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.

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