Alternative to the tunnels

There’s an easier, cheaper, less destructive way to meet the state’s water needs

Most of the proposals Gov. Jerry Brown put forth in his State of the State speech Jan. 24 were welcomed by most of the lawmakers in his audience. Only one item ran into serious opposition in the hours and days following the speech: the proposal to construct two huge—and hugely expensive—35-mile-long “peripheral tunnels” under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to ship Northern California water south.

Different entities—Bay Area water districts, environmentalists, Delta counties, fishing groups—have different reasons for opposing the tunnels. Residents of Northern California, those of us who live where the water is generated, fear that it will divert so much Sacramento River water south that farmers will be forced to use more and more groundwater for irrigation, sucking dry the Tuscan aquifer.

The tunnels are designed to convey 9,000 cubic feet of water per second, a huge amount. There’s a very real possibility that, because of global warming, such amounts will not be available in the future. We simply don’t know; it hasn’t been studied. Nor has it been determined whether diverting so much water around the Delta will leave sufficient water in the river to flush out the estuary.

A number of groups are advocating another, more realistic and less expensive approach. They’re calling for a single, smaller tunnel (3,000 cfs) along with a number of other programs to increase water supplies south of the Delta, including conservation, recycling and creation of new water storage. They’re also calling for improvements to Delta levees and restoration of 40,000 acres of Delta habitat.

Southern California cities already have shown they don’t need as much Northern California water. They’re conserving and investing in local resources: recycling and reusing runoff water, creating recharge zones to capture rainwater and building desalination plants. They’re weaning themselves off imported water.

Before a final decision is made on the tunnels, the alternative proposal should be carefully evaluated and compared with the larger one to determine which would be more effective and economical.