Thirty-six California environmentalists, echoing the sentiments of a dozen members of Congress who preceded them, have asked federal authorities to short-circuit what is believed to be an imminent announcement that the state is moving ahead on a peripheral canal (or, in this case, tunnels) through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
The water diversion “raises far more questions than it answers, and appears to turn the maxim of ‘policy before plumbing’ on its head,” the both groups wrote in letters to the U.S. secretaries of Interior and Commerce departments. The letter from the environmentalists assert that the true price tag is being obscured and will probably cost more than three times the estimated $14 billion that Governor Jerry Brown has cited.
The Bay Delta Conservation Plan that is emerging from state government has technically been in the works since 2009 but has its roots in a roundly defeated 1982 ballot initiative that polarized the state and established the diversion of water around the delta as one of the third rails of California politics, feared by voters and deadly to the touch for legislators.
The canal proposal has had a number of variations but basically aims to divert water from the Sacramento River around (or under) the delta to pumps on the delta’s southern edge to facilitate transport south where fresh water is in short supply. It’s a divisive proposition that pits North versus South; enrages some environmentalists; scares some fiscal conservatives; entices water agencies, agribusiness and thirsty Californians; and confuses many.
This latest incarnation proposes construction of two enormous tunnels capable of taking nearly all the water of the Sacramento River away from the delta estuary for delivery to Central Valley agricultural interests.
Supporters say a canal would benefit the delta ecology. Presently water is drawn from the Sacramento River and funneled through the delta to pumps. This disrupts normal water flow, threatens native fish and wreaks general havoc upon the ecosystem, they say. By diverting the water from the river, the delta would be allowed to return to a more natural state. Supporters also see the canal 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 guarantees 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.
Opponents of the canal claim it would 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 constructing an expensive canal, 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. Talk of environmental benefits is a smokescreen. Once the canal is built, pressure will build to ship more water out of the region.