Restore the Delta

Opposing Governor Jerry Brown’s tunnels to protect California’s largest estuary

Words by Leonie Sherman
Photos courtesy of Restore the Delta

When Governor Jerry Brown announced his support of Water Fix, the plan to build two 30-mile long tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the non-profit group Restore the Delta (RTD) was waiting with hundreds of protestors. Its presence was so intimidating that Governor Brown retreated to the top floor of the building to make his announcement and refused to answer questions from the press or meet with the gathered residents. While its presence that day had a large impact, RTD’s effectiveness extends far beyond the plaza in front of the Natural Resources Building in Sacramento.

RTD originally formed in 2006, with the intention of advocating for water quality and quantity. Just months later, then Governor Schwarzenegger laid out plans for the Bay Delta Conservation Project, the predecessor to Governor Brown’s tunnels, and the organization’s focus shifted. From movie theaters to council chambers, courtrooms to board rooms, RTD’s members have lobbied, educated and advocated incessantly against the tunnels project. They seem to be winning.

“The tunnel project will decimate the shreds of intact ecosystem we have left in the delta,” explains RTD Executive Director Barbara Barrigan-Parilla. But the motivation behind her tireless work is also personal. “I live in Stockton,” she continues. “If this project goes through, it’s our drinking water supply that will be impacted, our economy that will be harmed, and our environment that will be decimated. Nobody wants to live in those conditions.”

Thanks to the hard work of RTD’s five person staff, hundreds of volunteers and 50,000 members, nobody may need to live with those conditions. Funding has collapsed in recent months and, if passed, House Bill 1713 will require the approval of California voters, who overwhelmingly rejected a similar plan called the Peripheral Canal proposed by Governor Pat Brown, Jerry’s father, 35 years ago.

The current Governor Brown’s Water Fix project would involve the construction of twin tunnels 150 feet below ground, 40 feet in diameter and 30 miles long. These tunnels would divert up to 67,000 gallons of water per second to the pumps at Tracy and distribute that water, via the California aqueduct, to districts from Santa Clara to San Diego. It’s larger than the English Channel Tunnel or Boston’s Big Dig — both of which ran significantly over their proposed budgets. Nothing on this scale or in these conditions has ever been built before. In addition to the political challenges, burying enormous tunnels 150 feet deep in the mud of the delta poses a colossal engineering challenge.

The tunnels are meant to address the aging water system infrastructure in California. Farmers and urban users would foot the $17 billion bill for its construction through bonds created by Water Districts — which neatly circumvents the democratic process that defeated the Peripheral Canal. Unless HB 1713 is approved, this project — which will affect millions of people and impact a diverse and unique delta — could proceed without voter input.

The four districts that are meant to fund the project represent the users who stand to benefit from its construction. Metro Water District is a cooperative that provides water to 19 million residents of Southern California. They’ve pledged $4.6 billion to the project. Kern Water district pledged only half of the $2 billion they were asked to come up with. When Westlands, the largest agricultural water district in the country, realized they would be paying into a project that didn’t guarantee them more water, they voted 7-1 against contributing anything. The Santa Clara Water District followed suit, leaving the tunnels almost $11 billion short.

“They’re going to have to turn to the state or the voters to make up that shortcoming,” explains Barrigan-Parilla. “Or they might look for a federal subsidy. But given all the floods and and earthquakes and fires, it’s hard to imagine a conservative ongress coughing up $11 billion dollars for Jerry Brown’s water tunnels.”

Still, the fight to defeat the tunnels and restore the delta ecosystem is not over yet. RTD suspects the Brown administration will return with a proposal for a single tunnel. This would be cheaper, but still leave the project underfunded. Construction of a single tunnel would inflict similar environmental damages and the price of the delivered water would rise.

The delta covers an area the size of Rhode Island and is home to half a million people. The watershed it drains, which includes the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers as well as the San Francisco Bay, covers over 75,000 square miles, a little bit smaller than South Dakota. It encompasses the largest estuary on the west coasts of North and South America and is bounded by the Cascade Range in the north, the Tehachapi Mountains to the south, the Sierra Nevada to the east and the Coast Range to the west. Nearly half of all water that falls as rain or snow in the state lands within this watershed, which provides irrigation for over 7,000 square miles of agriculture. 25 million Californians rely on it as their primary source of drinking water.

Ten thousand years ago during the most recent Ice Age, the delta and the bay were river valleys and sea level was 300 feet lower. As the climate warmed and sea level rose, strong tides pushed against the river mouths, slowing their flow to the ocean and forcing them to drop massive loads of sediment. Perhaps 20,000 Maidu and Miwok people inhabited the eastern edge of the delta and relied on the abundant reeds and wildlife for their sustenance. Though Europeans first arrived in the delta in 1722, they didn’t realize the agricultural potential until the Gold Rush.

For a century this was California’s richest farming region; as its productivity grew, its biodiversity shrank. Several endangered species of fish live here, two thirds of the state’s salmon pass through these waters, and half the migratory birds who use the Pacific Flyway rely on the shrinking wetlands for food and shelter on their journeys. Both tunnel advocates and opponents agree that the ecosystem is broken and in need of attention; RTD wants to see restoration take priority over construction.

Just as everyone agrees the delta is a damaged ecosystem, nobody is disputing that California needs to plan for water security in an uncertain future. With an increasing population and cataclysmic climate change, many doubt whether investment in huge infrastructure is a wise use of taxpayer money.

“There are lots of solutions that address our water problems but won’t have such negative environmental impacts,” says Barrigan-Parilla. “We could install big storm water capture systems in urban areas or move all farming to drip irrigation. We can restore Sierra wetlands, do groundwater clean up and bank recycled water.” She sighs as she contemplates the work ahead of her. “This is such a waste of government time, money and talent. If we were devoting our energy to figuring out creative water solutions the whole state would be better off.”

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