California’s Water Policy Funds in Shadowy Hands
Recently, journalist Katy Grimes and others pulled back the covers to reveal a shadowy, quasi-governmental non-profit group that has been responsible for numerous California bond measures, showing that has been a secret major influencer of the state’s public water policy and a raider on the public purse.
Her report describes how the group and its associates regularly benefit from a variety of fiscal assistance and political influence — see Grimes article. At the core of the group are Resources Legacy Fund, its sister organization Resources Legacy Fund Foundation and project California Water Foundation, the Natural Heritage Institute and a host of powerful conservation and water non-profits linked by high-value grants.
At least since 2000 key players involved in the cabal negotiated and wrote seven California’s water bond measures, generating $27.1 billion, the journalists revealed.
Their work is not yet done. They say the groups are still cooking other multi-billion water bond measures behind closed doors. The group’s leaders have announced their intention of bringing at least one and possibly two bond measures to the voters in 2018, one by the initiative process and another by “working with the Legislature’s leadership.”
Analysis also shows that disproportionate amounts of the funds so far distributed from six out of seven passed bond measures went to those who participated in the cabal.
The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), in a report partially funded by Resources Legacy Fund, provided allocations and awards out of $19.6 billion in water bonds from Propositions 13 and 12 (2000), 40 and 50 (2002), and 1E and 84 (2006).
For instance, out of $7.2 billion spent to fund 3,976 statewide water projects by March 2014, the Sacramento River Hydrologic Region received $2.6 billion (37%) for 891 water projects. It was the highest total water project awards of any hydrologic region in the state. The combined Central Valley’s hydrologic regions received $0.9 billion — just a third as much — for their 666 water projects.
Not a single project out of all these expenditures was used to build any surface water-storage projects. Many of the funded projects resulted in transfers of funds to groups of non-profits that receive grants from and are their close associates.
The Sacramento region awarded public bond projects $372 million for ecosystems and spent $149 million (40%) for land preservation acquisitions. Buying private lands permanently removes them from local property tax rolls. Many land-purchase transactions used cabal-run non-profits or their for-profit law firm as intermediaries, transferring a portion of the expenditures to the non-profits for their services.
In 2014, California voters passed another water bond measure, Proposition 1, again written by a key government insider, Gerald Meral. Meral was Deputy Secretary for Natural Resources until December 31, 2013; the following day, he volunteered his services to Natural Heritage Institute. Meral spent the next eight months writing the language of Proposition 1. The legislature, with backing from both parties, passed legislation putting it on the ballot and voters approved the $7.5 billion measure in November 2014.
Governor Jerry Brown promoted the measure based on its promise of building new surface and groundwater storage facilities. In fact, only $2.7 billion of the measure is dedicated to such projects, and only then if they provide over half their total value as ecosystem enhancement benefits for the environment. Brown did not talk about the remaining $4.8 billion: it flows to a variety of non-profits for other ecologic and conservation purposes, including more land acquisitions by conservation groups that supported the measure and funded its campaign.
Many publicly state they expect most of the $2.7 billion in Proposition 1 water storage funds to be awarded to build Sites Reservoir in Glenn and Colusa counties. These expectations are based on promises, assurances and understandings obtained during long years spend negotiating with unnamed individuals, presumably administration officials, legislators and staffers of Resources Legacy Fund and Natural Heritage Institute and Governor Brown-appointed members of the California Water Commission.
One might reasonably draw a conclusion that those who have benefited from a steady stream of pork flowing to their tiny region might be upset at anyone taking a close look at this shadow government responsible for milking the public of over $27.1 billion in the last 16 years.
Whatever their motives, the public needs to know the cast of characters and past actions fueling the opposition.
In May 2016, Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of Restore the Delta, a non-profit advocacy group, filed a complaint against Meral with the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), alleging that Meral had lobbied legislators and his former agency within a year of leaving employment, a violation of GC Sec. 87406’s revolving door provision, that Meral was an unregistered lobbyist, and that Natural Heritage Institute failed to report lobbying expenditures.
The outcome of that complaint was not publicly reported by the FPPC and became the subject of a Public Records Act request by Grimes on its disposition.
As one whom closely followed Proposition 1’s movement through the California Legislature, I can testify that the public story regarding the Assembly and Senate’s deliberations on several possible bond bills, eventual coalescence around a single piece of legislation and passage in the closing days of the session was far different than what Grimes reported and Barrigan-Parrilla viewed as illegal influence.
We all believed we were witnessing an open, transparent process with public participation. Nothing slipped out to reveal that Meral had a series of drafts of the final bill in hand in spring, 2014, was circulating them secretly within his group, and cooked final language long before the public learned in August that it existed.
There was no public pronouncement or media coverage of the secret meetings with legislators and the governor as described in the Barrigan-Parrilla documents.
It’s long past time for those responsible for other members of the fourth estate and holders of the public trust to look into these well-funded, insider-driven activities and reveal to the public the true nature of this quagmire of influence, bringing this disgrace to light and closing the chapter on the cabal’s power.