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Standing Up to Big Water’s Astroturf Groups

by Dan Bacher
"Big water” in California has refined and added an increasing sophistication to its strong arm tactics in the computer age by creating fake “Astroturf” organizations to deceive the public and promote its goals. The past few years have seen the creation of four “Astroturf” organizations – Friends of the Delta, Families Protecting the Valley, the Latino Water Coalition and Coalition for a Sustainable Delta.
Standing Up to Big Water’s Astroturf Groups

By Dan Bacher

The ruthlessness that corporate agribusiness and southern California water interests employed, through political bribery and thug-like tactics, to seize public trust water over the past century is well-documented in Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert and other books.

However, “big water” in California has refined and added an increasing sophistication to its strong arm tactics in the computer age by creating fake “Astroturf” organizations to deceive the public and promote its goals. The past few years have seen the creation of four “Astroturf” organizations – Friends of the Delta, Families Protecting the Valley, the Latino Water Coalition and Coalition for a Sustainable Delta.

For those not aquainted with the term, “Astroturfing” is “an English-language euphemism referring to political, advertising, or public relations campaigns that are formally planned by an organization, but designed to mask its origins to create the impression of being spontaneous, popular 'grassroots' behavior. The term refers to AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass,” according to Wikipedia.

Although their names are different, these four organizations represent the same San Joaquin Valley corporate agribusiness and southern California water agency interests that are trying to grab more Delta and northern California water. Their ultimate goals are to increase water exports from the imperiled Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to corporate agribusiness and southern California by building a peripheral canal and more dams and to strip protections for Sacramento River chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead Delta smelt, longfin smelt, green sturgeon and other species under the Endangered Species Act.

Although there is a strong right wing Republican presence in these “organizations,” they also share their goals with leading Democratic politicians including Senator Dianne Feinstein, Representative Jim Costa and Representative Dennis Cardoza on the federal level and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass on the state level. The bi-partisan support of the goals of “Big Water” is mostly graphically illustrated by how Steinberg and Bass collaborated with Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger this fall to ram a package through the legislature that creates a clear path to the construction of the peripheral canal and more dams.

The corporate media, with a few exceptions, has for the most part quoted representatives of these “Astroturf” groups as if they are legitimate grassroots organizations with real grassroots members.

Delta Group Asks Astroturf Group to Cease and Desist

Only a brave few have stood up to exposing the lies of the “Astroturf” organizations. Foremost in the battle to expose the Astroturf organizations for the shams that they are is Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, campaign director of Restore the Delta (RTD).

Barrigan-Parrilla on Tuesday, November 24, called on the "Friends of the Delta," an "Astroturf" group, to stop using RTD materials in information packets it distributes as part of a campaign to drum up support for the peripheral canal.

Unlike the incongruously named Friends of the Delta, Restore the Delta is an actual grassroots organization with a board, advisors and thousands of members. It is a broad coalition of Delta farmers, fishermen, environmentalists, the faith communitiy and environmental justice advocates fighting for the restoration of the West Coast’s largest estuary and to stop the peripheral canal.

On its website, the Friends of the Delta is described as "a non-profit organization focused on educating the public on the need for a comprehensive Delta restoration and an enhanced conveyance system with the long-term vision of supporting efforts to provide a sustainable water supply for California."

Barrigan-Parrilla said the group, rather than being an organization concerned about the restoration of the Delta, is instead a "disingenuous 'Astroturf' group based out of a public relations firm in Newport Beach."

"Residents and advocates of the Delta region have a right to know when they're being hoodwinked," said Barrigan-Parrilla. "The use of our material to further a cause that is completely counter to our mission is repugnant and must stop now. With 'Friends of the Delta' like these, who needs enemies?"

Barrigan Parrilla blasted the so-called Friends of the Delta for inserting materials from Restore the Delta in a briefing packet it is distributing in "what may be an effort to deceive readers into believing they share a common goal with Restore the Delta and other Delta advocates."

My examination of the briefing packet confirms Barrigan-Parrilla's accusation that "Friends of the Delta" may be trying to portray themselves as being allied with Restore the Delta, even though the Astroturf group has been formed to support the Governor's plan to build the peripheral canal, a government boondoggle that Restore the Delta is strongly opposing.

The RTD materials are deceptively sandwiched between an August 17 letter by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to Senate President Tem Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass urging them to support his peripheral canal/dams water package and a Friends of the Delta draft resolution "in support of government action to restore the Delta and provide a reliable water supply."

The site displays a Restore the Delta action alert, including photos of the July 7 rally the group held at the state capitol to oppose the peripheral canal and to demand the inclusion of Delta communities in the water legislation process, and a flyer announcing the "Million Boat Float" against the canal held on August 16-17.

"Based on initial investigation, the phony 'Friends of the Delta' appears to be headquartered in the offices of the Sheldon Group, a public relations firm representing Southern California water interests and developers interested in seeing a peripheral canal built to divert water from Northern to Southern and Central California," according to Barrigan-Parrilla.

The contact address and phone number listed on the website are: Friends of the Delta, 901 Dove Street, Suite 140, Newport Beach, CA 92660, 
949-777-9400. That is the address of the Sheldon Group, a group that describes itself as "a unique and public affairs company that connects our clients with decision makers and communities."

"With over 30 years of combined experience in the fields of politics, community relations, coalition building, city planning, community outreach, and media, our industry experts have the strategies and the tactics necessary to develop winning solutions and effective public outreach campaigns," the Sheldon Group website proclaims.

The Sheldon Group's website lists its "team" as Stephen Sheldon, President, David Graham, Director of Public Affairs; and Greg McCafferty, Director of Planning.

Steve Sheldon is an Orange County lawyer who is the son of Reverend Lou Sheldon, head of the Traditional Values Coalition. He’s also President of the Orange County Water District. Sheldon is a second generation player in right wing Orange County politics who has built a very successful and lucrative lobbying practice.

Restore the Delta is calling on the counterfeit "Friends of the Delta to “cease and desist” using RTD material in its propaganda. In addition, RTD calls upon this front-group to reveal their "true patrons" in the "About Us" section of their website and all collateral material.

In the "About Us" section, the Astroturf group says, "We are taxpayers, farmers, business owners, agency experts, and elected officials dedicated to educating the public and encouraging statewide participation in creating a sustainable water supply for California." However, the shadowy group provides no names of its founders, board members or supporters.

"Your support is essential in finding a solution to California's water supply," Friends of the Delta proclaims on its website. "Please contact us at FriendsoftheDelta [at] to discuss ways you can participate."

Astroturf Group Runs Ad to Deceive Delta Residents

Restore the Delta's call for the Astroturf group to stop using its materials was issued the day after a four page ad headlined, "The Great Delta Toilet Bowl," appeared in the Stockton Record. The ad clearly states it is paid for by Friends of the Delta. The ad attemptsto enlist Delta residents in a false campaign against water pollution by local cities and communities in an attempt to divert attention away from the catastrophic impact of increased water exports from the Delta on Central Valley salmon and Delta fish populations.

"Friends of the Delta paid for the ad so that in-Delta residents could become members of Families Protecting the Valley," said Barrigan Parrilla. "The board of directors for Families Protecting the Valley includes members like Bob Smittcamp, who is a grower in the Westlands Water District, lives in Fresno's posh zip code 93711, many miles away from his industrial farm that exports crops like almonds to Asia and Europe."

Barrigan-Parrilla said Smittcamp has held fundraisers for Governor Schwarzenegger, who declared in a recent visit to Stockton that he is building the peripheral canal around the Delta (regardless of what the residents want!). Mrs. Smittcamp was also Chief Executive Officer of

A survey of the website of Families Protecting the Valley reveals that it is an organization funded by corporate agribusiness, based out of Madera, linked with a right wing group, "the Tea Party Patriots." The donor's list features hundreds of agribusiness corporations and related businesses in the San Joaquin Valley:'sList-i-14-14.html

The ad quotes "science" provided by the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta, yet another agribusiness-created Astroturf organization. The Coalition is housed in Stewart Resnick's headquarters for Paramount Farms in Kern County, the largest farming operation of tree crops in the world.

Resnick is also the owner of Fiji Water, Sutera Pesticide Company, Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice and Teleflora, the largest floral wire service in the world. He is infamous for being a Beverly Hills billionaire who has made tens of millions of dollars annually from buying and reselling water back to the state for a huge profit (,_water_oligarchs_and_even_sean_hannity_are_hijacking_our_water_supply?utm_source=feedblitz&utm_medium=FeedBlitzRss&utm_campaign).

A "limousine liberal" who supports the coalition, Resnick is a frequent political campaign contributor to Governor Schwarzenegger's "Dream Team," Senator Diane Feinstein, and this summer to Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. Lynda Rae Resnick, the billionaire’s wife and co-chair of the Roll Internation Corporation, contributed $7800 to Steinberg for Senate 2010, while Stewart, the owner of Roll International, contributed $7800. The two contributions totaling $15,600 were made on June 15.

Barrigan-Parrilla noted that the Resnick's contributions to Senate President Steinberg were made shortly before the beginning of the Conference Committee Process, which left Delta legislators out of the water deal making process. (Click here to see contributions made recently to Darrell Steinberg:

"The coalition poses as a science-based organization concerned about pollution in the Delta, when they are actually a propaganda group spinning facts to promote the Bay Delta Conservation Plan," said Barrigan-Parrilla." As expected, they never consider the possibility that water exports from the Delta have an impact on the ecosystem."

"So, in summary, what we are beginning to see is an ad campaign financed by Southern California water interests and San Joaquin Valley agribusiness to bring residents and supporters of the Delta into their coalition: a twenty-first-century- twist on what happened in Owens Valley," she said.

Regarding the content of the ad, Barrigan-Parrilla said, "it is highly ironic” that the agribusiness industry, which has successfully lobbied the Schwarzenegger administration and shows up regularly at state and regional water board hearings to protest any strengthening of water quality standards for dischargers, is expressing concern about water pollution in the Delta.

“In fact, water boards and water agencies under the Schwarzenegger administration have been weaker on enforcing water quality standards for the Delta than regulatory agencies have any other time in recent history,” she stated. “They certainly have been lax in enforcing standards on municipal dischargers."

"Is discharge into the Delta a problem?" she added. "Of course it is. But it is also a problem that is exacerbated many times over by excessive exports and reduced inflows into the Delta. Plus, when one considers that growers on the Westside of the San Joaquin Valley are farming on drainage impaired lands that dump tons of boron, salts and selenium into the San Joaquin River that flows back into the Delta - and that these same growers want Northern California's water delivered to them through new conveyance - well, we couldn't make up fiction with more ironic twists and turns."

The water boards have faced increasing criticism from environmental and fishing groups over their refusal to enforce water quality standards, as well as over conflicts of interests by board members. The California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA) on November 12 filed a precedent-setting complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission and the California Attorney General's Bureau of State Audits charging Katherine Hart Johns, Vice Chair of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, with many violations of state laws. The 51 page complaint alleges that Hart Johns has violated numerous sections of the Political Reform Act, the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act and the California Government Code.

"These violations include failures to disclose economic interests, improper eligibility to serve on the Regional Board, failure to disclose conflicts of interest, improper recusal from Board proceedings and failure to disclose ex parte communications," said Bill Jennings, CSPA executive director. "For example, Katherine Hart Johns failed to disclose, as mandated by the Political Reform Act, that her spouse was a registered lobbyist receiving substantial income from entities regulated under the Porter-Cologne and the federal Clean Water Act."

The Latino Water Coalition: Schwarzenegger’s Personal Astroturf Lobby.

The disinformation campaigns by big water Astroturf groups are amping up just after California Legislature's recent passage of a water policy and water bond package that "clears the path" to the construction of a peripheral canal and Sites and Temperance Flat reservoirs. The Legislature completely excluded Delta legislators, fishermen, family farmers, California Indian Tribes, environmental justice communities and the vast majority of environmental organizations from the fast-track process that led to the package's passage and signing by the Governor.

Key in organizing support for the canal/dams package was the Latino Water Coalition, whose spokesman Paul Rodriguez, a comedian and San Joaquin Valley grower, has appeared at numerous rallies and press conference with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and corporate agribusiness interests.

Earlier this year, independent investigative journalist Lloyd Carter and Malcolm Maclachlan of the Capitol Weekly exposed the Latino Water Coalition as an "Astroturf" group formed as a nonprofit and registered by influential Sacramento lobbyist George Soares, whose A-list of about three dozen agricultural clients include the California Rice Commission, the California Cotton Growers and Ginners Associations, the Friant Water Authority, the Nisei Farmers League and The Grape and Tree Fruit League, among others.

The group has cynically portrayed itself as the "protector" of the jobs of Latino farm workers, although Dolores Huerta, co founder of Cesar Chavez's United Farmworkers Union (UFW), and Arturo Rodriguez, president of the UFW, have denounced it as a front group for corporate agribusiness. The coalition, whose formation was suggested by Governor Schwarzenegger in a meeting he held with agribusiness interests in Fresno, in April organized a "March for Water" through the San Joaquin Valley in which farmworkers were paid to march to give a "human face" to corporate agribusiness.

"In reality, this is not a farm worker march,'' Arturo Rodriguez told the New York Times on April 17. ''This is a farmer march orchestrated and financed by growers.''

Barrigan-Parrilla warned that ads like the one taken out in Delta region newspapers by Friends of the Delta and the deceptive campaign by the Latino Water Coalition are just the beginning of a well-funded disinformation campaign by big water interests to achieve the goal of robbing the Delta of more water.

“Take the time to let local media outlets know that you disapprove of their willingness to accept these advertising dollars,” she stated. “In addition, we expect these astroturfing groups to charge forward with an assault on the Endangered Species Aact as a ploy to increase the amount of water exported from the Delta."

She emphasized that political affiliation has nothing to do with protecting the Delta. “A number of our state and federal leaders from both sides of the aisle have been corrupted by the California water-money trail. Watch how your State and Federal Representatives vote on Delta legislation and vote accordingly in return at election time,” she concluded.

To learn more about Westland Water District’s growers and the link between their practices and institutionalized Central Valley poverty, click here to read Lloyd Carter’s article's recent law review article:

For more information about Restore the Delta, contact Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, (209) 479-2053, Barbara [at],

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