Water fight!: Will Jerry Brown’s tunnel plan save or destroy the Delta?

The governor says building two multibillion-dollar, 39-mile tunnels will restore the Delta and bring more H20 to Californians. Sacramento County residents worry it will ruin their communities.

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 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 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 39 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 here in the Delta area of Sacramento County, most people want the tunnel project stopped. They say it will suck the Delta dry, destroy farming business in Northern California and kill the ecosystem.

Doug Hemly operates several hundred acres of pear orchards along Highway 160, and lives just miles south of the proposed location for the three intakes that would feed the tunnels. His grown children help operate the farm, and before him four generations of ancestors did much the same. The Hemly home is 164 years old—built in 1850 by his great-grandfather. Now, the twin tunnels threaten to demolish it.

“One of the plans I’ve heard involves taking the house,” said Hemly, 67.

“Everyone is confused by what they’re doing,” he said. “No one understands how you can improve the health of the Delta by taking water out of the Delta, rather than let it flow downstream through the Delta.

“Everyone here is scratching their heads about this.”

Tunnel of no love

The Hemly household isn’t the only Sacramento County home that may need to be demolished if the tunnels are built.

“They’re talking about moving out the whole town,” said Terry Mulligan, a resident of 30 years near Hood.

More than three decades ago, Mulligan’s home was on the list of doomed properties when the infamous Peripheral Canal project was alive—before voters shot it down in 1982. “They’re going to be displacing a whole lot of dirt. They’re going to be trucking it in and out of here on these little levee roads. There will be a lot of traffic. I’m afraid they’re going to foul up the whole area.”

Debbie Elliot of Courtland foresees years of dust, traffic and noise just to build the tunnels, which would start in Hood and lead almost 40 miles to 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.”

The Gov. Jerry Brown-supported Bay Delta Conservation Plan proposes to take two-thirds of the water from the Sacramento River near the town Hood in Sacramento County, then divert it to a reservoir some 39 miles away near Tracy. Next, it would pump water to south-state farmers and cities. California would need to build two tunnels to accomplish this, which would take about 10 years to construct and cost at least $24 billion. Residents are worried about eminent domain and say tunnel construction will destroy their communities—and the Delta itself.

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

“The Delta community has been left out of the planning process,” Hemly said. “Yet we are the only ones who stand to lose out and who are facing a negative event—us and the fish.”

The 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 Delta Reform Act—is to help restore the Delta’s struggling ecosystem. In theory, the tunnels would do this by sending freshwater 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 saltwater 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. Salmon juveniles, 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 said “nobody knows” how much water the tunnels will take.

Hemly wants several uncertainties addressed before the state moves forward with any Delta-management plan: How much water is there, who owns it, how much will be sent to Los Angeles and how much help does the ecosystem need?

“After we have those questions answered,” he said, “we can decide what to build.”

Red fish, blue fish, dead fish or new fish?

Before the gold rush, so many salmon swam upstream to spawn every year in the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers 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 1 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. By the 2000s, more than half of the Delta’s water was being exported.

Pear farmer Doug Hemly’s south Sacramento County home was built 164 years ago by his great-grandfather. The Bay Delta Conservation Plan tunnels would be just miles south of his house, which he could lose to eminent domain.

Photo by Steven Chea

In 2005, the pumps diverted away almost 7 million acre feet of water. The fall-run salmon population promptly crashed, bottoming out in 2009 to 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 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 Golden Gate Salmon Association’s board. “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 B. 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.”

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.

But, according to Vogel, 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.

So, 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.

Bill Jennings, the executive director of the California Sport Fishing Protection Alliance, has no faith in the tunnels’ potential to benefit anyone but farmers and cities to the south who want water.

“The bottom line is, you don’t restore a hemorrhaging estuary by taking out even more water,” Jennings said. “We’ve already taken more than half of its water. No estuary in the world can survive that.”

Conservation or destruction?

Many critics of the BDCP describe 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, Gerald “Jerry” Meral, Gov. Brown’s man at the Natural Resources Agency, reportedly said in a private conversation that “the Delta cannot be saved.”

The California Farm Water Coalition’s Mike Wade says the BDCP tunnels will save fish and reduce water shortages for farmers.

Photo by Steven Chea

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 saltwater 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.

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

The tunnels, she promises, 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.

She said the agriculture industry of the Delta is worth $5.2 billion.

Her group has proposed alternate means of accomplishing the two coequal 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 said, at an estimated cost that she pins at $12 billion, maximum.

“Absolutely nothing good can come of the tunnels,” said Barrigan-Parrilla. “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 freshwater. I want the BDCP stopped, and I want Westlands retired.”

She’s referring to the Westlands Water District, a 600,000-acre swath of land 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 River fall Chinook stock collapse?” The authors said a rapid deterioration in “ocean conditions” played a major role but 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 2 billion pounds of almonds worth almost $4 billion.

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

Hope for the Delta

For the struggling Delta, the people who live there and the farmers who grow food, there could be other, smaller solutions to their struggles. The problem, some say, is that state officials have refused to give full consideration to anything but Gov. Brown’s BDCP tunnel plan.

One alternative 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.

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

photo by steven chea

“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 could lighten the strain on California’s watersheds.

Nottoli also says the portfolios plan is being essentially 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. “You look at the BDCP, and what you have is a tunnel-construction project. That’s their conservation plan: to build a huge pair of tunnels.” He fears the Delta could be reduced “into an industrial complex, complete with rubble heaps and muck ponds.”

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.

Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada also believes the BDCP will destroy the farms and fisheries of the Delta. In an email to SN&R, she called the BDCP “a costly and intrusive construction project promising little to no benefit to the Delta itself.”

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 by a number of water-advocacy groups on June 14, charges 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.

(The agencies themselves noted that such a volume of water left to flow to sea is in fact not possible, given the multitude of uses it must serve—but the recommendation did offer an idea of how seriously thirsty the estuary’s ecosystem is now.)

“But they totally ignored those findings,” said Rogene Reynolds, a South Delta resident and 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 endure. 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 Jennings of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

At least one Delta resident, Jim Arnold of Courtland, welcomes the tunnels.

“When I look out at this river, I see perfectly good water going downstream for nothing,” said Arnold, who owns and leases hundreds of acres of Delta farmland. “People grow food in California, and that’s much more important than saving a few fish. The salmon run doesn’t amount to a whole lot, anyway.”

Arnold’s point of view is an anomaly in a small community fiercely opposed to what is foremost a massive construction project. 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.’”