Water fight

Gov. Jerry Brown’s tunnel vision has high stakes for the North State and the Delta

More about the tunnels:
Butte and Glenn counties are partnering with state officials to hold a briefing on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan at the Chico Masonic Family Center on Aug. 21, from 1 to 4 p.m. To learn more about the opposition to the BDCP, visit www.aqualliance.net.

The brown water of the Sacramento River lumbers quietly downstream along the levee bank, swirling eddies and occasional surges of turbulence revealing the power of this greatest of California’s waterways. It is nearly 100 degrees in the town of Hood, about 20 minutes south of Sacramento, and the heavy sun crushes the midday hours into idleness. The streets are quiet, except for the occasional passing of a car on Highway 160, the rushing of the trees, and the corners of a cardboard sign on a gate flapping in the hot wind. It reads:


Many more of the same signs are posted along the levee roadways throughout the Delta, for a huge development plan is underway in Sacramento that, if implemented, will change this quiet agricultural region—and the river that flows through it—forever.

Nothing is final yet, but Gov. Jerry Brown, along with many colleagues and agricultural water users south of Stockton, hope to build a new water-diversion system: a pair of giant tunnels, each 40 feet wide and 35 miles long, that are capable of carrying away two-thirds of the Sacramento River’s water. Brown and Co. say the $25 billion-plus plan will secure water for Southern California cities and Central Valley farmers, and also restore the Delta’s troubled ecosystem.

But in the northern half of the Central Valley, most people want the tunnels stopped. They say it will suck the Delta dry, destroy farming business in the Delta and the Sacramento Valley, devastate the river’s ecosystem and lead to overuse of groundwater supplies.

“This is one of the rare times when farmers and environmentalists can agree that a project is going to be devastating for both their interests,” said Robyn DiFalco, executive director of the Butte Environmental Council.

DiFalco notes that the tunnels will not only increase Southern California’s dependence on Northern California’s water, but “they will also make it easier for [Southern California] to get it.”

Debbie Elliott of Courtland, a river community of fewer than 400 residents located several bends in the river south of Sacramento, foresees years of dust, traffic and noise just to build the tunnels, which would start in Hood and end about 17 miles to the southwest of Stockton at the Clifton Court Forebay reservoir, basically a holding tank for the existing water pumps that serve the San Joaquin Valley.

“I’m not sure we can live with the impacts of this,” she said. “If they do this, we’re looking at 10 years of construction.

“I’m imagining an industrial wasteland here.”

Though Delta communities are generally aligned in opposition to the tunnels, there is not going to be an opportunity for anyone to vote on the matter. Unlike the proposed Peripheral Canal of the early 1980s, which voters shot down, the twin-tunnels project—which some believe may cost $50 billion in the long run—needs approval only from the state Legislature, and will move forward without the chance for a public vote.

Map not to scale.

PHOTO Illustration by Hayley Doshay

The California Department of Water Resources is leading the push for the tunnels, which are just one part of the Gov. Brown-approved Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

Nancy Vogel, a spokeswoman with the department, says the BDCP is being mischaracterized by its opponents. “This isn’t an engineering plan,” she said. “It’s a conservation plan.”

In fact, one of the BDCP’s main objectives—as mandated by a 2009 state law called the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Reform Act—is to help restore the Delta’s struggling ecosystem. In theory, the tunnels would do this by sending fresh water from the north Delta directly to the existing pumps near Tracy, an hour south of Sacramento. This would reduce the intake of water from the southern Delta, which serves as crucial fish habitat.

The other major goal of the BDCP is to boost water security. For example, even if a natural disaster destroyed the southern Delta’s levees and caused a sudden flood of salt water into the region, the northern intake of the tunnels would guarantee that fresh, drinkable water continued southward.

“I know this is hard for people to wrap their heads around, but putting the intakes north of the Delta could help struggling species, like the Delta smelt, chinook salmon, Sacramento splittail, sturgeon, etc.,” Vogel said.

As things are now, at certain times of the year, the water pumps about an hour south of Sacramento can actually make the San Joaquin River flow backward. Juvenile salmon, swimming down the Sacramento River on their journey to the sea, regularly follow this wayward current. It leads them into backwaters and sloughs, from which they usually never escape. Many are eaten by predators. Others are drawn directly toward the pumps and squashed against the screens placed there to keep the fish out. Biologists have blamed this reversed current phenomenon as a serious detriment to fish populations.

Vogel says the tunnels will reduce, though not eliminate, the reverse flow.

But there’s still one major, critical question: Will more water be leaving the Sacramento River each year than currently if the tunnels are implemented?

Biologists are at work trying to understand how much water the species that live in the Delta need to survive, if not thrive—but as of now, Vogel says “nobody knows” how much water the tunnels will take. She says, however, that constant monitoring of the Delta’s health and functioning will ensure that water diversions never exceed a critical maximum volume.

Carol Perkins, Butte Environmental Council’s water-policy advocate, believes Butte County’s groundwater supply will be heavily impacted, if indirectly, by the tunnels. She explained that surrounding counties—including the thirsty Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District—likely will sell its surface-water rights to the state as demand increases, allowing more water to flow downstream toward the tunnel intakes.

These local counties would then need to tap into the region’s groundwater—best known for the large but limited Tuscan Aquifer. Perkins says that groundwater volume in California is not known. She also points out that use of groundwater is entirely unregulated in California.

Tapping into subterranean sources also generally means that a region has no other water supply left.

Robyn DiFalco and other water advocates at the Butte Environmental Council want North State residents to know that local groundwater supplies from the Tuscan Aquifer will be affected as local water districts send more surface water south via the tunnels.

file PHOTO by matt siracusa

“When people start reverting to using their groundwater, it’s a last resort,” Perkins said.

Barbara Vlamis, the executive director of Chico-based water-watchdog group AquAlliance, says groundwater depletion in the northern Sacramento Valley is one of the major potential impacts of the BDCP that its proponents have failed to consider. AquAlliance is among a coalition of environmental, fishing and farming groups suing to stop the BDCP, which it charges violates the California Environmental Quality Act and the Delta Reform Act.

She also believes that further development of the river’s water-export system—if carried out recklessly—could spur the extinction of the chinook salmon.

Before the Gold Rush, so many salmon swam upstream to spawn every year in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems that, according to accounts from explorers and settlers, the water between the Carquinez Strait boiled with fish in the autumn, shore to shore. More than a million fish per year made the annual migration.

But in the 1950s and ’60s, after two powerful pumps were installed in the southern Delta, a clear correlation began to emerge linking increased water-export rates and a steady decline of the remaining salmon. Water exports climbed decade to decade, from 1 million acre-feet annually through the 1950s to 5 million acre-feet in the 1980s and 1990s. By the 2000s, more than half the Delta’s water was being exported.

In 2005, the pumps diverted away almost 7 million acre-feet of water. The fall-run salmon population promptly crashed, bottoming out in 2009 at its all-time low of 39,000 adults. Abrupt pumping restrictions enforced after the salmon crash, combined with productive ocean conditions, seem to have had an effect, and the fall-run chinook has partially bounced back.

“Having [only] 39,000 fish come back was really shocking, especially after having 750,000 in 2002,” said Roger Thomas, a fishing-boat operator in Sausalito and the chairman of the board of the Golden Gate Salmon Association. “That decline just goes to show that salmon are a sustainable resource when they have proper water and a healthy river to spawn in.”

The state’s salmon industry, worth $1.4 billion by many reports, was entirely closed by federal managers—something that had never happened before—for two years in a row in response to the depressed fish numbers. Fishermen began receiving federal financial aid.

Meanwhile, abrupt restrictions on water-export rates at crucial times of the year—when endangered winter-run salmon and Delta smelt are most vulnerable to being sucked into the pumps—took effect and remain in place today. Salmon began to recover.

Will the proposed tunnels help the Delta fish—or destroy them?

A leading fish biologist at UC Davis, Peter Moyle, said the key problem that has taken shape in the Delta in the past two decades is the reverse flow of the San Joaquin River.

“This is very confusing for fish that are trying to go downstream,” said Moyle. “If you’re a baby salmon trying to get to the ocean, it’s very hard to find your way past the pumps.”

Courtland resident Debbie Elliot says Gov. Jerry Brown’s tunnels would turn her town into an “industrial wasteland.”


The tunnels, if built, have the potential to help alleviate this problem, Moyle said, and facilitate a year-round downstream flow through the Delta and out to sea.

According to Vogel, however, the pumps near Tracy will continue to draw a substantial amount of water directly out of the southern Delta—as much as 50 percent of the total volume, when combined with the new tunnels. In other words, the problems afflicting this troubled ecosystem today could persist.

She added that the BDCP also includes a large wetland-restoration component that must be weighed into the pros and cons.

John Merz, executive director of the Chico-based Sacramento River Preservation Trust, says he has little faith in the components of the BDCP intended to restore the Delta’s health. He recognizes that there will be legal limits to how much water the tunnels can remove from the river.

“But we don’t think those limits will be enough to protect the river,” Merz said. He added, “Frankly, when it comes to restoring the health of the Sacramento River, we just don’t trust the Brown administration to do the right thing.”

Vlamis, of AquAlliance, echoed him. She said that calling the BDCP a “conservation plan” is deceptive. “The way this plan is crafted it will have no benefits for the Sacramento’s ecosystem,” she said.

Many critics of the BDCP have described the tunnels as a means of transferring away the wealth of Northern California to powerful water agencies to the south, which will be paying for a great deal of their enormous cost. While many farms in the San Joaquin Valley will prosper if the BDCP tunnels are built, farmers in the Delta could get a death sentence.

In a possible slip of the tongue in April, Jerry Meral, Gov. Brown’s lead man at the Natural Resources Agency, reportedly said in a private conversation that “the Delta cannot be saved.”

This spurred suspicions among critics that the BDCP’s backers don’t honestly see their proposal as an environmental remedy but, rather, only as a water-delivery conveyance to serve agribusiness and Southern California cities.

Already, an upstream advance of salt water is occurring in the lower Delta. If the tunnels divert away too much of the river, ocean water could creep even farther upstream, spoiling the supply for Delta farmers.

“Salt-water intrusion terrifies us,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, the executive director of the group Restore the Delta.

The tunnels, she expects, will exacerbate the problem, and she warns that “every farm from Walnut Grove to Sacramento will be destroyed” if the governor’s plan is approved.

Barbara Vlamis of AquAlliance says the BDCP in no way benefits the Sacramento River’s ecosystem.

Photo by tom gascoyne

Barrigan-Parrilla says the agriculture industry of the Delta is worth $5.2 billion, including multipliers like gas costs, insurance and machinery sales.

Her group has proposed alternate means of accomplishing the two co-equal objectives of the Delta Reform Act: levee upgrades, improved systems of fish screening, and focused efforts by Southern California cities to produce their own water, through recycling and desalination. This would preclude any need for the tunnels, Barrigan-Parrilla says, at an estimated cost that she pins at $12 billion, maximum.

“Absolutely nothing good can come of the tunnels,” Barrigan-Parrilla said. “The Delta, the fisheries, San Francisco Bay—they’ll all be destroyed, and the Delta’s farmers and its municipal communities will die a slow death because of lack of fresh water. I want the BDCP stopped, and I want Westlands retired.”

She was referring to the Westlands Water District, a 600,000-plus-acre swath of land in western Fresno and Kings counties so arid that farmers could scarcely produce food here until Delta water first touched its soils about 60 years ago. Since then, Westlands, along with 2.4 million adjacent acres served by other water agencies, has grown into some of the most productive farmland in the world. Although the area’s farmers sometimes must let their annual field crops—like melons and lettuce—go brown and dry in low-water years, they are able to take such financial hits in large part because so many have invested in almonds, one of the most lucrative crops in the state.

Jason Peltier, with the Westlands Water District, explains that “fantastic” returns on almonds give these growers a cushion against hard times. And he supports the tunnels because they could provide greater water security by moving the intakes farther upstream, away from the southern Delta where baby salmon congregate. This would mean fewer emergency cutbacks that occur when salmon or smelt are discovered in the protective screens placed in front of the pumps.

For the same reasons, Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, favors the BDCP. The plan, he believes, will reduce fish mortality as well as water shortages among San Joaquin Valley farms. Everyone—fish, too—would win, Wade says.

Peltier feels fishermen have unfairly blamed farmers for causing the collapse in the salmon industry. Indeed, other factors may be at work. Federal scientists produced a paper in 2009 titled “What Caused the Sacramento Fall Chinook Stock Collapse?” The authors said a rapid deterioration in “ocean conditions” played a major role—but the biologists recognized that “a long-term, steady degradation of the freshwater and estuarine environment” had weakened the salmon population.

The frustration among fishermen with the agriculture industry may be easy to understand. While salmon fishermen were completely out of work in 2008 and 2009 during the fishing closure, many farms were prospering. The state’s almond industry has set harvest and acreage records year after year. In 2011, farmers harvested two billion pounds of almonds worth almost $4 billion.

The Delta’s ecology, meanwhile, has steadily withered away.

DiFalco, at the Butte Environmental Council, says the conscious choices of farmers in the San Joaquin Valley have brought troubles upon themselves and the rest of the state.

“They’re planting permanent crops, like fruit orchards, in a desert,” she said. “Annual crops would make sense. That way you can fallow the land—grow when you’re able to and let the land go fallow in dry years. But they’re being foolhardy. They’re setting themselves up to need more water every year, and we shouldn’t sympathize with them for consciously making these decisions.

“We need to retire some of that land,” she said.

John Merz of the Sacramento River Preservation Trust says the limits on the amount of water the tunnels will take still won’t restore the health of the Sacramento River.

Photo by howard hardee

Alternative solutions that would help both farmers and the Delta’s ecology have been proposed, though state officials have maintained strong allegiance to Gov. Brown’s BDCP tunnel plan.

One idea was introduced by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Commonly called the “portfolios” proposal, this plan calls for a downscaled, one-tunnel project, and strategies for farms in the San Joaquin Valley to store and reduce the use of water. The plan also calls for cities, especially in Southern California, to advance water-recycling systems that could lessen their dependence on Northern California’s water.

“One of the main problems with the BDCP is that it doesn’t create a single new drop of water,” said Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli. He believes that water-conservation measures, plus desalination technology, could lighten the strain on California’s watersheds.

Nottoli also says the portfolios plan essentially is being ignored.

“[T]he state is moving toward a decision on a preferred project even though they’re saying they’re looking at multiple options, and I don’t believe they are,” Nottoli said.

Nottoli also distrusts the BDCP’s proposal to convert 100,000 acres or more of land and restore it to wetlands. Some of this acreage will need to be forcefully bought from Delta farmers.

“Why should one region of the state be sacrificed for the benefit of another?” he asked.

Meanwhile, lawsuits against the state are piling up, and this litigation to stop the tunnels could put bumps in the road for the project’s proponents.

One 45-page complaint, filed on June 14 by a number of water-advocacy groups, charged that state officials have all but ignored a 2010 assessment by the State Water Resources Control Board and the Department of Fish and Wildlife, which agreed that the Sacramento River would need to be left with 75 percent of its unimpaired flow volume in order for the Delta to remain a thriving estuary.

“But they totally ignored those findings,” said Rogene Reynolds, a board member with Restore the Delta, one of the lawsuit’s plaintiff groups. “They actually tried to hide them.”

The BDCP’s backers have assured skeptics that water-export rates will not exceed what the ecosystem can withstand. But opponents of the tunnels suspect that the powerful agricultural interests in the south are going to get more water via the tunnels than they get now—no matter what.

“You don’t agree to spend $14 billion plus operating costs if you aren’t planning on having more water,” said Bill Jennings, the executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, a strong opponent of the BDCP.

Vlamis at AquAlliance is similarly suspicious.

“Would the government build an eight-lane freeway bridge if they were planning to use only two of the lanes?” she asked.

By some opinions, the BDCP and its tunnels are just a scheme of selling away Northern California’s wealth, and losing an ecosystem in the process. As the tunnels plan advances toward fruition, Reynolds sees both corruption and complacency among the state’s leaders.

“No one in the realm of the government in general has the guts to say to the water exporters, ‘You’re taking too much water. The Delta has a limit, and you’ve reached it.’”