The Delta’s big money antes up

August 18th - See update re issues of tone and accuracy at bottom of this post. I’ve also added links to two ensuing posts that address issues raised by me and others in this post.

The DNP notes that the Cortopassi’s and the Spanos’s will be hosting a fund-raiser for Restore the Delta.

The event will also “recognize the work of Dino Cortopassi and Tom Zuckerman for their work on behalf of the Delta.”


Does NIMBY-ism produce the strangest coalitions of all, or what? Here we have farming and fossil fuels, football and fine homes, canned olives and clamshell dredgers.

Let’s be clear: This group uses the rhetoric of restoration, of preservation, to establish the strongest possible bargaining position for those who have a financial stake in the Delta’s land. Once peripheral canal push comes to shove, they’ll need it, and they know it.

Just like it’s always been in California since the Gold Rush - powerful, wealthy men locked in pitched battles with even more powerful, wealthy men over land, water, and the alchemy of mixing them.

Tom Zuckerman is a farmer and lawyer. We think he owns or once owned all or part of Macdonald Island and its private access bridge. We do not know if he owns the natural gas storage fields under the island that are worth tens of millions of dollars. Legal wranglings suggest he did or does pretty well renting them out, though.

We sort of understand what Mr Zuckerman is trying to save, if not “restore” - whatever “restore means - in the Delta. He is a well-spoken and well-respected Delta advocate. He has the inherent authority of a long-time occupier of the place.

Alex Spanos (and his family) is a different species of restorer altogether. He is the developer who gave the Delta one of its largest suburban incursions. Mr Spanos, Mr Spanos’s kids - please stop restoring the Delta!


Spanos Park West and the rest of it is a cookie-cutter development project that might just as well been built in Orange County.  Leaving aside the question of whether it should have been built at all, there is absolutely nothing Delta-specific about it. We await the tortured interpretation of how this little slice of suburbia contributes anything to the Delta’s “restoration.”

Update: you can go here to see a post that delves into the question of what “Delta-specific” development may be.

And Mr Cortopassi? He is a wealthy businessman, author, and landowner. He has perhaps the coolest garden in the entire Delta, a miniature, and expensive to create, toy of a restored Delta. Unlike Mr Spanos’s garden suburbs, Cortoassi’s is very Delta-specific.


Mr Cortopassi loves the Delta, and owns quite alot of it, too. Alex Breitler’s spring 2011 interview with Cortopassi covered his concern over the lack of channel dredging and greater flood risk.

He spends lots of his money suing the state over channel dredging. Dredging, you see, is limited due to concerns over the habitats of fragile fish species. Silt accumulates, river levels rise ... One might infer that Mr Cortopassi’s concerns are about land preservation, not endangered fish.

A Jeffersonian farmer/lawyer subsidized by fossil fuel infrastructure, a Southern Californian land magnate who likes football and power boating, and an immigrant canned goods libertarian. As a friend once said, what a strange and beautiful place, the Delta.

update, August 18th: I inaccurately claimed that Alex Spanos was a “Southern Calfornian land magnate. Chris Gulick has informed me (see his second entry in the comments section below) that Mr Spanos was born in Stockton in 1923. I regret the error. I also regret the tone of some of my comments on Mr Cortopassi. Go here to see my apology to both men.

Posted by John Bass on 13 Aug 2011 | Comments (13)


“immigrant canned goods libertarian” ?
John, you’re always an interesting read.
You have to give at least grudging respect to Messrs. Cortopassi and Zuckerman for putting their names on their respective efforts rather than hiding behind a corporate structure and a phalanx of hired guns.
I await with “baited” breath an equally enlightening and informative condemnation illustrating the moral responsibilities of those who are financing the Pro canal effort, unless of course I happened to miss it in an earlier offering.
My suggestion would be to start with Stuart Resnick, unless by some odd coincidence you are a stockholder in FIJI Water or perhaps just prefer his business model. ;)

Those of us whose lives and livelihoods center in the Delta are grateful for the efforts of Mr. Zuckerman and Mr. Cortopassi.  The Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) has several “alternatives” under consideration.  They all call for 113,000 acres of Delta farmland to be converted/retired into habitat.  My home is hatchmarks on their map.  The isolated facility will result in salty Delta water, and ruined Delta soils.  The water contractors have already destroyed the salmon fishing industry.  Yes, farmers, environmentalists, developers, fishermen and businessmen, boaters, rich people and not-so-rich people -  ALL who depend on and love this Delta have joined to save it. i am grateful to them all.

We note that neither Chris nor Rogene mention Mr Spanos, but do applaud the efforts of Cortopassi and Zuckerman. Fair enough, since they do both have real roots in the Delta.

Chris, as you know, the blog tries to be equal opportunity when it comes to identifying the tensions/conflicts/hypocrisies within Calfornia water issues.

There is no shortage of posts at the DNP blog that are directed at the pro-canal effort. I would be happy to make a list, but they are easy to find, and go after Resnick, Feinstein, Westlands, Nunes, Costa, Birmingham, etc.

Rogene, your comments struck us as honest and heartfelt. We do have sympathy for you, and Chris, and in general, for Delta residents, but none for a group that says that it wants to “restore” the Delta. We draw a distinction between Restore the Delta and the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, to which we have made a contribution, others may make a different one.

Ultimately, we here think that all of this is about money. Unless Delta residents can come up with a better argument than NIMBY-ism, they are going to lose their battle. That is why we favor and propose Delta-specific development (just not the banal form of Mr Spanos’s vision of it) instead of the disingenuous, head-in-the-sand position of Restore the Delta.

Can you point to examples of Delta specific development, either existing or proposed by you or others?  Not sure exactly what you mean, but I am genuinely interested in the concept and potentially in a position to promote it if it makes sense.

I actually think it is as much or more about passion for a place they love as money for Mr. Zuckerman and Mr. Cortopassi.  Whether passion or money, I suppose it is still NIMBY, and yes RTD isn’t a green group, but they aren’t astroturf either.


“Real Roots in the delta”
John, perhaps a little more homework is needed.
A.G. Spanos was born in Stockton Sept. 28 1923.
He graduated from the University of the Pacific, also in Stockton.
His home is in Stockton.
How much more “real” could his delta roots be ?
I moved to the delta in 1968 although I was born in Long Beach in 1960.
Are my “real” roots in L.A.or the Delta ?

I don’t have unlimited time to puruse your past blogs , however , I did go back as far as Jan. 2009 and found no similar posts relating directly to any of the big money players supporting a canal effort, questioning their motivations or morals.
Could you point me to just one that is “on point” ?
I too draw a distinction between CSPA and RTD.
CSPA is an environmental activist organization.
RTD is a public awareness/activist effort.The decision to name it “Restore” the Delta is questionable. Similar to “Global Warming” versus “Climate Change”.
Other than disliking the name what exactly is your gripe with them ?
What do you think their hidden agenda is ? Zero growth ?
Are some in the Delta NIMBY’s ? Yes, there are ninby’s everywhere.
You and I have discussed this at length and in person.
You are well aware that I am not a nimby. I think intelligent , low impact developement in and around the delta is not a bad thing.
I continue to be unclear what your “real” motivation is.
I’m OK with that, it makes for interesting discussion.
I don’t understand what your interpretation of “Delta Specific” is.
Would this be only projects that enhance and expand access by the public to the exclusion of all others ?


Thank you for the information regarding Mr Spanos’s Delta roots. I will post a correction.

As you and Jeff point out, RTD is not an Astroturf group, like say the California Latino Water Coalition. RTD is a public awareness/activist NIMBY group advocating the least possible change to their loved region. They have every right to pursue exactly that. But I have no idea what they mean by “restore.” I’ve covered this before, so I won’t get into it further now.

If you are unclear about what my motivations are, I think it is simply that they differ from other motivations, whether pro-Delta or pro-environment or anti-Delta smelt. The website has even been called a “stalking horse for monied interests hoping to buy up Delta lands to “mitigate” how messed up the Delta will be.” What motivates me is a search for synthesis, or common ground. So in this I definitely support the Delta Stewardship Council’s efforts.

I don’t believe the Delta can not change. I have produced and published here a body of design work that points to ways that change could accomplish multiple things, including supporting and sustaining the ongoing presence of Delta farming for its advocates and residents. This is all under the tag “speculation.” All of it takes the levee as the way of organizing settlement, as is traditional in the Delta.

I think you and I would agree about intelligent, low-impact growth. And no, “Delta-specific” is not a euphemism for public access. Much of what I have developed is sustainable, privately-owned settlement (houses, b&b’s, camps and lodges) with habitat stewardship obligations along the water side of levees. In response to Jeff’s request, I will be posting about that soon.

There are many posts that fit the bill for criticizing motives/morals of pro-canal groups and individuals. Here are a few of my faves:

Dianne Feinstein advocating Westland agenda

Devin Nunes 1

Paranoia is a Delta export

Devin Nunes 2

Demoqueda (or Devin Nunes 3)

The Resnicks (since you asked)


Westlands’ Tom Birmingham parses

Devin Nunes 3

Devin Nunes 4

Critique of EDF’s Barry Nelson’s financing the Delta Plan post

Devin Nunes 5

ps: from now on, we are dropping the Royal We.

Over the last few years, the Westlands Water District, the Metropolitan Water District, and the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on lobbying officials, running a false media campaign to create a scare regard the “crumbling” Delta, and financing a water coveyance plan that would lead to the greatest transfer of public wealth in the history of California. They have outspent the people of the Delta 10,000 to 1 to promote their water grab.

In response, those with greater assets in the Delta have rallied to support Restore the Delta’s education and outreach efforts to advocate for Delta communities and Delta fisheries.

Restore the Delta works on behalf of farmers in the Delta who range from the very wealthy to farmers with 30 acres and an old farm house.  The Restore the Delta campaign advocates for both types of farmers, as well as fishermen, the environmental justice community, urban water users,the local business community, and local developers.

We are the only group in the area that does outreach on fish contamination to subsistence fishing communities.  We are also equally comfortable advocating for local business interests in regard to Delta policies.

We host a broad spectrum of public events including numerous free public forums, to rallies, to $25 dinner dances, and yes parties for those with greater means.  We are proud to be associated with our supporters, and we celebrate the contributions of the diverse Delta communities that make up our unique region.

The Restore the Delta campaign has always been about protecting water quality and quantity within the Delta. Our eyes are on the external threat to the Delta—the push to reroute the Sacramento River through a 44 mile tunnel to large corporate agribusiness and to unchecked growth in Southern California.

In this struggle, the wealthy and the poor in the Delta are poised to lose the most as this new conveyance plan would be the greatest transfer of private wealth in the history of California.

In these difficult times in which those who have and those who do not have are split on how this country should move forward, we are proud that in the Delta community the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor understand more clearly each day that our future is tied to the health of our estuary.  Indeed, the broader Delta community may be the “richest” community presently in the United States as it
is one of the few places left in which people are united to protect the environmental health of the place they love.

“How I Spent My Lunch Hour”
I’d love to let you off the hook John given that we tend to agree more often than not, however, I just finished reading all 12 posts cited(some for the second time in 48 hours) and am left unsatisfied.Only one relates to a big money player (Resnick) and even that is a discussion about, among other things pistachio’s and the bible. Yay !
Your post “Big money ante’s up” calls out Cortopassi,Spanos and Restore the Delta by name.By doing so you open yourself up to questions of fairness.
In the twelve posts cited the only one you call out is Nunes, and might I add you did a goog job of showing his hypocracy.
But John, Nunes is the low hanging fruit.
Do you know who the top three wealty individuals are that are promoting a canal ? Yes ?
Call them out, by name.
Give them a tag line similar to what you gave to Cortopassi (immigrant canned goods libertarian).
How many Restore the Delta meetings have you attended ?
I’m not a member but I have been to a few.I didn’t sense a concerted effort to brainwash anyone into a Nimby thought process. I came away with the feeling they were genuinely attempting to inform those attending what was at stake and what was going on in the process.
I don’t neccessarily agree with everything I hear and read from them but I applaud their effort.
If we all agreed on everything, all the time, what would we have to debate about ?

I almost forgot.
Thanks for dropping the royal “WE”
It was really annoying. :)

One last thought.  I am uncertain how someone in British Columbia can become an expert on our community without spending much time here on the ground.  But, as you seem to have a passionate interest in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Restore the Delta would like to invite you for a Delta tour.  We would love to have you meet with farmers (of all sorts), fishermen, and other Delta interests.  If you can bring yourself here John Bass, we will make sure that you have the opportunity to talk with dozens of Delta locals to learn what our community is all about.

Thank you for your posts, Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla. I understand that you feel under siege by wealthy individuals and powerful government and public policy groups, and have some sympathy. I also understand that all of this costs money. As I said, I have contributed to CSPA.

I believe that the record of this blog is one of fairness. I say this despite Chris Gulick’s disagreement, that there isn’t enough calling out of individual pro-water supply influence-makers. Not sure that he and I can do anything but agree to disagree on that one.

Over the last twelve years, I have been to the Delta on many occasions, and in aggregate months of travel and talk there. And I do have a passionate, if not entirely locally-aligned, interest in the Delta.

I have learned a great deal from people on the ground in the Delta. I hesitate to namedrop here, but they include fishermen, lawyers, farmers, public servants, laborers, environmentalists, tour guides.

I’ve spent hours reading the texts of the Delta from Erle Stanley Gardner to John Thompson. And I’ve spent countless hours reading topical political and policy content, as well as conducted my own careful analysis of the Delta’s geography.

Not that there isn’t more to learn, which of course there is. And I am a big believer in the wisdom of local knowledge. I look forward to taking you up on your offer one day.

John, I’m OK with the whole agree to disagree concept, however, in this instance your facts don’t back up your rhetoric.
Of the twelve posts cited fully half (6)call out Devin Nunes. He’s not the source of the money , he’s the recipient.
What are we left with ?
The EDF ? Thats not where the money comes from.
Birmingham ? Employed by Westlands, a talking head.He represents the money he doesn’t supply it.
DI FI ? A DINO that’s passed her prime and playing two ends against the middle. Again, she doesn’t supply the money she receives it.
Until this post I thought you were avoiding the money trail on both sides. Now that you have started the dialogue you need to finish it.

To quote Tom Cruise “Show me the money”.

You can do it. I have faith.

Chris, I’ve posted directly to the blog in response to your challenge.

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