Tunneling under California's Bay Delta water wars

  • The Banks Pumping Plant looking toward the Bay Delta, where tunnels are planned that could protect fish.

    Chris Austin, Aquafornia, cc via Flickr
  • California Gov. Jerry Brown and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar unveil a new plan for tunnels in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

    California Natural Resources Agency

On July 25, California Gov. Jerry Brown announced to an expectant press corps that the state plans to construct a pair of multibillion-dollar tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta in order to modernize and possibly expand the export of Northern California's water, mostly south to farms and cities. After decades of rancor over what was once envisioned as the "peripheral canal," there had been enough studies. There had been enough policy groups. Above all, there had been enough fighting. "I want to get shit done," said Brown.

Central and Southern California water contractors have long supported the plan, and initially some critics saw the governor's announcement as yet another blow to the Delta's fisheries -- already devastated by a combination of pumping, drought and chronic mismanagement. Yet alongside Brown stood an administrator from the National Marine Fisheries Service, which has been fighting tooth-and-nail in federal court to protect the Delta's fish from water exporters. This was no shotgun wedding, William Stelle insisted. His department and its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, support the tunnels. In fact, he argued, properly operated new intakes -- scaled down to the size that his scientists believe are safe -- might actually help Delta smelt, salmon and steelhead.

"The point of departure for evaluating the merits is the current environmental conditions for fish and wildlife," Stelle said, "and they are awful." That's because the pumping stations now exporting water to the Central Valley and the cities of Southern California are located in the South Delta, where their sheer force reverses the water's natural flow to the ocean. According to Stelle, most San Joaquin River juvenile salmon perish near or in the pumps, while the survival rate for Sacramento River migrants can be as low as 40 percent. As Stelle sees it, the ability to turn off South Delta pumps during migration and draw water instead from new pumps roughly 45 miles north would improve life for both the fish and the water exporters.

The carnage caused by the South Delta pumps is better understood now than it was when California voters first rejected the proposed peripheral canal in 1982. At the time, Brown was a second-term governor. "I hadn't heard the word 'smelt' before," he said. Then as now, diverting fresh water before it could reach the brackish estuary was unpopular. Delta farmers worried that it would leave them salt water for irrigation, while fishermen saw the canal as an attempt to steal the entire flow of the Delta's most fecund tributary, the Sacramento River. And environmentalists believed that concentrated Delta pollutants would harm the estuary's natural outlet, the San Francisco Bay.

In contrast, the peripheral canal's proponents appeared greedy, unconvincing, irresolute or impotent. Central Valley cotton king J.G. Boswell wanted more water unencumbered by fish protections. The support of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which served the suburbs steadily radiating out of Los Angeles, struck Northern Californians as simply a plea for more water for swimming pools. The case made by the California Department of Fish and Game, which used many of the same arguments that Stelle does now, never gained traction. The South Delta pumps had slowly been coming online from the 1950s through the 1980s, and the fish toll had yet to register.

Then, in 1986, licensing of four new South Delta pumps increased capacity from 11,000 cubic feet per second to nearly 15,000. Almost simultaneously, drought hit California, where, due to serried ranges, almost half the state's stream flow ends up in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta system. As fish numbers tanked, and species such as the Delta smelt and chinook salmon became increasingly endangered, it dawned on horrified water managers that the Delta fisheries' continued collapse could shut off water to 3 million irrigated acres and cities from the Bay Area to San Diego.

Governor after governor called in policy wonks. Pete Wilson's "Delta Oversight Council" morphed into the federal and state "CALFED" program under Gray Davis and the Clinton administration. Then Schwarzenegger began the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, a caveat-rich operating manual for the state water hub that is still in environmental review. This was accompanied by a multi-year study called "Delta Vision." By the time Jerry Brown returned to office in 2011, Delta Vision had transmogrified into the "Delta Stewardship Council," charged with the policy side of getting rival factions to agree on "co-equal" goals. Throughout it all, report after report, the peripheral canal kept coming up.

By 2008, fish stocks had plummeted so badly that salmon fleets were dry-docked and water exports from the Delta fell by almost 2 million acre-feet; Fresno County farmworkers formed breadlines, and Central Valley water districts sued federal fish and wildlife agencies. Ample rain in 2011 offered some respite, but 2012 brought another dry year, by which point Brown declared a hopeless case of "analysis paralysis." Exasperation was such that every federal and state agency involved in Delta oversight stood with him as he revived the peripheral canal plan, this time offering lower pumping capacity than before (reduced from 15,000 to 9,000) and no guarantees of new water for anyone.

Many Delta communities are still worried about rising salinity if a freshwater tributary is tapped before it reaches the estuary. And whether Brown has converted environmentalists or merely disarmed them remains unclear. The Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council all want more details about who will man any new pumps, as well as how much water will be taken, when and from where. Environmentalists also wonder whether other existing commitments to habitat restoration and increased water conservation will be kept. But, this time, they better understand the cost of inaction. "The NRDC is still at the table trying to make the Bay Delta Conservation Plan work," said Kate Poole, the council's senior attorney. "We wouldn't be there if we didn't think it could."

This story was made possible with support from the Kenney Brothers.

Kevin Wattier
Kevin Wattier
Aug 20, 2012 09:25 AM
Emily: Very nicely done!
Mike Wade
Mike Wade Subscriber
Aug 20, 2012 01:31 PM
This well-written piece accurately portrays the problems and solutions facing California's beleaguered Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. History has proven that current operations in the Delta have failed to provide water to family farmers and 25 million Californians while at the same time protecting the region's ecosystem. Doing nothing to improve this situation means more of the same. The Governor's proposal to construct two tunnels and shift the water intakes to the north Delta offers several benefits---the new intakes would be equipped with modern screens to prevent threatened and endangered fish from entering the system and separate water designated for farms and people from the water flowing through the Delta. The result would be a reliable water supply for those who depend on it and an improved Delta ecosystem. The Governor's proposal demonstrates the leadership that is needed to secure California's water future. The continued involvement of public water agencies, State and federal regulators and environmentalists is an indication that a positive outcome for both water users and the environment is still likely.

Mike Wade
California Farm Water Coalition
Bill Whiteside
Bill Whiteside
Aug 20, 2012 02:11 PM
If you care to think outside the box, search "primary water" and/or "Pal Pauer." Water is NOT a finite mineral. The earth makes it. This method is not widely accepted because of the problems it would create with our scarcity mentality.
Emily Green
Emily Green
Aug 21, 2012 03:43 PM
John Bass of the Delta National Park blog has written a considered response to this piece, URL: http://www.deltanationalpark.org/blog/view/scope/
I understand that someone less troubled by thought declared that, based on this article, the HCN was a "quasi-environmental" magazine. I have no idea what that means -- it depends on whether you regard environmentalism as a good thing or bad. Quasi's never good. So, a personal note: Arguments over the Delta make a perfect circular firing squad. So anyone who enters will be hit. For those of you who think that I have gone over to the dark side in failing to toe the line that the tunnels are bad, please be assured that this was a straight-up reported piece. When reps from NOAA/NMFS speak on what's involved to save the Delta fisheries, I listen. When farmers speak, I listen. When any stake holder speaks, I listen. There are many issues here and not all could be contained in one piece. I gave as much context outside the striking NMFS position as space allowed while striving to remain clear. To all who read, commented and thought about it, my thanks. Over at his blog, John Bass sets an excellent example of thoughtful criticism.
Dan Odenweller
Dan Odenweller
Aug 22, 2012 05:11 AM
Nicely done article, in my view the key lies in the quote from William Stelle - "In fact, he argued, properly operated new intakes -- scaled down to the size that his scientists believe are safe -- might actually help Delta smelt, salmon and steelhead."

Unfortunately, the projects have failed to act responsibly in this area, so now how do we assure the Delta that project will be properly operated.
Bill Jennings
Bill Jennings
Aug 23, 2012 12:29 AM
As someone who has labored in the water rights and water quality trenches for more than three decades, I have a somewhat different perspective than Mr. Stelle. I remember Judge Wanger tossing NMFS's Biological Opinion on Salmon because the salmon "Jeopardy" decision was changed to "No Jeopardy" for political reasons. I've watched as virtually every standard in D-1641 has been violated with impunity, including the Vernalis flow, South Delta Salinity, Import/Export Ratio and X2 standards. I've witnessed the Water Operations Management Team routinely ignore the recommendations of the technical teams. The State Contractors refused to pay for the new state of the art fish screens mandated by the Four-Pumps Agreement and later the CalFed ROD, and the resource agencies did nothing. Then there was the secret Monterey Agreement where DWR and the State Contractors eliminated the "urban preference" and requirements to balance water contracts with available supplies and the secret Napa Agreement where the agencies and contractors agreed to increase exports under the OCAP, which led to the POD collapse (pelagic fisheries). Then we had to sue the Department of Water Resources to compel them to apply for a "take" permit pursuant to the California ESA. Through all of the water rights proceedings by the State Water Board and the chain of biological opinions by NMFS, USFWS and DFG; the common thread has been increasing exports and collapsing fisheries. The Delta's biological tapestry is hemorrhaging because its been deprived of more than half its flow, its hydrograph turned upside down and its water used as a sewer to dispose of wastes. It cannot be fixed by depriving it of even more flow. No estuary in the world has withstood such abuse. And this last insult: when the consensus reviews by National Research Council, Independent Science Board, NGO's and the Red Flag analyses of NMFS, USFWS and DFG all concluded that the Constraints Analysis of the peripheral tunnel project was based upon junk science, the state and federal administrations declared that we'll build it now and figure out later how to operate it and what assurances need to be included. Trust us they say! There are some 20 studies that need to be conducted before we even know if the proposed fish screens on the Sacramento River are even feasible. In as much as Mr. Stelle's agency has chaperoned the Delta's decline, perhaps one should listen to him with a little skepticism.
Bill Jennings, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance
M/M Warren Anderson
M/M Warren Anderson Subscriber
Sep 14, 2012 09:10 AM
According to the Census Bureau, the population of the USA will triple during the 21st century with 150 million new Americans arriving by mid-century. If history is a guide, half of them will settle in California. California is out of water and fighting over the last drop won't solve the real problem - overpopulation. What are these 75 million new Californians going to drink? It won't be water.
Kris & Jim Dixon
Kris & Jim Dixon
Jun 02, 2013 06:36 PM
As a homeowner in the Sacramento Delta for over 40 years, I remember the "Peripheral Canal", now just the string of old "borrow pits" for I-5 that are full of water being used for water-skiing and conservation efforts for migratory and local birds.

I applaud Gov. Jerry Brown for getting something done finally. There are many issues, of course. For me, the overriding issue is the rising ocean level. In the next 100 years I believe that most of the Delta will be under water... as it was every spring until levees were built in the 1800's.

Our house is upriver about 60 or 70 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge. The street in front of our house is only 2 feet above sea level NOW. The middle of the island the house is on is 6 feet BELOW sea level NOW. The farmers are already planting salt resistant crops. The salt water intrusion is far inland already on a high tide.

IT MAKES GOOD SENSE TO ME TO CAPTURE FRESH, NON-SALT WATER HIGH UP ON THE SACRAMENTO RIVER. Of course that water will be transported to the lagoon at the Tracy Pumping station for moving it into the Delta-Mendota Canal to go to the central valley farming and southern California. It has been doing that for years anyway, just a greater capacity with this plan. But being able to tunnel that FRESH good mountain water also means that it is always possible that the tunnel could be tapped at a future date to provide necessary fresh water for the Delta...not that that would be an easy political thing to do... but possible.

Interestingly, back in 1906, a plan was hatched to dam the Delta water at Carquinas Straight. That would have kept the Delta as all fresh water. By 1928, the engineer who had surveyed for the Hoover Dam had surveyed the Carquinas location and the state and federal governments had financed the plan. It died shortly after that during the stock market collapse and also I understand because the representative of the Carquinas area fought to stop the project.

It is still not something out of the question because of our better understanding and our ability to build locks for shipping traffic and control water flow and the type of water being moved. In fact, a dam and lock could be at the Carquinas location with only fresh water above it, and a second dam and lock could be across at the Richmond Bridge area to isolate San Pablo Bay as a brackish reservoir, with salt water controlled into San Pablo Bay from San Francisco Bay and the ocean. A brackish area is a necessary for many species of course. And fish ladders, etc. would all have to be a part of the plan.

I will just reiterate that mother nature, helped along with our carbon spewing lifestyles, will nevertheless make the final decision about the water and water levels in the Delta. We had better be thinking what we as a people in California will be having to contend with in 2113 and plan accordingly. The BIG picture is the overriding one.