California water tunnel plan sparks new water wars

Aug 24, 2012

Last month’s announcement that California Governor Jerry Brown continues to push for a canal to send water to Southern California still isn’t flowing well with some residents.

Brown announced his plans to build a twin tunnel system to carry water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to urban users in Southern California and agribusinesses on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley in late July.

Brown’s plan, a $14 billion dollar project, would be willingly paid for by farmers and other water users supporting the project, with state taxpayers funding most of the estimated $3 billion for habitat restoration. The two underground tunnels would carry water 37 miles to the federal and state pumps at Tracy. The tunnels, both 33 feet in diameter, would be the state’s largest water transporters, and would travel under the Delta.

According to Brown, the costs would be spread over 40 years and are a small fraction of the state’s annual economic output.

There it would flow into canals run by the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project, which deliver water to 25 million Californians, including irrigation of 3 million acres of farmland.

The recent plan has been in the works since 2006. Construction would start in 2017 with completion by 2026.

Critics claim the plan is eerily similar to an original plan for a state water project in 1960 that started with Brown’s father, former Governor Pat Brown, and was then followed by another canal proposal in 1980 that was rejected by voters.

In addition to the deja-vu, opponents of the project are concerned over the lack of studies to support the plan.

Solano County Board of Supervisors sent a letter to the California Natural Resource Agency accepting a $100,000 gift to fund a study that would address some of the issues they claim have been ignored.

But Brown says the studies are there and the tunnels are long past due.

“This alternative has been a long time coming and we know a lot more today about the delta than we knew 30 years ago,” Brown said, referring to the failed peripheral canal proposal during his first governorship in 1982. “There have been endless studies and discussions, and the proposal we’ve unveiled (now) is a big idea for a big state.”

California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said the outcome will be crucial to the state’s farmers and ranchers.

“In nearly every corner of California, family farmers and ranchers have a stake in the outcome of delta decisions. So do the people in California, the United States and throughout the world who depend on the food and farm products grown by our farmers,” Wenger said.

“Farmers will continue to use water as efficiently as they can to nourish their crops, replenish their soil and benefit the wildlife that lives on farmland,” he said, noting that since 1967, crop production in California has doubled, while farm water use has risen just 10 percent.

“But water efficiency has its limits,” Wenger said. “To sustain agricultural production to feed our growing population, California must add new surface water storage as a crucial element in resolving our state’s water problems.”

New storage provides additional benefits for urban residents and industries, for flood control, recreation, power generation and in improved flexibility for protecting the environment, he said.

“Farm Bureau policy seeks a water system solution that brings benefits for all California agriculture and that hinges on enhanced water storage and improved water conveyance. We will look carefully at the revised Bay-Delta Conservation Plan and review it with that in mind,” Wenger said.

The executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, Timothy Quinn, called the bay-delta effort “vital” to the state’s environment and economy.

“Though there is still much work to be done, progress is being made. We urge the governor and the secretary to keep the process on track and complete the BDCP in a way that works for the entire state,” Quinn said.

Information about the new proposal is available online at — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor