Gov. Brown slashes Sacramento Delta environmental protection

California tunnel plan also introduces water uncertainties for farms and cities.


Last Thursday, California’s governor, Jerry Brown, announced that a plan to transport northern California water south via twin tunnels would be accompanied by just a third of the originally planned habitat protection.

In doing so, he reignited a debate over how to allocate the water of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which harbors one of the largest swaths of California’s remaining wetland habitat and is home to native fish including steelhead, green sturgeon, striped bass and the federally-endangered Delta smelt. The Delta also supports a $500 million agricultural industry and supplies drinking water for two-thirds of the state. The Delta acts as a bridge from California’s wetter north to its parched and populated southern half, with pumps moving as much as 7.5 million acre feet a year (less in drought years, like this one). The conflict over who gets how much water, which has been simplistically characterized as “farms versus fish,” pitted Central Valley farmers and southern cities against Delta farmers, cities and environmentalists.

The plan for the two Delta tunnels, which was first put forward almost nine years ago, originally included $8 billion dollars of state and federal funds for 100,000 acres of fish and wildlife habitat restoration and protection. The money and work was supposed to spread over five decades, alongside a guarantee of 50 years of water supply for southern California residents.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta, viewed from above.
But the state was unable to secure the half-century-long permits, since the project lacked required federal climate planning and species protections. Last month, Gov. Brown announced the state would instead pursue environmental permits lasting 10 years or less, which could become more restrictive as environmental conditions in the Delta change. That means there will be no long-term guarantee that water will continue to flow through the tunnels, which are projected to cost $15 billion.

As a result, the environmental plans have been scaled back and on a shorter timeline as well. The 100,000 acres of promised protection were part of a package involving the 50-year permits, which would have protected downstream consumers from cuts for environmental reasons. Now, Brown’s new plan includes just 30,000 acres of habitat to be restored or protected over five years, to the tune of $300 million from state sources. State officials said the reduced plan was more realistic and could be completed using already-secured funds.

The cuts to Delta protections come amidst increased efforts on the part of Brown to stabilize the state’s water situation, including severe water conservation restrictions and emergency cuts to river pumping.

His efforts have drawn ire for placing the heaviest burdens on urban residents, who use just 10 percent of the state’s supply, rather than water-intensive Central Valley agricultural users. On Tuesday, the State Water Resources Control Board approved a plan that would cut California cities’ water use by a quarter while farms have not been ordered to engage in water conservation. (For what it’s worth, they may be forced to cut water use, anyway. Central Valley farmers received just a fraction of their normal water allotment and wells have begun to run dry.)

Meanwhile, the drought has also wreaked havoc on California’s ecosystems. According to a U.S. Forest Service aerial survey, 12 million trees in the state have died recently thanks to extreme dryness. The water deficits have worsened the status of the already-imperiled Delta smelt. An April survey by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife found just a single Delta smelt, compared with over 130 caught three years ago at the beginning of the drought.

The number of Delta smelt found during April trawls. Data from California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
In light of the smelt’s decline and the overall degradation of the Delta, Brown’s reduced plans for restoration have drawn particular outcry from the environmental community.

“They made it clear that they have abandoned restoration of the estuary and abandoned protecting the watershed,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta. “They're just going to leave us with piles of tunnel muck. ”

She said her organization would continue to put pressure on Gov. Brown to change course, through public organizing. She and other advocacy organizations have said they are prepared to go to court over the plan, if it moves forward.

Kate Schimel is an editorial intern at High Country News. Follow her

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