Gov­er­nor could still solve Delta wa­ter woes

The Mercury News - - Opinion - Ed Clen­daniel Ed Clen­daniel is an edi­to­rial writer for the Bay Area News Group. Email him at eclen­daniel@ba­yare­anews­group.com. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @ed_ clen­daniel.

I got up at 5:15 a.m. on Satur­day morn­ing with the idea of driv­ing 100 miles to watch the sun rise over the Sacra­mento-San Joaquin River Delta.

I wanted to show my 84-year-old mom the beauty of one of Cal­i­for­nia’s best-kept se­crets. Maybe see some of the Delta’s mag­nif­i­cent sand­hill cranes ca­pa­ble of fly­ing up to 400 miles in a sin­gle day. But my real goal was to get a clearer per­spec­tive on the merit of build­ing a sin­gle, 35-mile tun­nel to pro­vide a more re­li­able sup­ply of wa­ter for gen­er­a­tions of thirsty Cal­i­for­ni­ans.

What we got in­stead was a thick layer of fog. No cranes. No fish jump­ing. When we ar­rived in Court­land, we couldn’t even see the Sacra­mento River 50 yards in front of our noses. Noth­ing could have served as a bet­ter metaphor for the bat­tle over the Delta’s murky fu­ture.

I’ve been wrestling with the ques­tion of whether the sin­gle-tun­nel al­ter­na­tive would be in the state’s best in­ter­est for years. The is­sue moved to the front burner af­ter West­lands Wa­ter District and the Santa Clara Val­ley Wa­ter District made it clear last month that they wanted no part of Gov. Jerry Brown’s mas­sive, $17 bil­lion twin-tun­nel pro­posal.

Thank good­ness. That was a bad idea from the be­gin­ning. A wa­ter grab of the worst kind that threat­ened to do fur­ther dam­age to the frag­ile Delta and the qual­ity of the fresh wa­ter sup­ply that the Bay Area de­pends on.

The gov­er­nor still hasn’t com­pletely given up on his twin tun­nels. But he has in­di­cated a will­ing­ness to back a sin­gle-tun­nel project as an al­ter­na­tive, which is wel­come news.

Brown may be the only per­son in Cal­i­for­nia with the knowl­edge, power and po­lit­i­cal savvy to put to­gether a deal that will se­cure the state’s wa­ter needs for gen­er­a­tions to come. It’s a shame that he only has one year left in of­fice to make a sin­gle-tun­nel project work.

The beauty of a sin­gle tun­nel is that it re­duces costs by bil­lions of dol­lars. The sav­ings could be in­vested in re­in­forc­ing Delta lev­ees, in­creas­ing wa­ter re­cy­cling and de­vel­op­ing ad­di­tional stor­age. The re­sult would de­liver more wa­ter at a cheaper price while also pro­tect­ing the health of the Delta. It won’t be easy.

One of the chief com­pli­ca­tions is the need for the gov­er­nor and wa­ter agen­cies to work in con­junc­tion with the state wa­ter board’s wa­ter qual­ity flow plan, which will be up­dated next year. The plan de­ter­mines how much wa­ter needs to flow through the Delta to main­tain its health. Wa­ter of­fi­cials ex­pect it will rec­om­mend re­duc­ing wa­ter ex­ports.

“The gov­er­nor has two op­tions,” said Doug Obegi, an at­tor­ney with the Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil, which came up with the orig­i­nal sin­gle-tun­nel pro­posal.

“One is to go into a back­room and cut a deal with state wa­ter con­trac­tors and find a way to pay for his twin tun­nels project or a phased project. The se­cond is to pri­or­i­tize get­ting the wa­ter board to fin­ish its work and then have a re­al­is­tic look at what con­veyance would look like that would al­low more wa­ter to flow through the Delta and San Fran­cisco Bay.”

The lat­ter is by far the prefer­able op­tion. But the only way any wa­ter agency should agree to a deal with the gov­er­nor is if it is clear what the cost will be, who will pay for it and who will get to gov­ern where the wa­ter goes. Bay Area wa­ter dis­tricts should have a big say in all of that.

So should those who ac­tu­ally live in the Delta.

They are the peo­ple who are largely for­got­ten in this fight.

As we drove south along High­way 160 through Court­land — where any Delta tun­nel would be­gin — and the small towns of Wal­nut Grove, Ryde and Isle­ton, the fog lifted enough to con­vey the tremen­dous his­tor­i­cal sense of place.

Fam­ily farms dom­i­nate the 57 is­lands sur­rounded by 1,100 miles of lev­ees that are their only pro­tec­tion from a dis­as­trous flood.

“When peo­ple have a con­ver­sa­tion about the po­ten­tial for a Delta fail­ure, they fo­cus on the wa­ter sup­ply,” said Obegi. “But a mas­sive fail­ure in the Delta would mean hun­dreds of lives lost, and more than 80 per­cent of the dam­age would not be due to wa­ter sup­ply. Tun­nels won’t do any­thing to ad­dress those con­cerns.

The an­swer is a com­pre­hen­sive ap­proach that pro­tects the en­vi­ron­ment for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions and se­cures Cal­i­for­ni­ans a re­li­able source of wa­ter. Gov. Brown, the ball is in your court.

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