Delta Tunnels: Bureau of Reclamation is “Beyond reclamation.”

  • Published on September 11th, 2017

The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the group that filed the original complaint resulting in the audit that revealed the $84.8 million in illegal Bureau of Reclamation payments to the California Department of Water Resources for the planning of Governor Jerry Brown’s Delta Tunnels Project, today issued a statement concluding that the Bureau of Reclamation is “now beyond reclamation.”

Iron Gate Dam on the Klamath River. Photo by Dan Bacher.By Dan Bacher

“Three recent federal audits have found the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation misspending more than $100 million in funds but the agency has not committed to any meaningful reforms nor to punishing any responsible officials,” according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

“The latest audit, last week, identified $84.8 million in improper Bureau of Reclamation payments to the State of California for its controversial Delta Tunnel Project. Despite this finding, the Bureau has no stated plans to recover even a penny.”

“Three recent critical audits arose from reports by Reclamation’s own employees represented by PEER. In the latest report on Friday, the Inspector General (IG) for the U.S. Department of Interior concluded that Reclamation illegally siphoned off funds to benefit fish and wildlife for the Delta Tunnel, a project to trans-ship vast quantities of freshwater from the Sacramento River and Delta to the south.  This project does not benefit fish and wildlife – just the opposite – but will principally benefit south-state irrigators,” PEER said.

This is the third recent “scathing report” on Reclamation misappropriations, according to the whistleblower group:

  • In late August, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel concluded that Reclamation illegally gave $32 million to Klamath Basin irrigators, again misusing funds earmarked for protecting fish and wildlife.  This ruling validated an earlier IG report confirming whistleblower disclosures; and
  • In October, the IG found that Reclamation never collected “repayment of millions of dollars of costs incurred to design, construct, and operate and maintain new head gates and fish screens” within the Klamath Project. These gates and screens are supposed to keep federally protected fish “in the river and out of the Klamath project irrigation canals

The misuse of funds in the Klamath Basin couldn’t have come at a worse time. The number of fall Chinook salmon predicted to return to the Klamath and Trinity rivers in 2017 — approximately 11,000 fish — is the lowest on record, a result of two consecutive juvenile fish disease outbreaks and other factors, including water diversions, dams, drought and ocean conditions.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council closed recreational and commercial salmon fishing in the Klamath Management Zone this season. Recreational fishing for fall run Chinook is banned on the Trinity and Klamath rivers this year.

The Yurok Tribe had to cancel its commercial salmon season on the lower Klamath this fall for the second time in a row, while the quotas for subsistence and ceremonial salmon fisheries by the Yurok and Hoopa Valley Tribes have been slashed. The Karuk Tribe has also voluntarily limited its traditional dip net fishery below Ishi-Pishi Falls this season also.

“This is a nightmare. I have never in my life dreamed that it could get this bad,” said Thomas P. O’Rourke Sr.,” Chairman of the Yurok Tribe, in March of this year. “This is devastating to our people, not only physically but emotionally. It’s saddening and hard to believe.”

Meanwhile, at Reclamation, “even massive misappropriation means never having to say you are sorry,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, noting that all three cases arose out of one Reclamation office – the Mid-Pacific Region. “Reclamation’s posture of denying wrongdoing but promising not to do it again merely suggests it will seek out other shady ruses rather than genuinely reform its grant process.”

PEER said it has has been pressing both Reclamation’s parent agency, the Department of Interior, as well as the U.S. Congress to step in, “but to no avail thus far.”

PEER said it also proposed a series of reforms to prevent future lapses in Reclamation financial agreements, but these issues were not even raised during the pending nomination of Brenda Burman by President Donald Trump to serve as the next Commissioner of Reclamation.

Burman currently serves as the Director of Water Policy for Arizona’s Salt River Project. Prior to that, she worked for the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California, one of the key promoters of the Delta Tunnels project: www.doi.gov/…

“As long as Reclamation suffers no consequences for repeated, blatant misconduct to the detriment of both the taxpayer and its mission, nothing will change,” emphasized Dinerstein, pointing out that there appears to be no effort to collect any of the funds handed out in illegal or unauthorized grants.  “We are frustrated that the relevant Congressional committees are also shirking their responsibilities. Unfortunately in the current Congress, oversight seems to be synonymous with overlook.”

The California Natural Resources Agency that received the illegal payments for planning for the Delta Tunnels from the Bureau of Reclamation has not responded to my request for a comment on the audit released Friday. The Westlands Water District has also not responded to my request for a statement.

More: Why did the Fed Interior Dept misuse $84 million for California Delta Tunnels planning?

Read the IG Delta Tunnels report

See the PEER complaint triggering that probe

Look at IG report on illegal Klamath irrigator slush fund

Revisit IG report on Reclamation not collecting irrigator payments owed

 

About the Author

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento who focuses on California's water issues, a healthy environment for the salmon fishery of the Northwest, and the attempts by big agriculture and big oil to hog all the water.