Water board chair has lost our trust

Felicia Marcus spoke in Modesto about the drought that was impacting the area, but addressed a looming regulatory drought less specifically.
Felicia Marcus spoke in Modesto about the drought that was impacting the area, but addressed a looming regulatory drought less specifically. jlee@modbee.com

The problem with Felicia Marcus is that she never stopped working for the environmental movement.

The chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board is supposed to use her authority to balance competing needs in making economic life-and-death decisions. She’s supposed to oversee a quasi-judicial board that views and weighs all the facts before choosing the wisest path for water use.

Instead, Marcus has treated this job as an extension of her old one – attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Smart, gutsy and glib, Marcus has proved to be a great friend of those whose job it is to sell environmental fanaticism to the public. For everyone else, she’s a now political target.

Her term as chairwoman of water board ended Jan. 15, and a new chair must be appointed in March. Marcus desperately wants to continue, and sympathetic media along the coast have urged the governor to keep her. But for the sake of salmon and a million Northern Californians, that cannot be allowed to happen. She must be replaced.

If not, every board decision will be suspect and many will be challenged in court. It’s already happening.

Even environmentalists are suing. They, too, challenge the board’s bad science, though from a different perspective.

Reappointing Marcus also slaps one of the state’s poorest regions – i.e., us – smack in the face.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is as smart as any politician in America. He was raised in San Francisco drinking water from the Tuolumne River. He knows what’s at stake. He also knows Marcus can’t be trusted. She knifed him politically even before he became governor.

In November, when he was still governor-elect, Newsom and Gov. Jerry Brown co-signed an unprecedented letter asking Marcus and the board to delay its contentious decision to implement Phase 1. The governors knew negotiating with those who for over 100 years have held rights to use the water on the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers was the only way to reach a durable, equitable and workable agreement to save salmon and our region’s $4 billion a year farming industry.

Grudgingly, painfully, angrily, the board granted one month. What happened next? Exactly what the governors wanted.

Karla Nemeth, director of the Department of Water Resources, and Chuck Bonham, director of the Department of Fish and Game, conducted marathon talks with people from here and the Bay Area. On the Tuolumne River, they reached agreements to create more floodplain, provide greater flows at crucial times and restore riverbeds where salmon spawn. With more time, Bonham told the water board he felt similar deals could be had on the Stanislaus and Merced rivers.

Instead of postponing, the water board voted 4-1 to enact their flawed Phase 1 plan, effectively rejecting the deal. In the words of one close observer, Marcus “flipped the bird to not one, but two governors.” She and three other board members flipped it to us, too.

People in our region will act in good faith and to do what they promised. But they no longer have any faith in Marcus or the process.

The smartest people studying fish Peter Moyle of UC Davis, Doug Demko of FishBio, Delta watermaster Michael George, Cramer Fish Sciences, even Metropolitan Water District’s top scientists – know the keys to improving fish populations are better habitat, killing non-native predators and smarter flows. In the words of the scientists, simply sending more water down the rivers – as Marcus insists – is “scientifically lazy.” And destined to fail.

No one in this region – or the state’s entire ag community – trusts the board’s decisions or Marcus. It’s time for her to go.

Mike Dunbar is the editor of The Merced Sun-Star editorial pages. 209-578-2325