Sacramento mayoral candidate Darrell Steinberg has worked since July as an adviser to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the massive agency that partly relies on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to serve more than 19 million south state residents.
Steinberg is the only person named as “key personnel” in the district’s contract with law firm Greenberg Traurig, where the former state Senate leader works, according to a copy of the contract obtained by The Sacramento Bee. His firm has been paid $90,000 since the contract began, at a rate of $10,000 a month, according to an invoice.
The contract states that Steinberg will “assist in development of strategy and outreach plan for (the) multi-purpose project in the Yolo Bypass.” The Metropolitan Water District is involved in a habitat restoration project in the Yolo Bypass that both state and federal environmental officials have required for water agencies to continue drawing water from the Delta.
Metropolitan is also a lead proponent of Gov. Jerry Brown’s controversial $15.5 billion plan to construct tunnels designed to improve water flow from the Delta to Southern California. That plan is opposed by the city of Sacramento, Sacramento County and other local agencies concerned about its impact on the local water supply and environment.
Steinberg’s contract stipulates he will “not engage or advocate on matters specifically related to new Delta conveyance (the tunnels)” – language that Steinberg said he requested for the agreement.
Steinberg said he agreed to the MWD contract last summer before he decided to run for mayor and that he will not extend his work when the one-year contract expires at the end of June.
“I get innuendo,” he said. “As long as the work is consistent with my values and the interests of my city, I don’t see a problem.”
Steinberg said the Yolo Bypass project has broad support among local agencies and is “essential” for the city of Sacramento. The Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency supports the Yolo project. In addition to the creation of “fishways” designed to move fish in and out of the bypass, the project also involves increasing the flood capacity of the area.
“I would only do the work if it was something that was 100 percent helpful to Sacramento,” Steinberg said.
However, Steinberg’s chief opponent in the June 7 primary, Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, described Steinberg as “a hired gun” for Metropolitan.
“How could he look people in the eyes and answer so many questions from voters and the press on issues like the drought, while hiding the fact that he’s been collecting $10,000 a month during the entire campaign to help ship Northern California water down to Los Angeles?” she said.
Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District, said Steinberg has taken part in meetings between MWD representatives and elected officials in Yolo County. He has also met with private landowners in the Yolo Bypass who might be concerned that their farmland will be affected by wildlife habitat work and increased flood capacity.
Kightlinger said he told Steinberg he could terminate his contract last year after Steinberg announced his mayoral campaign, noting “we’re not always the most popular people” in Northern California. He said Steinberg declined that offer.
Kightlinger said the work in the Yolo Bypass is not directly linked to the tunnel project, but that “everything, of course, has an inter-relationship.” Supporters of the tunnels argue the project would protect fish populations and enhance the reliability of water flows to the south. Habitat protection – such as the work in the Yolo Bypass – also can stabilize water deliveries south, which are sometimes curtailed to protect endangered fish in the Delta.
“If the fish do better, we believe we will be able to pump more water,” Kightlinger said.
According to his Metropolitan Water District contract, Steinberg is tasked with providing “strategic advice on approach, outreach, and messaging for matters related to Metropolitan’s public policy objectives to ensure effective communication with stakeholders in Northern California.” That work also includes identifying “outreach opportunities with elected officials within the five Delta counties to build relationships for advancing common ground.”
As Senate leader, Steinberg was central to 2009 and 2014 compromises on a multibillion-dollar water bond politically tied to the tunnels project. The 2014 bond, approved by voters, provides money for water storage and conveyance, as well as for ecosystem restoration and protection.
The tunnels plan would send freshwater from the Sacramento River near Courtland around the Delta to a spot near Tracy, where pumps currently draw water for Metropolitan Water District and other users south of that point. Brown and other proponents say the tunnels would improve the Delta habitat and protect the water supply from earthquakes and rising sea levels.
In 2013, Steinberg said he was “not ready to sign off on any particular-size tunnel, but I think the idea that we both have to restore the ecosystem of the Delta and at the same time provide water reliability conveyance for the entire state by going around the Delta is true, and accepted. And I accept it, and I’m ready to work with the governor to figure out the details.”
Northern California water agencies and environmentalists have long battled the Metropolitan Water District. Tensions with the agency intensified this spring, when the district purchased $175 million worth of land in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. While the agency has not finalized plans for the land, it could use at least one of the islands to store dirt and construction equipment for the tunnel project.
Officials from San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties have sued in an attempt to block the land purchase.
Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, the executive director of Restore the Delta, blasted Steinberg’s connection to the water district.
“It’s another layer of heartbreak for the people of the Delta when it comes to local political leaders,” she said. “For him to now be working with Met water when running for mayor when we should absolutely be fighting to protect the Sacramento River watershed, it’s disheartening.”