Column: Southpaw Newsom is shelled by lawmakers on plans for a delta tunnel

A sign on a lawn says "Save the delta, stop the tunnels"
A sign opposing a proposed tunnel plan to ship water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to Southern California is displayed near Freeport in 2017.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently said that he didn’t understand why sports stadiums could be built quickly but other major projects couldn’t. If he really didn’t know, he probably just learned.

Sports are popular. Not so with all public works projects. Some are hated.

The Democratic-dominated Legislature gave the Democratic governor a lesson in real-world politics and policymaking: Don’t try to punch above your weight.

The legislative branch, when unified, is equal to the executive branch in power.

Newsom tried to ram through the Legislature his last-minute proposal to expedite construction of a highly controversial water tunnel in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.


Environmental groups and delta folks, including local farmers, are strongly opposed to the $16-billion, 45-mile-long project that would siphon Sacramento River water into southbound aqueducts for irrigation and cities, including Los Angeles.

Lawmakers stood up to Newsom and adamantly refused to consider his tunnel speedup plan, forcing him to back down and withdraw the proposal. It was a humiliating setback for the California governor.

The delta plan was part of an 11-bill legislative package that Newsom belatedly unveiled May 19, thrusting it into budget deliberations. It had no real ties to the budget, but the governor’s move allowed his package to avoid the scrutiny of legislative policy committees. His goal was to cut red tape and make it easier to build transportation, clean energy and water projects.

Past Legislatures and governors — Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger — have provided regulatory shortcuts to ease construction of football stadiums and basketball arenas. The stadiums didn’t get built for various reasons, but at least two fancy basketball arenas did — for the Sacramento Kings and the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco.

“I love sports,” said Newsom, a former college baseball pitcher for the Santa Clara University Broncos. “But I also love roads. I love transit. I love bridges. And I love clean energy projects like the one we’re seeing here.”

Newsom was unveiling his infrastructure speedup package at a future solar energy farm near Modesto in May. He also had in mind building wind, battery storage and semiconductor plants. Add to the list regional rail, bridges and water storage facilities — plus the delta tunnel.


“It’s not just about stadiums,” Newsom continued. “And we’ve proven we can get it done for stadiums.

“So why the hell can’t we translate that to all these other projects?”

It’s a fair question. I’ve asked it myself in past columns.

One answer is that stadiums and arenas are built by powerful billionaires who can toss around tons of political weight. They can help politicians run for reelection. If nothing else, they can be called on for playoff tickets.

But the more important answer is that professional football and basketball are extremely popular with voters. It’s bipartisan. There’s only fringe opposition to helping team owners build local playing facilities.

Contrast that with the proposed tunnel, a 39-foot-wide pipe that would funnel fresh Sacramento River water from the north delta into aqueducts in the more saline south delta. The delta is California’s main water hub, serving 27 million people and irrigating 3 million acres.

The tunnel would run under the delta, robbing farmers and small communities of fresh water that now flows through the West Coast’s largest estuary. And it would reduce fresh water for struggling baby salmon, already a threatened species.

Newsom and state water officials counter that the tunnel would save the delta as a prime California plumbing facility. It would ensure reliability of water deliveries to San Joaquin Valley farms and coastal cities. Otherwise, the prognosis for the delta is bleak because of sea level rise caused by climate change and potential earthquakes that could flatten levees.


But tunnel opponents argue the sea level rise is another reason for maintaining fresh water flows to repel the salt water from San Francisco Bay. And they point out that no quake has ever seriously harmed a delta levee. In fact, there is no major fault under the delta.

Bottom line: Delta people don’t trust state water officials to operate the tunnel in a way that would protect them and the estuary. They fear being drained, as the Owens Valley was by the Los Angeles Aqueduct a century ago.

Governors have been trying to build this project, in one form or another, for six decades. They’ve been beaten by either voters or a coalition of delta people and environmentalists.

This time, Newsom tried to play hardball. He threatened to veto the Legislature’s pet budget projects unless they approved his proposal to speed up construction on the tunnel and other infrastructure projects.

Key to his plan is a questionable goal of reducing the time for wrapping up lawsuits under the California Environmental Quality Act. He wants a 270-day time limit if a judge deems it feasible. That seems impractical.

Legislative leaders told the governor last week that the delta legislation was a nonstarter. He pushed them anyway, but finally gave up Monday.


The rest of the infrastructure speedup package was left for further negotiation.

Newsom may yet wind up with some wins. But on the delta, the old lefty hurler was hammered and should have never taken the mound.