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Single Tunnel Option Not a Quick Fix for the Delta

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California Aqueduct
The California Aqueduct, which would be kept full by a Delta Tunnel | Photo: Marianne Muegenburg Cothernsome rights reserved

Commentary: These are not good times for the Governor Brown’s Delta Tunnels (WaterFix) proposal.

The twin 40-foot-diameter, 30-mile-long tunnels would harvest Sacramento River water before it flows through the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary. A vast majority of this water would be sent to Big Ag operations like The Wonderful Company in the Southern San Joaquin Valley. It will destroy the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas.

But as the San Francisco Chronicle recently editorialized, "The tunnel project, now marketed to Californians as WaterFix, lacks community trust and political will and is saddled with a $16 billion (and growing) price tag that appears much larger than water agencies are willing to pay.”

Water districts, rural users, and entire cities like San Diego and Santa Monica are starting to question the wisdom or affordability of such a big project that does not deliver one new drop of new water.

This November, a coalition of conservation and public interest organizations sent a letter to the Obama administration asking them to terminate the proposal so his legacy isn’t dragged down by a financial and environmental nightmare. The groups explain how the next administration will blame the boondoggle on Obama. They will say:

“We inherited the WaterFix from the previous administration and presumed that they knew what they were doing and had fully evaluated the project in good faith when they determined it should go forward."

As environmental and financial obstacles continue to mount for the proposal, California water policy wonks are now scrambling for a viable Plan B.

The influential Public Policy Institute of California recently took a step back from support for the Twin Tunnels and offered a scaled back, Plan B. In an op-ed for the Sacramento Bee they offer, A Grand Compromise for the Delta.

PPIC now proposes a smaller plan they believe can settle the water wars over the Bay-Delta. Their proposal includes one-tunnel, managing water flows for entire ecosystems not just specific species, strengthening Delta levees, and letting communities tap into tunnel water supplies where local water is salty.

Restore the Delta is certainly encouraged the Public Policy Institute of California has backed down from support for the highly destructive Twin Delta Tunnels proposal. But the scaled-back project the PPIC now proposes is a completely different and new project. Before it can be analyzed, we still need to figure out how much water the Delta needs to maintain ecological health for the communities who live there and the species who depend on a healthy estuary.

By the time the expensive Twin Tunnels project would be finished, it may sit empty most of the time. The same may be true for one tunnel.  We don’t know yet.

The State Water Board's flow hearings for the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers must be completed before any project can be analyzed.

Independent fishery experts now say that the San Joaquin River needs at least 50 percent unimpaired flows to stop extinction and achieve legally required doubling goals for salmon.

Any new tunnel proposal would, we hope, include a more comprehensive public scoping process so as to include Delta environmental justice communities, made up of hundreds of thousands of residents. We would also hope for a more transparent environmental and economic review process with better science and better public debate than what was put forth for the current Delta Tunnels proposal. CA WaterFix touts hundreds of meetings over the last ten years, but most were never properly noticed to Delta communities for meaningful participation.

If, indeed, support for the Big Twin Tunnels project is fading, let’s kill that proposal once and for all. Californians who voted in 1982 against the Peripheral Canal assumed we had made that decision long ago.

In an era of climate change and shrinking snowpack in the Sierra, less snowmelt means that by the time the expensive Twin Tunnels project would be finished, it may sit empty most of the time. The same may be true for one tunnel.  We don’t know yet.

Instead, we should invest in California’s water future. Southern California already taking the lead on the cutting edge of a water technology. Stormwater harvesting, conservation, water recycling, and groundwater recharging are reducing the need for imported water to the Southland. Many of these ideas can be found in a report titled A Sustainable Water Plan for California by the Environmental Water Caucus.

The Delta Tunnels, even a scaled back version, may not be the best use of limited funds. Let’s kill off the big Delta Tunnels plan once and for all. Then we can redirect those funds to create local jobs that build water sustainability by adding new water into the system. That is the path to provide real security for California’s future.

Commentaries are the opinions of their authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of KCETLink. Banner image: Sunset on the Delta. Photo: Amit Patel, some rights reserved

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