Tunnel visions

Local experts assess the governor’s peripheral-tunnels plan

An aerial view of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

An aerial view of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Photo courtesy of <a href="http://sacramentoriverdelta.net/">SacramentoRiverDelta.net</a>

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan backed by Gov. Jerry Brown’s office is almost too enormous to comprehend. But it’s far and away the most significant infrastructure project going, so we have to try.

A pair of 35-mile-long tunnels, each 40 feet in diameter, would be buried 150 feet beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta—imagine that—diverting immense amounts of water from the Sacramento River to the existing south-bound California Aqueduct.

But, astounding engineering project aside, it’s the range of potential statewide environmental, political, agricultural and economic impacts that truly boggles the mind. At an estimated cost of $14 billion and projected completion date of 2026, the tunnels ostensibly would protect California’s most vital water supply—which serves 25 million Californians and 3 million acres of farmland from San Jose to San Diego—from floods, sea-level rise and earthquakes.

The project would also include the attempted restoration of roughly 145,000 acres of Delta wetlands habitat critical to native wildlife, as ever-increasing demand for water has put several fish species on the verge of extinction and contributed to the decline of the commercial salmon-fishing industry.

Further, the plan would require diverting three major Sacramento-area roadways—highways 160, 4 and 12—to accommodate a decade of transporting heavy construction equipment at an additional cost of $265 million, according to The Sacramento Bee.

“This is a huge project with so many moving parts,” said John Merz, former president of the Sacramento River Preservation Trust in Chico and longtime environmental advocate. Although there are countless factors to consider, Merz, along with several other local water experts, emphasized the importance of transparency as the state continues developing its proposal.

While a preliminary draft of the plan was released in March and a cost analysis and formal draft are expected in late April and July, respectively, there are several significant holes and gaps of information, Merz said.

“The devil’s in the details,” he explained, “and this is truly one of those situations. They are doing a whole lot of ‘Trust us. We’re going to do the right thing.’ But a lot of us are saying, ‘Hell no! This has got to be totally transparent, and we need to have as thorough a conversation as possible.’”

Merz believes that if the tunnels are built as currently planned, the state will continue to draw irresponsible amounts of water from the Sacramento River and the Delta to an even greater degree. Merz said he, along with many North State water-conservation organizations, are skeptical of any promises made by Brown’s administration regarding a cap on water intake.

“We just don’t trust the state government,” he said. “They say they will limit the amount of water diverted, and we don’t believe them. I don’t know what the best answer is, but there might be a better answer than what the tunnels are presenting. I just don’t know if it has to be this grandiose.”

However, some believe the Delta is in such poor condition that doing nothing is simply not an option. Leo Winternitz, a senior adviser for the California Nature Conservancy’s water program, said, “We absolutely have to do something different” to address dwindling fish populations and maintain stable water supplies.

John Merz

Photo By Howard Hardee

Winternitz explained that as endangered fish species in the Delta reach alarmingly low population levels, more stringent restrictions “of how you can move water and how you can export water” are enforced. The restrictions, in turn, contribute to unstable water supplies, Winternitz said.

“We’re in a lose-lose situation,” Winternitz said. “We have listed species at all-time lows, and an unreliable water supply, and looking into the future you don’t see anything changing. Particularly with climate change coming—or here, I should say—it just looks like things are going to get worse.”

Winternitz believes that by putting fish species on a path for recovery through the restoration aspect of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, water restrictions will be eased as populations rebound, and Californians will have a more consistent water supply.

But, like Merz, Winternitz also believes responsible management of how much water is drawn from the Sacramento River, and thus from the Delta, is critical to protecting the resource. “It comes down to how [the Delta] will be used, and who governs its use.

“It’s tremendously important this project be designed right, operated right and governed right,” Winternitz continued. “It’s paramount that the rules be established, the objectives—what they want to achieve with this—be clearly defined, and that there be very transparent paths to achieving those objectives.”

But Winternitz emphasized again that he believes the Delta and the health of its wildlife species will continue deteriorating if nothing is done.

“There’s the Chinese proverb: ‘Unless you change your direction, you’re apt to end up where you’re headed.’ These tunnels, whatever size they may be, represent an opportunity for change.”

Robyn DiFalco, executive director of the Butte Environmental Council, expressed a sentiment echoed by many water-conscious North State organizations and residents—that diverting water south through the proposed tunnels for mostly agricultural purposes in the San Joaquin Valley is in the best interest of that area’s farmers, but not for the rest of California.

Though the San Joaquin Valley’s agricultural production is staggering—the area is responsible for the majority of the state’s agricultural exports, producing an estimated $30 billion annually—many have questioned the logic of moving water away from the North Sacramento Valley.

“It’s just not good policy for the state to invest so much money on behalf of watering farms in a desert,” she said.

“Growing things [in the San Joaquin Valley] is much more contentious than up here,” Merz agreed, pointing to the area’s over-worked farm soil. “We have great soil. Why are we moving the water?”

For Barbara Vlamis, executive director of AquAlliance, the San Joaquin Valley is a prime example of the negative consequences of excessive water consumption, a fate she fears for the Sacramento Valley.

“You don’t have to look too far away to see what devastation has been wrought,” Vlamis said. “The San Joaquin Valley has sunk many tens of feet because they’ve sucked so much groundwater out of it.

“California has a history of destroying its great watersheds,” Vlamis insisted, her voice rising. “It has destroyed Owens Valley, destroyed the San Joaquin River watershed, and now has all its sights on the Sacramento. We are the last great watershed left, and upending the hydrologic balance in this region will destroy California.”