A visit by Assemblywoman Pat Wiggins to July's meeting of the Russian River Watershed Council provided some answers. Ms. Wiggins proudly announced to the Council that she was responsible for the Russian River being included in the initiative. As she explained it, she was meeting in Sacramento with other legislators putting together the language of the initiative. The head of the group turned to her and said, "Pat, do you need anything for your district?" "How much can I have?" she asked. "One million" the response. "How long do I have?" "One hour." And so, Ms. Wiggins explained, she called the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA), who drafted the proposal that was submitted to the voters, including the restriction on its use.
We were also told at the Council meeting that the SCWA has asked that the $1 million be given to it so it can control its disbursement and use. But it is far more appropriate that the money be given to the Russian River Watershed Council. There, at least, it can be used as matching funds to free up another $1 million in federal and state grants, money that can be used for the entire watershed.
The mission of the Council is "to protect, restore, and enhance the biological health of the Russian River and its watershed through a community-based process, which facilitates communication and collaboration among all interested parties." The Council is made up of 57 voting representatives from business, environmental, and general public interests, plus non-voting members from various government agencies and a supervisor from each county (Mike Reilly and Richard Shoemaker). It has been working for two years to establish fair operating rules and secure funding, and has just sponsored a comprehensive geographic information system of the entire watershed to determine priorities in meeting its mission.
The Council's mission statement was adopted almost verbatim by the SCWA when it drafted the ballot initiative, with the addition of the language prohibiting use of the bond in half the watershed. California Water Code 79085.5(b) now reads: "The sum of one million dollars ($1,000,000) to the [State Water Resources Control] board for allocation to the County of Sonoma to develop and implement community-based watershed management activities that will protect, restore, and enhance the environmental and economic value of the Russian River Watershed in the County of Sonoma."
SCWA has an admittedly different mission: to provide water for its customers in Sonoma and Marin counties. Protecting, restoring, and enhancing the watershed is only incidental to its efforts to provide cheap and plentiful water. Its conflict of interest is at least apparent. By its manipulation of the initiative process, SCWA has lost the confidence and trust of the residents of the watershed, and should not be given stewardship of a public-approved bond.
According to Bill Campbell of the State Water Resources Control Board, the bond funds have not yet been allocated. However, he has concluded that the money must first go to Sonoma County, whose Board of Supervisors could then decide to disburse it as they se fit. He also stated that there was a general pool of competitive money for other projects (about $4,000,000), for which the Control Board would issue a request-for-proposals in mid-October.
Anyone interested in the health of the Russian River should contact Assemblywomen Pat Wiggins and Virginia Strom-Martin, State Senator Wes Chesbro, the State Water Resources Control Board, and the Board of Supervisors for both Sonoma and Mendocino counties, and ask that this latest money and power grab by the SCWA be stopped. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors should be encouraged to transfer the entire $1,000,000 to the Russian River Watershed Council, where it can do the most good. The people voted for a bond that should benefit the entire watershed. Let us hope that elected and responsible government officials place the health of the river above the politics of water.
(The author is a member of the Rusian River Watershed Council.)
Copyright Mendocino Environmental Center 2000
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