Do CA DWR “Hearings” Actually Listen?

by Tim Stroshane, Policy Analyst, Restore the Delta

The concrete-walled room was intimate and windowless, with chairs arranged into several rows facing toward a screen onto which a slide projector beamed DWR’s PowerPoint presentation. Placed in each corner was an easel with large displays for different facets of the State Water Project system. Each easel had a DWR staff person standing with it. To the side was a table where a court reporter sat with a laptop into which she would pour words stated at the event. There would be no questions or statements made in front of the assembled public this agency nominally serves.

A “public meeting” held by DWR on May 13, 2019 once more illustrates that DWR officials really dislike hearing from the public about its water projects, and has devised a method of channeling the input of interested parties.  The agency has created a mutated “charrette” format that spares their feelings, while simultaneously assuring that only DWR officials know the full range of opinions transmitted at the meeting. They comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to the letter, while producing public cynicism toward DWR at the same time, fomenting a vicious cycle of distrust.

At the end of December 2019, the State Water Project’s incidental take permit (ITP) for the state Endangered Species Act-listed longfin smelt expires. If the ITP expires, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) would have to curtail use of its Delta SWP facilities to protect longfin smelt, including Clifton Court Forebay, Banks Pumping Plant, and ancillary structures until DFW issues a new ITP. (In 2007, when the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance learned that the SWP had no ITP for longfin smelt, the organization sued, forcing DWR to stop operations until an ITP was issued.)

Originally issued to DWR in 2009 from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), DWR spent most of the ensuing ten years on emergency drought barriers in the Delta (in 2014 and 2015) and failing to obtain water rights permits for its two-bore Delta tunnels project, also known as “California WaterFix” from 2015 to 2019.

It’s not just the ITP driving this process. In December 2018, the Trump Administration’s Bureau of Reclamation, which owns and operates the Central Valley Project (CVP, including the Delta Cross Channel at Walnut Grove and the Jones Pumping Plant near Tracy) strong-armed DWR into concessions for more CVP exports and less deliveries for the State Water Project going forward. (The Bureau’s CVP water rights are senior to those of DWR’s State Water Project.)

DWR rushes to complete an environmental impact report (EIR) this year so that DFW will use it to decide whether and how to issue a new ITP for the SWP, and so that the environmental effects of DWR’s SWP operating concessions to the CVP can be assessed.

DWR sought public input at this meeting into what topics the EIR should cover. Written public comments on the scope of the EIR are due to DWR at 5:00 on Tuesday, May 28, 2019.

On May 13, the meeting began with “assistant chief deputy director for water resources” Michele Banonis, Esq., summarizing the purposes for the long-term operations EIR—updating the ITP and evaluating the changes to coordinated CVP and SWP operations. Having herself just left the Bureau of Reclamation’s Delta office, she stated that “no new infrastructure” would be included in the EIR (since the WaterFix project was now voided by the governor), and that the ITP would again have a term of ten years. She disclosed no schedule for when DWR anticipated issuing the EIR.

Banonis then announced she would take no questions. Interested members of the public could provide oral comments directly to the court reporter. When RTD board member and Friends of the River attorney Bob Wright attempted to ask a question, Banonis replied only that “I cannot take your question,” and again directed the audience to provide oral comments to the court reporter and written comments to DWR by May 28.

Their process to obtain the new ITP rewards the agency’s cowardice toward the public and avoids a full airing of public opinion for all attending to hear. DWR has employed this meeting method before with California WaterFix: back in 2015, they announced the project at public meetings in the Sheraton in downtown Sacramento and the community center at Walnut Grove. Those meetings had at least some substance: there was a new project to learn about. On May 13, DWR made no direct attempt to educate the public about the incidental take permit or what the specific changes were to coordinated operations that the EIR will evaluate.

Their process is insidious: by stifling public airing of the public’s views, DWR officials privatize their literal hearing with their own ears over that of the public’s ears, whether those present represented Delta communities and ecosystems, water contractor interests, or other parties. Instead, those present could only engage in quiet networking or direct conversations with DWR staff at the easels. Exchanges are privatized in this format, not commonly shared.

Each of us has an interest in hearing what all segments of the public think about something at the time we are all gathered: that’s why such meetings are called “hearings.” With DWR’s meeting method, the most we will likely see is a short transcript of the meeting shorn of its public experience. The words are reduced to information without impact. Most of all, it spares DWR officials any of the sting that critical remarks from the public can arouse. Absent that sting, government insulates itself from the public, and spreads cynicism and distrust.

I prepared remarks for this meeting, and had rehearsed them. Prevented from speaking, I gave them to the court reporter and asked her to please place them in the record. While convenient, it drained the event of all drama. DWR had gotten off easy this time. Restore the Delta will provide written comments to DWR by May 28. We’ll share them with you.

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