Sacramento River, looking north near Old Sugar Mill. Photo by John Howard, California Water Wars

A feisty Brown unveils new water plan

“I want to get shit done,” Brown declared Wednesday to his surprised listeners at a news briefing.” —- An impatient and feisty Gov. Jerry Brown unveiled an extraordinary plan to bore two More »

Sacramento River - Photo by Steve Martarano, USFWS

Grappling with the water bond

“Steinberg said it was conceivable that the bond could be reduced to $7 billion to $8 billion, but raised doubts about whether the proposal could be substantially rewritten. “All this needs to be More »

Lower American River, USFWS

Economy: Big player in November water bond

“There’s a lot of head-scratching right now,” said Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, the chair of the Assembly water committee.” The most ambitious and expensive water program to confront California voters since More »


Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, near Willows, CA. Photo by Dan Cox, USFWS

 “A federal judge leaving the bench to quickly turn up as the lawyer for an entity that has come before him numerous times over the years raises eyebrows.”

Former U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger, who spent two decades as a jurist deep in the Central Valley, is shaping up as something of a courtroom nemesis for environmentalists. And he’s not even on the bench.

Wanger, who has ruled on numerous water cases, retired at the end of September – but not before he blasted the government’s environmental assessments of flows and fresh water in a case involving Delta smelt protections. Wanger’s sharp language, in which he denounced experts from the Bureau of Reclamation and the Fish and Wildlife Service, drew national attention.

The Westlands Water District, the nation’s premier farm irrigation district and a major political player in the Central Valley, sought more flows south from the Delta; the government’s position would have limited them. In the end, Wanger’s decision was favorable to Westlands.

And that would have been that, except that Wanger has now surfaced less than two months after his earlier decision as an attorney in a state case representing – you guessed it — Westlands.

Wanger was listed in a routine court filing on Nov. 22 in Fresno County Superior Court as an attorney representing Westlands in a state case against pitting the district against environmental groups and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. Wanger and representatives of his law firm were identified as the new lawyers representing Westlands, replacing the district’s own staff attorneys. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is also a defendant.

There is nothing illegal or improper about Wanger entering private practice. But the perception of a federal judge leaving the bench to quickly turn up as the lawyer for an entity that has come before him numerous times over the years raises eyebrows.

As for the outspoken Wanger, he went to public events just after stepping down, including a fundraiser, and he appears to be unconcerned about the latest flap over his new role as Westlands lawyer.

“I would love to hear what Westlands would say if we had hired [Wanger],” Zeke Grader, executive director of the San Francisco-based Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations, told the Fresno Bee’s John Ellis. That would be fine with him, Wanger said.

“I’d love to work for them,” he said, including environmental groups and the federal government in his list of prospective clients.

In September, shortly before he retired, Wanger said FWS scientist Jennifer Norris “has not been honest this court. I find her to be incredible as a witness. I find her testimony to be that of a zealot. And I’m not overstating the case. I’m not being histrionic. I’m not being dramatic. I’ve never seen anything like it. And I’ve seen a few witnesses testify.”

He also said the Bureau of Reclamation’s Frederick Feyrer, he showed “absolute incredibility” and “absolute unreliability,” and “finally, the most significant finding, the court finds him to be untrustworthy as a witness.”  His language – it was part of a lengthy diatribe – surprised legal observers for its intensity. The Department of the Interior, meanwhile, is investigating the judge’s allegations.

Norris and Feyrer did not comment on Wanger’s statements, but at the time Interior Department through a spokesman defended the scientists’ work, calling it “consistent and thorough.”

The underlying issue of the case was the government’s plan to tap the Sacramento River to retain some fresh water supplies in the Delta, rather than let it be shipped south, a move that by some estimates could cut water to San Joaquin Valley irrigation districts by some 300,000 acre-feet, perhaps more. Wanger blocked the move, at least temporarily.

The Delta, an estuary fed by several rivers, is at the heart of California’s water system and provides about half the state’s drinking water.


Grain of salt

Lindsay Slough

“There is little likelihood that even with favorable court rulings up the legal chain that the desalination plant would be built any time in the near future.”

California water disputes inevitably wind up in the courts, no surprise there, and the latest example is the fight in Marin County over the proposed $115 million desalination plant, a plan viewed by local water officials as an obvious and necessary safeguard against drought but denounced by critics as an energy-depleting, environment-damaging boondoggle.

The first step in what all but certain is likely to be protracted legal drama came when Marin County Superior Court Judge M. Lynn Duryee ruled that the proposed plant’s environmental impact report failed to adequately identify the project’s potential impact on marine life and that it violated the requirements of the state’s principal environmental safeguard, the 41-year-old California Environmental Quality Act. CEQA itself doesn’t determine specifics of projects, but it requires them to undergo intensive review to assure they meet environmental safeguards.

The decision by Duryee, who agreed with the challenge filed by the North Coast Rivers Alliance, prompted the Marin Municipal Water District last week to appeal the decision. The district, which has examined desalination alternatives for some two decades, had hopes to build a plant in district-owned property on San Francisco Bay, treating the bay water through a multi-step process that includes reverse osmosis. The MWD – its institutional memory perhaps scarred by the horrific 1976-77 drought when water had to be brought in through a pipeline attached to the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge — is familiar with desalination. It operated an 11-month desalination project in 2005, in part to show that the process was feasible, in part to identify and head off potential problems in a future, full-scale project.

The district’s appeal last week of Duryee’s ruling keeps the project alive, at least on paper, but there is little likelihood that even with favorable court rulings up the legal chain that the desalination plant would be built any time in the near future.

The district itself put the project in limbo last year, and with good reason. The economic landscape has changed dramatically since the financial go-go times of 2005. Money is tight, investors skittish and the economy uncertain. Last season’s wet weather, ironically, hasn’t helped desalination-proponents, since the concept takes hold strongest in times of drought. Too, water district customers use less water during the rains, which means the district – Marin is not alone here – collect less revenue, even as their fixed costs remain the same.

It’s a triple whammy.

Counter-productive, counter-intuitive

Liberty Cut

“The problem is that a perfect storm of factors has come together for the district.”

Customers at a suburban Sacramento County water district are getting slapped with hefty rate increases for doing the right thing – using less water – because the decline in water use is contributing to a decline in revenues for the local water agency. And the agency isn’t alone.

Something is wrong with this picture.

The Carmichael Water District seeks an 18 percent rate hike on Jan. 1, in addition to an even larger increase that already has been approved through the next three years.

The problem is that a perfect storm of factors has come together for the district: Water use has dropped 25 percent, in part because of conservation and wet weather, because homes have been shuttered through foreclosure and aren’t using water at all and customers, hoping to save money in the face of rate increases, are using less water still. It’s a Catch-22 and a detailed description of the issue can be seen here.

The problem is not limited to suburban Sacramento. Local and regional water districts face the twin-whammy of high-fixed costs to support infrastructure and operations and legal requirements to cut water use. The dichotomy has long been a problem; with a swelling population and demands on services it is likely to get worse. During the drought, some water agencies impose rate hikes on those who don’t conserve water, leaving the customer to feel that he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.

Quite rightly, too.

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