Here is an opinion piece from 2001 by a previous secretary to the state resources agency. Did he seem to have a grasp of the situation eight years ago that is still unfolding today?
New-Wave Water Policy Petaluma — the Little Town That did
Huey D. Johnson, San Francisco Chronicle
January 4, 2001
A HEADLINE for the history books caught my attention recently: “Council wants to leave unused water in Russian.” (The Petaluma city council, the Russian River.) As far as I know, municipal action to leave unallocated water in a river for conservation purposes is unprecedented in the history of the American West.
On Nov. 22, the city council voted 5-2 in favor of a proposal to “make sure that water going unused on off-peak days supports habitat and fisheries instead of encouraging regional growth by freeing up water supplies.”
The old guard, those who think water is their asset to sell, opposes the proposal, claiming other cities in Sonoma County rely on the water. This water- as-asset bunch is the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, which, with a quick change of hats, becomes the Sonoma County Water Agency. The supervisors operate from the antiquated belief that water is a commodity to be turned into money by selling it, for example, for vineyards and housing developments.
The water-as-asset concept needs a tyrant running the system. In this case, a general manager controls the county agency in the tradition of formidable directors of water bureaucracies who abuse their authority and wield their power in questionable ways. The Sonoma County Water Agency and its would-be water czar have for years sold water as if it were an unlimited resource — water that mostly wasn’t there to be sold, what the courts these days call “paper water.”
The Sonoma County agency has been trying for years to sell some of this water to Marin County. Its 10-year plan for expansion of its water empire carries an estimated $500 million to $1 billion price tag, and expensive junkets to Washington, D.C., are well known around the North Bay. The supervisors want to charge Marin County $20 million to enlarge the pipe to the Russian River.
Unfortunately, many mainstream Marinites still believe that all you have to do to get more water is to put in a pipe and it will come.
I served as California’s resources secretary in 1975-1976, the last major drought, when people and government officials panicked about running out of water. But I noticed that Marin residents cut back their water use by an astonishing 80 percent and, more importantly, there was little need for more Russian River water. An emergency pipeline over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge was hardly used. Today, Marin politicians who support the smoke-and-mirrors thinking of the Sonoma Water Agency should be embarrassed.
The tragedy worsens with the knowledge that in the summer, as much as 90 percent of upper Eel River flows are diverted to the Russian River with devastating effects on the downstream salmon and wildlife habitat of the Eel.
The Sonoma Water Agency has overstepped its bounds. Its general manager threatened Petaluma council members that if they didn’t sign on to the plan to use Russian River water, Petaluma’s water use could be restricted — cutting off their water in a classic sense. The city of Petaluma said, in effect, “We don’t believe you and we’re not going to sign on to further ruthless destruction. We once had a quarter of a million steelhead in the Russian River, and people would come from all over the world to fish for them. The fishing and tourist industry had a booming impact on the economy in Sonoma County. We once had clean water in the Russian River, which is the artery that flows to the heart of our way of life.”
I don’t know what those people of Petaluma are drinking, but I hope they share it. During the 1970s, the Petaluma City Council passed a growth-control ordinance that was challenged by developers and went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of Petaluma’s right to control its growth; the developers lost. Many other cities and towns have followed Petaluma’s example. And here they go again, stepping onto the pages of history.
The Board of Supervisors and their general manager have run roughshod over honesty and logic, and now it is time for a change. It is time to form a separate regional water agency for Sonoma County and time to fire the general manager.
The Petaluma council’s proposal is a historical breakthrough for water policy in California. It marks a beginning of transition and change. The citizens of Petaluma and their brave council members who supported this proposal have pioneered the way.
They seem to understand the importance and necessity of flowing water for fish, wildlife and human quality of life. I stand in awe of Petaluma as a dramatic and courageous community, and I commend it.
Huey D. Johnson, former secretary of the state Resources Agency, is president of the Resource Renewal Institute in San Francisco.