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Tunnel Vision Part Two: Rivers in Peril

How Jerry Brown's plan to build two giant water tunnels, along with legislation in Congress, could ultimately spoil the last of Northern California's wild and scenic rivers.



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Despite Westlands' ties to prominent Democrats, wealthy, hardline conservatives dominate the district's power structure. Among them is the Borba family, one of the region's largest growers. Earlier this year, Mark Borba, who operates an 8,600-acre farming operation, stirred widespread controversy after he sent obscenity-laced emails to Costa and Westlands Water District officials, referring to President Obama as "Blackie."

After news of the racial slur broke, Borba apologized and was forced to resign from a local hospital board, but the emails also revealed the extent to which some Westlands growers expect politicians to do their bidding after donating to or raising funds for their campaigns. In the 2012 election cycle, Borba contributed tens of thousands of dollars to various political campaigns, mostly to Republicans, but also to Costa and Feinstein. He also hosted a major fundraiser last year for Feinstein, according to multiple sources. And in an email, which was obtained by the Fresno Bee, Borba revealed what he expected from her in return: "I'm tired of these [expletive] politicians waltzing through here ... telling us how tough things are ... picking our pockets for $$$$ ... and they [sic] returning to DC and doing nothing! Put their [expletive] careers on the line ... or step down."

In an interview, Carter said that, based on the long history of Westlands growers, it's a good bet that they have their eyes on North Coast rivers, too. "The point to make is, should we trust these people?" said Carter, who is now the president of the environmental group Save Our Streams Council. "Based on their history, I'd say, 'No.'"

To date, Feinstein has refused to comment on the Borba emails. But late last week, in an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee, she once again pushed for the expansion of Shasta Lake. She also heaped praise on the giant water tunnels plan and talked about the possibility of amending the US Endangered Species Act to allow more water exports from the Delta.

As for McClintock, he has been quoted in press accounts as opposing the giant water tunnels plan — unless it's accompanied by more dam-building projects. His press office did not respond to questions as to whether he favors damming up the North Coast rivers. But he has been quoted repeatedly as saying that he hopes to "usher in an era of abundance" of water in California. He also supports removing the wild and scenic designation on the portion of the Merced River inside Yosemite National Park. And he has been quoted as characterizing the National Wild and Scenic Act as "truly outrageous bureaucratic red tape."

For the past several decades, nature enthusiasts have viewed the federal wild and scenic designation as the gold standard for environmental protection. Rivers that received wild and scenic status were thought to be protected in perpetuity. But the McClintock-Costa bill, coupled with the increasing call to raise Shasta Dam and flood a wild and scenic section of the McCloud River, is providing new evidence that no environmental law is sacrosanct. And no river is safe.

At this point, it's unclear whether Feinstein will decide to back HR 934 and then shepherd it through the Senate. But even if she does, and even if the state legislature decides to lift the wild and scenic status on the McCloud, California's beautiful North Coast rivers are not necessarily doomed.

As both critics and proponents of the governor's giant water tunnels plan have noted, it makes no sense to dam up and divert the Smith, Eel, and Trinity rivers — unless the twin tunnels are built. Without that infrastructure, it would be impossible to send millions of acre-feet of additional water through the Delta and then pump it south. So while federal wild and scenic designations could certainly help keep the North Coast rivers safe, the twin tunnels may present the gravest threat to their future.

"If you construct the water tunnels," noted Stork of Friends of the River, "then it could be politically easier" to remove the wild and scenic designations on the rivers of California's North Coast. 

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the length of the proposed water tunnels. They are currently proposed to be 35 miles long -- not 39 miles as we reported. The length we reported came from an earlier proposal of the water tunnels that has since been changed by the Brown administration. In addition, Congressman Jeff Denham first introduced his bill to lift the federal wild and scenic protection on a section of the Merced River in 2011 -- not 2012.

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