Governor could still solve Delta water woes
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.