Tunnel vision

Water-protection group protests Delta water project

Dale Rudesill plays the role of the Westlands Desert Ag rep pulling money from the proposed peripheral tunnels while John Hollister acts as Gov. Brown and an unidentified man holds the representation of a withering North State crop during a live skit at the Feather River Nature Center.

Dale Rudesill plays the role of the Westlands Desert Ag rep pulling money from the proposed peripheral tunnels while John Hollister acts as Gov. Brown and an unidentified man holds the representation of a withering North State crop during a live skit at the Feather River Nature Center.

photo by tom gascoyne

How much per gallon?
A bill calling for a cost-benefit analysis of the peripheral-tunnels project was defeated in the State Legislature earlier this year under considerable pressure from Southern California water interests.

AquAlliance, the local water-rights defenders, held a press conference complete with a skit on Tuesday, July 24, at the Feather River Nature Center in Oroville in anticipation of Gov. Jerry Brown’s unveiling the next day of plans to build two huge tunnels under the Bay Delta to facilitate delivering water south. Brown was to be joined by U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for the presentation.

The plan would cost an estimated $14 billion—to be paid by water users—and create two underground tunnels each 33 feet in diameter that would transfer up to 9,000 cubic feet of water per second 37 miles from the Sacramento River to state and federal pumping stations in Tracy. From there it would flow through State Water Project and Central Valley Project canals that extend all the way to San Diego, irrigating some 3 million acres of farm land and helping supply water to 25 million Californians. Restoring the Delta could cost another $9 billion, which would be partially floated by a water bond.

Backers of the project say it is the only way to save the Delta’s estuarial system, which is being destroyed under current conditions. Opponents say its cost—financial and environmental—is too great.

“The project is insanity on steroids,” said Barbara Vlamis, AquAlliance’s executive director, in a press release announcing the press conference. She said under the guise of restoring the Delta, which has been drained of water for years, “the plan will drain the Sacramento River and its groundwater basins to continue unsustainable agriculture in the most arid part of the south state.”

She said the project will leave less fresh-water flow for salmon in the Sacramento River system, the only Central Valley system with returning salmon. “And so you start depleting the water farther up the Sacramento, warming the temperature, it’ll be less friendly to returning and migrating salmon.”

Vlamis said the project will also increase the demand on North State groundwater, depleting local rivers and creeks.

The project will need to gain federal and state permits from wildlife agencies that are restoring salmon runs and protecting other endangered species, but Vlamis said she doesn’t trust the system.

“Based on what has occurred already, it will be so slow that we may lose [the salmon] in the process,” she said. “The San Joaquin is an example of where groundwater has been depleted and they have no salmon any more. We would like to think that government agencies would jump in and try to protect our environment, but history has not proven that they will do that.”

Members and supporters of AquaAllince performed a live skit during the press conference to illustrate their point. While member Jim Brobeck played acoustic guitar in the background, “Gov. Brown” made a deal with a man representing “Westlands Desert Ag.” While blue cloth representing water was pushed into one end of the “tunnels,” the Westlands man pulled money from the other end. Kathy Faith held up signs with messages like “Ka Sham!!”

Vlamis said opposition to the project has had support from 12 state representatives who’ve written letters to Salazar asking the feds to back off on the project.

“A significant number of counties, including Kern, are even starting to express concerns they might get less water with the project. And then there is the fact that the cost is going to be covered by rate-payers, including those on the coast who are not going to benefit at all.”

Barbara Vlamis (below) talks with a local TV news reporter.

photo by tom gascoyne

She also questioned how the project would help restore the Delta by siphoning massive amounts of water early in the system, before it gets to the Delta.

“They have no plan,” she said. “Hydrology is not part of this. [Brown’s] moving forward and says, ‘We’ll figure it out later.'”

The project is similar to one defeated by voters in 1982, during Brown’s first term as governor. Vlamis said Brown’s interest goes back further than that, to when his father, Pat Brown, was governor.

“This is a family deal here,” she said. “His dad wanted that peripheral canal; he saw it as the completion of the State Water Project. Now it sure looks like [Brown’s] just trying to complete his dad’s dream, and it’s helping wealthy people he knows in the southern San Joaquin Valley mega-farms.”

Vlamis said that the North State’s supply of groundwater is also endangered by the project.

“If they start siphoning the amount of water they are talking about directly from the Sacramento River, the state will require some flow to continue to come down that river to try to protect the fish and the Delta,” she said. “Where’s it going to come from? Our groundwater. They are going to incorporate the groundwater one way or another into this system. This is a mad scheme that’s going to devastate our area. It’s been child’s play up to this point, compared to what will happen if they put this in.”

Alliance member and longtime water watcher Brobeck called the project a temporary fix for a permanent problem. Environmental activists, he said, have helped prevent the continued destruction of the Delta.

“There’ve been constraints on how much water can be pumped out of the Delta at certain times of the year,” he said. “This peripheral canal is an attempt to override those exiting constraints on the overuse of the water that should be flowing out to the San Francisco Bay to help the fish complete their lifecycle.”

He called the project a waste of money.

“It’ll allow California to continue this unreasonable use of water for another few years before they find out that this is impacting the fisheries that provide food for everybody,” he said.

Science has not been considered, he charged. Instead the project is an attempt to provide the water demands of Southern California while also rehabilitating the North State’s fishery system, an approach that’s been labeled as meeting “co-equal goals.”

“These co-equal goals are not scientific,” he said. “They are the result of political pressure. The scientists will tell you that if you didn’t have to abide by these political pressures the best science would be keeping more water in the river system to provide natural flows to rehabilitate the fishery.”

He said the co-equal goals are in reality being pushed by the “industrial farms in the San Joaquin Valley.”

“It’s an attempt to override the constraints that exist to prevent sucking water directly out of the Delta,” he said. “The problem is simply the over-allocation of water.”