency, the San Diego County Water Authority board has never taken a formal “yes” or “no” position on the tunnels.

“There is simply not enough information for the board to take an informed position either in support or opposition,” a Water Authority spokesman told me late last month. The Water Authority cites big unknowns about cost and how much water the tunnels will supply. (An audit recently knocked the state Department of Water Resources for being unable to answer related questions.) But at other agencies, there have been meetings where the public can show up to talk about what they think about the tunnels, so that their representatives can hear what they have to say.

The Water Authority will, likewise, have an all-day board retreat later this week to talk about the stinging loss it was dealt in its lawsuit against Metropolitan over water rates. If it’s anything like one retreat I tried to attend, it will begin and then immediately be closed to the public.

This year, the agenda cites “existing litigation” to justify an hours-long meeting behind closed doors. Last year, the Water Authority decided to launch a new public relations campaign against Metropolitan during its retreat, the board’s vice chairman told me recently.

Everyone tries to keep some information from the public, it seems.

In Other News

• Even before the recent hepatitis A outbreak, there’s been a lot of research warning that San Diego’s waterways are full of pathogens, as the Union-Tribune points out. About 10 percent of the recent hep A cases have been tied to the San Diego River, Lisa Halverstadt recently reported.

• In a wide-ranging Rolling Stone interview, the governor makes a point about climate change that I thought a lot about on a hot day or two this year: “And as Houston demonstrates, boy, when the weather goes bad on you, what the hell are you going to do? Like this hot weather. [Sacramento was expecting temperatures up to 110 degrees in coming days.] If this hot weather lasted a couple of months, we’d have uncontrollable forest fires. We already do!” (Indeed, multiple fires are now raging in Napa and Sonoma counties.)

• This Desert Sun piece is the best story to date on a dispute between the Palo Verde Irrigation District, a farming community along the Arizona border, and Metropolitan, which Palo Verde says is inappropriately taking its water.

• John McPhee is a great environmental writer, but sometimes great writers inspire other writers to write great things, as Sam Anderson does in this New York Times Magazine profile of McPhee: “In the grand cosmology of John McPhee, all the earth’s facts touch one another — all its regions, creatures and eras. Its absences and presences. Fish, trucks, atoms, bears, whiskey, grass, rocks, lacrosse, weird prehistoric oysters, grandchildren and Pangea. Every part of time touches every other part of time. You just have to find the right structure.”

From the Actual Environment

Photo by Ry Rivard
Photo by Ry Rivard

One of my favorites hikes of the last year was exactly a year ago. I remember the day because I scurried dangerously down a mountain I had taken forever to climb in order to hear one of the presidential debates.

This was Rancho Guejito, a 20,000-acre piece of ranchland, with some nice habitat, out near Escondido. Turns out, it’s private property and once had some signs that warned of armed guards. If the signs were still there, I must have missed them, and if there were armed guards, they must have missed me.

You can find it on a map, but you have to know where to park and which fence to hop and then pick up the trail. When you get to the top, there’s a huge field with rock outcroppings, a lonesome tree here and there, cacti and the dried evidence of cows.

If you scurry back down quickly, you may skip the trail you took up and find yourself in a riverbed of sorts and then have to scale a rock or two, using tree trunks and branches to brace yourself.

It was a hot day and I noticed, maybe for the first time since I moved from the East Coast, how unusual it is for the sun to go down in San Diego. But, of course, it does.

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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