Raising the Alarm: Charlie Toledo on Aquifers and Riparian Corridors: The disconnect

Below is a reprint of excerpts from a 2014 interview with Charlie Toledo, Executive Director of the Suscol Intertribal Council. What continues to be alarming is how our governing bodies override scientific knowledge in the face of perceived industry needs. We have witnessed this process over and over in Planning Commission and Board of Supervisor meetings. That famous lament from Supervisor Dillon during the appeal of Walt Ranch: IF ONLY WE KNEW THEN WHAT WE KNOW NOW.  


How long will it take us to effectively KNOW the science and the wisdom put before us and to use that in the decisions made? Will the Napa County Climate Action Committee mobilize and make brave decisions to protect our environment? (See latest story on Napa County Climate Action Committee here.)


Charlie: We’re in the middle of a drought right now [2014].  I get my information from several sources.

Through Suscol Council, I was appointed to the Low Income Oversight Board, a committee of the CPUC (California Public Utilities Commission), which, of course, involves water. One of the committees that I am chair of is Climate Change. I am also an oversight person on the water.

For the last three years, I’ve been talking about the headwaters in California at the state level on this Board. We meet quarterly. I ask the questions that nobody’s asking. We had a speaker at this Board, Curt Schmutte, a Delta Bay water consultant from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. He got brought in because of the questions I was asking. He showed us this plan that California plans to implement. It will cost six billion plus dollars and perhaps ten times that amount in the end. [This is the plan to build a concrete tunnel to send more water to Southern California.] He kept stressing the importance of a riparian corridor: It reduces evaporation. It stabilizes the banks. It creates habitat for fish, crabs, and the lower parts of the food chain, so it’s really important.

At the end of his lecture, I asked, “You’re saying that the riparian corridors are a very important part of the river’s health and the water’s health. You say that in California we transport huge amounts of water from northern California to southern California. Those channels in the Delta Bay Water Project provide water for Sacramento, San Jose, Fresno, Bakersfield, Los Angeles, all of the central valley, all of those major cities and agriculture areas, the water for the lower part of the state, but also Napa. They take water from Lake Berryessa and Napa buys it back at the southern end.”

Everybody sitting on the Board looked at me because I was always talking about the importance of riparian corridors. Then I said, “You’re saying that the riparian corridors are an essential part of the health of the river and the maintenance of a healthy waterway?”

He said, “Yes.”

“Where are the riparian corridors in this plan?” I asked again.

Well, there’s no riparian corridor restoration in this six-billion-dollar plan.

I said, “Where are the plans to repair the riparian corridor within the city limits of Sacramento, which is a huge hunk of the Sacramento River?”

He said, “There’s no plan to re-establish a riparian corridor within the city limits of Sacramento.” Which is almost 30 miles of river.

Napa County and the City of Napa water supply came from Lake Berryessa and Rector Dam. In the 60’s when I was first moving to Napa, I remember the ranchers getting really upset. They said, “We’re selling them the water. Then we’re buying it back for more.” Which is how it is. Napa is dependent on Delta Bay water. They’re sucking up all this water and moving it without a riparian corridor. I forget what percentage of the water is lost to evaporation, but it’s a considerable amount, even 10%.

The next day we’re on the Delta Bay tour. We’re on a bus with all these people who make decisions about water and with the water experts in the state. We’re on the river, and these places where the water gets shuttled and fish get taken out of the water, so they don’t go through these filters. They’re actually trucking those fish 30 miles and then putting them back in the water, so they don’t go through this filtering thing. He showed us this huge map of the Sacramento Bay Delta and the water plan. It’s currently being quoted as a six-billion-dollar project to get it to transport more water to southern California.

Patricia: Okay.

Charlie: I know, it’s stunning.

Patricia: It is.

Charlie: These are the experts. If you’re not scared, then get scared.

Patricia: Yes.

Charlie: I karmically or spiritually end up in the weirdest places. Why did I move to Napa Creek and experience seven floods in ten years? Before the floods, during the floods, and after the floods, I’d walk the creek and walk the river. When your house is about to flood or if you’re evacuated, you can’t stop yourself from walking back and forth along the river. After the flood, my neighbor and I would walk through the creeks and rivers. We would talk about what could be done to prevent this.

Napa Creek is the oldest inhabited part of Napa County. Napa Valley is one of the oldest inhabited places in North America. There’s been habitation here for over 60,000 years. Napa Creek Confluence between Napa Creek and Napa River, where I lived for 17 years, is now referred to as downtown Napa Confluence. The oldest inhabited place, a place that did not used to flood. The native people would not have put themselves in a flood plain. What changed when the Europeans came is Europeans started putting asphalt and cement where the marshes, trees, and wetlands had been. The wetlands and marches held the water, allowing the water to re-saturate and keeping the water from rushing and flooding.

Indigenous people lived close to water. They lived close to springs and rivers. If the river were going to flood too much, they would just move up a little bit, but they lived in permanent villages.  For 60,000 years, people inhabited this valley and managed the watershed by harvesting of the willow, harvesting and cleaning up the blackberries, and then a perennial burning every three years to all the areas, so that real shrubby brush and stuff that causes all the wildfires now, that would all have been eliminated. The willow was used for basketry and houses. These plants were harvested for boats, housing, and baskets.

All of that was being managed. All of California was fully inhabited, and all was a managed agricultural preserve. A very, very important part of watershed management is trees. You cannot talk about water without talking about trees. Trees have been full scale eliminated from industrialized communities. The water is not being held. The banks aren’t stabilized.


Charlie: Now what’s happened is the underground aquifers in California, actually underground rivers, mostly fed and established by the Ice Age water melting, are empty. In Napa those aquifers are at Cuttings Wharf Road, out at the Avenues. Those aquifers have been used up. The headwaters, which is where the river starts in the area around Cortina Rancheria west of the town of Williams, is the headwaters for Putah Creek, one of the main water connections for the Bay Delta area. But the headwaters are going dry. They now get saltwater at a hundred feet.

Patricia: Where’s Putah Creek?

Charlie: Putah Creek starts up around Williams, which is northwest of Sacramento. Then Clear Lake is actually part of Putah Creek. Putah Creek feeds out of Clear Lake, comes down through Pope Valley and Chiles Valley and then at Rector Dam it turns over and goes into what is now known as Lake Berryessa. I think there’s seven creeks that go into Lake Berryessa. Putah Creek is the main one. We’re talking about the headwaters of Putah Creek, which is the main feeder to Berryessa, which is one of the largest feeders to the Delta Bay Water. I just got e-mails two weeks ago from my friends up in Mendocino County. Their headwaters of Eel River up in Round Valley are going dry. Up in Hoopa the Klamath headwaters are going dry. We’re talking about the major rivers. The Klamath River, the north fork of the Eel River, Putah Creek, the Russian River, same thing.

From County of Napa

You’ve got the headwaters where the rivers form, where the water starts. That’s a spring basically. Then you have the end of the river where the water reaches the ocean. Either way, when that water stops, at the headwaters or at ocean, that means the river is dying. Now the Colorado River, which is one of the main water supplies of New Mexico, Arizona and Los Angeles, ends in Mexico 90 miles from the ocean. They’ve been losing 10-20 miles a year for the last ten years. They’re expecting that the aquifers that supply Las Vegas are going to be dry in the next three years. They know this. I was at a tour of Hoover Dam. The guy who gave the tour of Hoover Dam said Las Vegas has three more years of water.

Patricia: What will happen then?

Charlie: I was at the UN in 2005 for Human Rights, Women’s Human Rights issues. As I was touring, there were some people from Japan whom we were orienting on how to work within the UN. There were no sessions at the time that I was giving them the tour, so I said “Let’s just go into this one, it’s on environmental water.” I said, “That’s my key area of interest, next to human rights.”

We went into this global conference. There were representatives from every country in the world. The presenters were representing agriculture, economy, environment, industry. There were four levels that they presented.

This hall was completely full with all the translators and all the people with their flags and countries that they represented. We were just in the peanut gallery, sitting there and listening, not in a position to talk. This guy was facilitating and all the big people were introducing themselves. There were probably at least a thousand people in this meeting.

The guy stood up who was chairing the meeting and said, “Well, after researching the last five years, we are on the verge of an eminent global water crisis.”

Then the guy from industry said, you know given all the industry and the technology, we are on the verge of an eminent global water crises.

Then the farming people said that the way that people are farming now— and we’re not talking city or state, we’re talking global—We’re on the verge of an eminent water crisis.

All the four representatives of these four different venues said the same thing.

The guy chairing in front of all of these thousands of people and all their lawyers and translators, asked, “Given this information, are there any questions from the audience?” Silence. He repeated the question. Silence. Well, could we have a discussion among the presenters about what the possibilities of action might be based on these conclusions? You’ve all reached the same conclusion, could there be a discussion? They had nothing further to add.

Patricia: It’s so big. We can’t get our minds around it.

Charlie: This was in 2005. It’s eight years after this UN meeting. Four months ago was our Delta meeting. We meet quarterly at the state level, trying to address the people at the local level. Forget Peru, India and China, who are out of water. The Yellow River, which is the main supply of water for China, does not reach the ocean, which means the river is dying. If you cut off blood from your foot, how long does it take for your foot to fall off? How long is it going to take if you leave the foot attached before the whole distal foot goes systemic and become infected?