Civil rights and water rights
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Christina Aranguren | Mar 28, 2016

Judging from recent newspaper accounts, there's a bit of confusion in city government up valley.

Despite what was expressed at a February 16th city council meeting in Calistoga, as US citizens, we enjoy a representative democracy and maintain a constitutional right to freedom of speech. As California residents, this includes the right (and some would argue, a responsibility) to comment upon decisions affecting state resources to the appropriate agencies - even while residing elsewhere in the state. The fact that the mayor of Calistoga, in his dual role as executive director of its Chamber of Commerce, suggests otherwise is simply outrageous. It is a misguided attempt to discourage public participation, forthright and honest debate, and the influence of any interests which he feels may be in competition with his own. The law is quite clear; Calistoga does not get to determine a Californian's civil rights.

Even if they “aren't taxpayers or rate payers” of the City of Calistoga's municipal water system, the truth is that when individuals or organizations become concerned enough about practices they discover are damaging California's water resources, they have the right to file a complaint with the courts or request investigation and a public hearing with the State Water Resources Control Board. When industry groups such as the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, Napa County Farm Bureau, or other downstream water users commented upon the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board's plans to issue Cease and Desist Orders to the City of Calistoga, it was also within their rights, as it was years ago when Baykeeper chose to comment on the city's problematic sewer plant. When groups such as Latinos Unidos, Friends of the Napa River, or Forests Unlimited elect to submit comment to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection about concerns they have for a timber harvest plan filed in Calistoga - or anywhere in the state for that matter - they've the right to do so as well. Likewise, when California Fisheries & Water Unlimited or ICARE added their comments to the mountain already submitted to US NOAA Fisheries on a recovery plan for the Napa River population of federally-protected steelhead, it was within their rights. And when private citizens residing anywhere in the state, are forced to resort to legal remedy in order to insure compliance with state law which mandates for the release of reservoir water to keep fish in good condition below dams, including those which are private, public, or municipal, and located far from their primary residence, it is well within their rights as well - despite anything city governments would like us to believe. All these efforts are, of course, costly and time-consuming. Compliance with state and federal law remains the preferred and prudent choice.

The concept of the public trust doctrine is something advocates like myself hold dear. Ask most people who owns California's water and you'll be often met with a stare or uncertain reply that it belongs to private property owners. The fact is that California's water is held in trust for all current and future Californians. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the utilization of water is subject to public uses including navigation, recreation, fishing, and ecological purposes. A water right is simply legal permission to use a reasonable amount of water for beneficial purposes; it does not grant ownership, nor can our water be wasted, polluted, abused, or stolen. If considered the People's water, a common good on long-term loan, the responsibility to safeguard our public trust resources for future generations of Californians is a truly compelling one.

With even what many consider the 'crusty old Catholic church' weighing in on social, political, and environmental issues, as Pope Francis has recently done in his courageous encyclical “Laudato Si”, the challenge becomes one of challenging those politics too often concerned with immediate results and supported by consumerist sectors of the population which are focused on short-term growth and not the long-term sustainability of the environment. In the absence of pressure from the public and civic organizations or the force of law, political interests are usually as reluctant to change their practices as agencies are to intervene and law becomes something seen as an arbitrary imposition and an obstacle to be avoided. In Francis's words, “We cannot fail to praise the commitment of international agencies and civil society organizations which draw public attention to these issues and offer critical cooperation, employing legitimate means of pressure, to ensure that each government carries out its proper and inalienable responsibility to its country's environment and natural resources without capitulating to spurious local or international interests... Unless citizens control political power - national, regional, and municipal - it will not be possible to control damage to the environment.

Caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation. But the cost of the damage caused by such selfish lack of concern is much greater than the economic benefits to be obtained. Where certain species are destroyed or seriously harmed, the values involved are incalcuable. We can be silent to terrible injustices if we think that we can obtain significant benefits by making the rest of humanity, present and future, pay the extremely high costs of environmental degradation”.

This Easter holiday, I'm grateful to those individuals, projects, and organizations throughout beautiful California that continue to act as prudent trustees for critical public trust resources which might otherwise be inappropriately given over to private interests: our streams, rivers, wetlands, coasts, beaches, and great bay, the native fish, wildlife, and aquatic ecosystems, and I invite others to add their voice to the growing chorus. It is your right.

NVR version 3/28/16: It's within their rights

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