A group of conservation organizations and Bay Area water agencies is proposing a vastly scaled-down version of a new export system for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, arguing that it would cost less and be more reliable than a plan supported by Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration.
The groups are asking state and federal agencies to include their proposal in the ongoing environmental review of an ambitious plan to revamp the way Northern California water is shipped through the delta to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.
Federal and state officials have not made a final decision on the plan. But they favor a proposal to build three large intake facilities on the Sacramento River near Hood that could divert 9,000 cubic feet of water a second into two side-by-side underground tunnels, 35 miles long, that would feed into existing government pumps in the south delta. Currently, supplies are drawn entirely through the delta to the pumps, a system that has caused considerable environmental harm.
Tens of thousands of acres of delta habitat would also be restored to promote the recovery of endangered fish species. Altogether the project would cost an estimated $18 billion.
In letters to U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird, the groups urge the agencies to evaluate another alternative: a single intake and tunnel that could carry 3,000 cubic feet per second, coupled with an array of other programs to increase water supplies south of the delta. They include conservation, recycling and the development of new water storage. The package, which backers said would cost $14 billion to $16 billion, also calls for improvements to delta levees and 40,000 acres of delta habitat restoration.
None of the ideas are new. But proponents suggest that if they are evaluated as a formal package, they will give water agencies a clearer view of the most economic alternative. “All we’ve done is to compare the incremental benefits of a larger facility with a larger investment in local resources like recycling efficiency,” said Barry Nelson of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Other groups promoting the alternative are the Bay Institute, Defenders of Wildlife, the Planning and Conservation League, the Contra Costa Council, and Environmental Entrepreneurs.
In a separate letter, several water agencies said a smaller conveyance system would “face fewer legal and political challenges, and potentially be completed sooner.”
Conservation groups worry that a large tunnel network could be used to export more water from the delta, further harming the delta ecosystem. And Bay Area water districts supplied by the delta or its upstream tributaries are concerned that taking large volumes of water from the Sacramento River as it empties into the delta will hurt the quality of their deliveries or force them to reduce their diversions to maintain delta flows.
The San Diego County Water Authority, Otay Water District and the mayor of San Diego joined four Bay Area districts in requesting review of the alternative package. The county authority, which as a buyer of imported water from the delta would have to help pay for the project, has criticized the larger tunnel proposal as potentially too costly.