California Water: The muddy issue of the Delta Twin Tunnels

150 150 Niki Woodard

Kayaking on the Sacramento Bay Delta (photo: RickC/Flickr)

8/14/2012 UPDATE: We have made changes to this piece to more accurately reflect the positions of  several organizations and people on Gov. Brown’s July 25th announcement based on feedback we have received over the past 24 hours from the office of Sen. Barbara Boxer, American Rivers, The Nature Conservancy, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Contra Costa Water District. 

At the start of 2012, a statewide poll found that more than three in four Californians admitted to knowing nothing about the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where California’s two largest rivers converge. 

That’s pretty alarming considering that 75% of California’s water supply comes from north of the Delta, while 75% of it is consumed south of the Delta. Water’s got to have some way to get to the thirsty south.

So, if three quarters of the state’s population know nothing about the Delta, then far more must be unaware of the fact that it’s on the brink of collapse. Without intervention, some kind of failure is inevitable and will leave 25 million people and about 3 million acres of agricultural land without water.

Understanding the woes of the Delta is fairly straightforward, but parsing out the details of the solutions is far more complicated. 

The problem is that the Delta is a fragile ecosystem with 1,100 miles of aging levees, many built over a century ago, that keep the Bay’s saltwater from mixing with fresh river water conveyed to other parts of California. The levees protect thousands of acres of valuable farmland and 400,000 inhabitants of Delta towns. The Delta is also home to more than 750 species of plants and wildlife, many of which are threatened as a result of overdrawing from the Delta. 

Looming over all of this is the very real threat that, at any moment, the entire system could crumble in the face of a major earthquake or flood.   

Pretty dire circumstances, right?

The solution to the problem, unfortunately, is rooted in a foundation equally as unstable as the marshy Delta itself. The age-old tension between California’s limited water supply and its swelling population has created a long, sordid history of water wars, which set the stage for today’s drama. 

On July 25, 2012, Governor Jerry Brown declared, without censor, “I want to get shit done” – referring to the Delta. In that speech, Brown declared his support for building two massive tunnels to convey freshwater beneath the Delta from south of Sacramento to Tracy where pumping stations would then disperse water throughout California via the State Water Project (SWP) and Central Valley Project (CVP) canals. 

The concept of the twin tunnels evolved from the Peripheral Canal plan that Brown endorsed in his first go as Governor. The project was soundly defeated by the California electorate in 1982 largely due to a powerful and unlikely alliance between environmentalists and Tulare Lake Basin farming interests. Since then, the topic of Delta conveyance infrastructure has earned a reputation as “the third rail of California politics.” It’s just too hot to touch.  

One of the reasons the tunnels are such a hot topic is because of the price tag, currently estimated at $14 billion in construction costs plus an additional $9 billion in ecosystem restoration costs. That’s a hefty figure, particularly considering California’s distended deficit and the economy’s persistent lethargy. It’s worth noting that California authorized funds to build Hoover Dam and the Central Valley Project during the Great Depression. And of course, the cost of such major infrastructure certainly won’t get cheaper over time; 30 years ago, the peripheral canals were estimated to cost $3 billion. 

Seeing through the Mud

Sarge Green, Program Director at the California Water Institute at Fresno State and member of the Water Action Team for the California Economic Summit, helped us make sense of the complicated Delta issue. 

 “Control is the key issue in water, always has been always will be. We want to protect property rights but we also must serve the greater good [water and the environment],” Green told California Forward. By control, he means, the hand that’s on the switch determining how much water goes where. 

It’s not surprising, then, that water policy discussion tends to be dominated by the extremes, which, according to Green, means that “the middle gets completely drowned out.” The extremes are polarized along several dichotomies: north and south, urban/ag and environment and short-term and long-term outcomes. Many also disagree over the degree of fragility of the levees themselves. 

In an effort to highlight the range of opinions on the issue, we list for our readers a sample of public statements made by politicians, agencies, nonprofit organizations and other groups with regard to the Governor’s announcement on July 25. The nuances found in and among these statements demonstrate the diverse approaches various stakeholders are taking with regard to the complicated Delta issue.  

Another factor muddying the debate is the issue of timing. If the project gets a green light, construction wouldn’t even begin until 2017, with estimated completion in 2026. Meanwhile, the likelihood of a natural disaster severely impacting the Delta becomes more imminent.  

Some say that we need to address the issue of the fragile levees now. Unfortunately, that’s not a simple solution or else it would have been done ten or twenty years ago. 

The difference of opinion between strengthening the levees and constructing a large-scale conveyance facility creates an impasse because there is uncertainty about the extent to which either solution can “solve” the problem for the short or long-term future. 

The problem, according to Green, is that California hasn’t invested in the proper research to make informed decisions.  “Data drives everything, but here in California, our data gathering has suffered. Every time budgets get cut, data gathering is the first thing to go,” said Green. 

Regardless, the Governor has signaled an end to the stalemate. Brown’s support of the tunnels and proposed changes to the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP — a scientific process begun in 2006 to permit alterations to the Delta that will achieve the co-equal goals of water supply reliability and Delta restoration) are pushing California into a new phase of solving the Delta problem rather than just talking about it.  

The Role of the Electorate

The complex nature of the Delta issue makes it immensely difficult for the electorate to grasp. With a mixed bag of politicians and interest groups lined up on either side of the issue for a bevy of reasons, we can’t rely on the usual political cues to inform our opinions. 

Rather, we, as an electorate, need to take on the onus of educating ourselves about California’s complicated yet intriguing water issues. Ensuring a sustainable, reliable, clean water system is fundamental to the health of California’s people, economy, and environment. We must work together to secure checks and balances for that system. And no matter how you look at it, the California water system of the 21st century isn’t going to be cheap. 

Certainly, there are numerous challenges and opportunities inherent in the tensions between urban, agricultural, and environmental water uses, particularly in the Central Valley. But, as Green told us, “It’s not about who wins or loses politically; it’s about asking ourselves, ‘how do we get to the best outcome?” 

The best outcome will most certainly depend upon an informed electorate that demands political transparency and deference to the greater good. To that end, over the next few weeks, California Forward will be exploring issues inherent in the Delta discussion:  governance, water reliability, water quality, agriculture, environmental concerns, fish populations, flood/drought preparedness, and climate change.

“One thing builds upon the other. It has to be looked at holistically,” noted Green. 

With that, stay tuned to more news and information about our water system. 

Please visit the California Economic Summit’s 2012 Action Plan, which features water as one of its major actions (page 37-40). As background on the below, be sure to check out our extremely comprehensive California Water Primer resource.


Niki Woodard

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