30 Years Later, Brown Restokes Water War Fears with Delta Tunnel Project

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Can the critics call it the second coming of the Peripheral Canal if the conduit used to divert water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for shipment to Central Valley farmers and thirsty Southern Californians . . . is a tunnel?

During the California water wars in his first go-round as governor, Jerry Brown pushed the canal solution through the Legislature only to see voters reject his plan at the polls in 1982 and turn the issue into a third rail of state politics. On Wednesday, Governor Brown unveiled plans to build a $14 billion tunnel system to divert Sacramento River water from the delta, to pumps and aqueducts, for the trip south.

The tunnels are part of a $23.7 billion proposal that includes more than 100,000 acres of floodplains and tidal marsh restoration. Funding for the project hasn’t been nailed down yet. Water user fees would be used for a big chunk of the tunnel construction.

An $11 billion water bond that would probably supply billions for the project was bumped from the November 2012 ballot to 2014 for the same reason it was originally bumped from 2010 to 2012: a suspicion it wouldn’t pass.

In making the announcement, the governor, appearing with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, told of how he had buried his best friend a couple of weeks ago and at this stage of his life, “I want to get shit done.”

An optimistic Salazar said the tunnels would bring an end to “the epic water wars that have plagued this state for decades.” But the “shit” Brown wants to get done is a balancing act that has only grown more complicated over the years.

A large contingent of interested parties is focused on restoration of the delta, which has become environmentally degraded. They fear the plan being presented will deteriorate delta water quality, make for unsustainable agricultural practices near the delta, violate the Clean Air Act, kill recreation around the delta and get rid of incentives to fix levees.

Instead of building an expensive tunnel system, they say, we should be reducing exports of delta water, rebuilding levees, making state and regional workers implement conservation practices, and letting locals lead the way in land use decisions. They see it as a water grab, pure and simple.

Supporters say the project would benefit the delta ecology. Water that is drawn from the Sacramento River and funneled through the delta to pumps, they say, disrupts normal water flow, threatens native fish and wreaks general havoc upon the ecosystem. By diverting the water from the river, the delta would be allowed to return to a more natural state.

Supporters also see the project as a safeguard against catastrophic failure by the series of levees that protect the delta. New studies show that rising sea levels from global warming, the threat of a major earthquake and deterioration of the levee system itself virtually guarantee some kind of disaster by century’s end. Failure of the levees to hold would draw a huge pulse of salt water from the San Francisco Bay, disrupting the flow of fresh water to the south and possibly destroying the delta ecosystem.

The delta plan that is emerging has been under active development since 2009. It is a complex work-in-progress that the Sierra Club of California, in its critique of Brown’s plan, pointed out: “Key decisions on how much water will ultimately be diverted, how the system will be operated, and what actions will be taken to protect the region’s endangered species will be delayed until after construction has began.”

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Calif., Federal Officials Reveal Water Tunnel Plan (by Gosia Wozniacka and Hannah Dreier, Associated Press)

Brown Says $14 Billion Plan Will Boost California Water (by Michael B. Marois, Bloomberg)

Gov. Brown Pushes $23-billion Plan to Tunnel under Delta (by Bettina Boxall and Anthony York, Los Angeles Times)

Statement on Governor Brown's Delta Tunnel Proposal (Sierra Club)

Environmentalists, Lawmakers Tell Feds: Don’t Put Delta Plumbing before Policy (by Ken Broder, AllGov)

National Academy of Sciences Finds Draft Bay Delta Plan a “Post Hoc Rationalization” for Peripheral Canal/Tunnel (Center on Urban Law)

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