Joyce Terhaar

Joyce Terhaar: Not many stories are bigger than the Delta

Joyce Terhaar
Joyce Terhaar

It affects the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas. It could harm the oldest known bird species. And, while it is expected to cost a fraction of the price of California’s proposed high speed rail line, the $25billion price of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan still would make it one of the most expensive state public projects ever.

This immense plan supported by Gov. Jerry Brown would build three new intakes in the Courtland area that would then move water into two 30-mile long tunnels bored 150 feet underground. The construction is intended to protect fish species and the estuary that supplies two-thirds of California’s water. Perhaps more relevant to some of you are concerns that it would disrupt and change this picturesque recreation, farming and wine region. Or that it could impact this region’s animal habitat and water supply.

It’s a complicated plan, and the job of The Bee’s Matt Weiser to translate this policy wonk language into stories that matter to you.

Few news organizations in California are able to deeply cover public policy issues that affect our lives. Those that do include traditional newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Stockton’s The Record or San Jose Mercury News, all of which have weighed in on the Delta proposal. It’s difficult and sometimes tedious work, and it takes years of reporting to build up enough expertise. For us, though, it’s a key part of our reporting mission. The tunnel plan falls squarely into reporting areas we emphasize: It’s local, it involves a substantial public expenditure that should be scrutinized, and it is one of the most knotty of statewide public policy issues, designed to resolve decades of disagreement over California’s water supplies and endangered species.

“I think this is exactly the type of coverage where The Bee ... can provide a real public service,” said Deb Anderluh, senior editor for investigations and enterprise.

Anderluh is Weiser’s editor and knows well the expertise he brings to his coverage. Weiser was the reporter who discovered last year that California’s parks system was hiding money even as it was asking for donations to keep parks open. He’s covered the environment for about 25 years, and the Delta and water issues for 15.

Weiser explains his role this way: “I’ve tried to give readers a good look at the complexity of the project, and of the Delta itself. The complexity has been difficult for me to wrestle with, as well, because we’re talking about 30,000 pages of technical documents and seven years of planning” so far.

Weiser’s coverage has ranged from explanatory to investigative. He broke the story when state officials proposed a new route for the tunnels to ease the damage to some Delta towns. Then he pointed out the conundrum: The new proposal would have this giant construction project run through Staten Island, where voters paid $35million to create a refuge for the endangered greater sandhill cranes, the oldest known bird species.

“That’s typical in the Delta: You find a place for one puzzle piece, and another suddenly doesn’t fit,” Weiser said.

Weiser has examined the economic projections of the Delta plan, which claim it will generate $5billion for the state, along with 1million jobs. The projections rely on water delivery that critics say might not happen, and that customers who benefit from the delivery will foot the higher bills to pay off public bonds. He’s looked at water contracts being negotiated by state and federal water agencies that will set the stage for that financial scenario.

And he’s delved into life in the Delta and how it might change under the tunnel plan, as well as reporting the protests and backlash attached to the plan.

“I’m trying to give people a sense of the high stakes,” Weiser said. “The Delta is in trouble because there are too many people depending on it for water. Even worse, there isn’t as much water available as in the past because of climate change and new understanding about fishery needs. It’s a classic resource conflict. ... All of California depends on it to some degree.”

In today’s story, published on Page A1, Weiser examines the proposal from the perspective of Californians to the south who need a more consistently reliable water source. It’s an entirely different perspective from the more common concern in Sacramento that the project will upend lives and potentially harm water supplies and ecosystems. Yet it is a perspective necessary to understand the broader import of the Delta plan.

Do Sacramentans need to understand that perspective? We believe we do. Sacramento’s political battles over the Delta plan, our community support or opposition, all ought to be informed by an understanding of what the state looks like if water reliability does not improve.

“On a macro level, this is a story about California’s ongoing struggle over water: how to allocate a limited and unstable supply to meet the mounting demands for clean drinking water, crop irrigation, healthy fisheries and outdoor recreation,” Anderluh said. “With or without the tunnels, California is facing difficult choices that will require new ways of thinking about conservation, water storage and wildlife. The Delta gives us a focal point to explore those issues.”

Our reporting is only one piece of our coverage, however. The editorial board continues to opine as the plan moves forward, particularly about opportunities for the public to weigh in. Currently state and federal officials say they will build the tunnels without a vote of elected lawmakers or the public. The Bee’s institutional stand – which is separate from our news coverage – is that the process must be more inclusionary.

The Delta plan already has changed because of public pressure. We’ll continue to provide news and analysis of this key state project as it moves forward.

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