Get outta here.
A Southern California congressman has slipped a rider into a federal spending bill that would exempt the Delta tunnels from lawsuits — pause to hear water attorneys howling like coyotes — including suits already brought by the city of Stockton and county of San Joaquin.
Enough with this tedious rule-of-law stuff, Rep. Ken Calvert, a Riverside County Republican, said in a statement.
“All of the project’s stakeholders have had a plethora of opportunities to express their thoughts and concerns,” Calvert said. “We must move forward with the project.”
This rider is so over the top that it’s tempting to turn to satire, and wonder aloud if Calvert’s next idea will be to send tunnels opponents to FEMA camps.
But seriously. The plethora of opportunities Calvert describes did not include allowing the people of California a vote on this $17 billion (for starters) project. We couldn’t use the ballot box; now we can’t use the courts?
This fetid rider has no place in a country whose essence requires courts to be politically neutral arenas in which the weak can prevail against the strong if the law is on their side.
“Judicial review protects … the vulnerable and politically weak against the capricious nature of the powerful,” said Doug Obegi of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This rider is clearly the powerful trying to stomp down on those with less political power.”
Calvert’s maneuver is doubly outrageous given how the water grab sought by political goliaths would hurt a poorer region’s economy and way of life — the very definition of environmental injustice.
If ever the courts had a role to play, the WaterFix is it.
San Joaquin is far from the only litigant. Others include water districts, governments, conservation outfits, fishing groups and the Winnemem Wintu tribe. All deserve their day in court.
Yes, the suits will take too long. And cost too much. Likely they will increase the project’s cost. The legal process is woefully imperfect. But better an imperfect process than none.
Unless one fears the outcome. Calvert and his constituents appear afraid they’ll lose in court. So, “you change the rules so you can’t lose,” said Obegi. “It clearly undermines any legitimacy of the project.”
A turkey of epic proportions, the so-called WaterFix would be two immense, 35-mile tunnels piping Sacramento River water under the Delta to aqueducts for further transport to south-Valley Ag and southland cities.
It will do exactly what science says should not be done: suck freshwater away from the ravaged Delta, allowing more saltwater in.
It’ll hurt struggling fisheries, perhaps to extinction. It’ll decimate Delta agriculture, the mainstay of San Joaquin County’s economy. It’ll drive up Stockton’s cost of drawing water from the Delta, hiking water bills in one of the state’s poorest regions.
Courts are all the more crucial because in the dirty world of California’s water politics, regulators have been co-opted and politicians virtually bought and paid for.
According to Restore the Delta, his campaign contributors include The Parsons Corp., an engineering firm itching to build the tunnels, rival engineering firms, a bottled water outfit, and members of the Southern California Water Committee.
Can Calvert’s rider stand legally?
Congress can take away the right to sue under federal law, Obegi said. But WaterFix is a state project. That raises questions about the scope of Congress’ authority under the 10th Amendment and the Commerce Clause.
“I do think that if a monstrosity like this was ever enacted into law there would be real questions about its constitutionality as applied to state laws,” Obegi said.
Ironically, Calvert’s rider could monkey-wrench court cases by tunnels supporters, too.
The Department of Water Resources has a lawsuit in Sacramento Superior Court seeking validation of $11 billion in revenue bonds to pay for tunnels construction. Oops.
Another example: If the State Water Board denies permits for the tunnels or imposes conditions backers want to fight, the rider may stop them from challenging the decision.
“Judicial review protects everybody,” Obegi said.
As discriminatory as Calvert’s rider is, the House may pass it. Then it falls to California’s senators to dismantle the rider.
Rep. Jerry McNerney issued a statement that reads in part, “This provision has no place in a crucial funding bill, and was dropped in as a last-ditch effort to circumvent the voices of Californians throughout the state who have said ‘no’ to the disastrous tunnels plan.”
Tunnel backers have shown they’re afraid of a public vote, afraid of impartial science and, now, afraid of the legal rights of those harmed by WaterFix. That one arrogant congressman presumes to deny legal rights to millions of Californians shows precisely why courts are needed.
Contact columnist Michael Fitzgerald at (209) 546-8270 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at recordnet.com/fitzgeraldblog and on Twitter @Stocktonopolis.