Buffaloes threaten pristine landscape

Buffaloes threaten pristine landscape
A boater heads for home port as the sun sets on the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta near the town of Rio Vista.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Capitol Journal

SACRAMENTO — The Brown administration and some water buffaloes want to muck up one of the most unique, mysterious and picturesque areas of California. Muck it up literally.

OK, they’re really trying to update California’s vital waterworks and prepare the state for the future.


But their solution would defile a bucolic region whose feel and lifestyle have changed little for more than a century. You just don’t find many such places any more, at least near large metropolitan centers.

We’re talking about the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast of America, north or south. It’s also California’s main water hole, the source of drinking water for 24 million people and irrigation for 3 million acres.


Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing to bore two gigantic 40-foot wide, 30-mile-long tunnels under the delta to carry fresh Sacramento River water into the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. The water would be siphoned by three large intakes downriver from Sacramento and funneled into aqueducts in the southern delta.

It would be an engineering marvel — and also a major disrupter of farming, recreation and wildlife. The tunnel muck — a gazillion truck loads full — would be piled high on islands all over the delta. Some ultimately would be used to shore up levees.

The tunnels are conservatively estimated to cost $16 billion, to be paid for by the water users through higher monthly rates. That includes you, SoCal homeowners.

The big promoters of the project are Brown and the buffaloes — so named because, like the beast, they reputedly can smell water from hundreds of miles away. Essentially, they’re the heads of the major irrigation districts and water agencies south of the delta.


The total tab for the project is pegged at $25 billion. The non-tunnel costs would be paid for by all taxpayers through a bond issue. This would fund mitigation for damage caused by the tunnels and restoration of the delta and its fishery harmed by the old waterworks.

So why shouldn’t the water users who messed up the delta in the first place pay for its repair? They should. But that’s for another column.

The worst culprits in the current system are giant pumps in the southern delta that chomp up fish — including the tiny, endangered smelt — and reverse river flows that fatally confuse migrating salmon. That has resulted in courts tightening the spigot and reducing water transfers south, angering San Joaquin farmers and frightening buffaloes.

The tunnel project is designed to make delta water deliveries more reliable — and to replace a Peripheral Canal scheme that voters rejected 31 years ago.


But the tunnels would be built right through the heart of the delta’s most pristine area, a region of meandering rivers and sloughs, cottonwoods and oaks, vines and reeds, salmon and bass, great blue herons and bullfrogs. It’s a Huck Finn paradise frequented by boaters piloting everything from fishing skiffs to luxurious houseboats.

Yes, I’m biased. This place is one of California’s best-kept secrets. I’ll bet it’s a secret from Brown — or would like to think that anyway.

One popular, isolated area is called the Meadows. “On-water access to the marina at Delta Meadows State Park would not be affected,” the tunnel planners assure us in a description of the project.

But there is no marina at the Meadows. It’s not even a developed park, raising questions about the credibility of other assurances and information provided by state officials.

The tunnel alignment recently was shifted east to avoid tearing up hundreds of acres of valuable pear orchards that date to the 1850s. “That [tunnel] line keeps flapping around like a garden hose,” one official told me, insisting on anonymity to avoid being fired.

But a big red flag for many environmentalists is that the tunnels would be dug smack down the middle of Staten Island, a winter sanctuary for migratory birds. They include thousands of threatened sandhill cranes, thought to be the oldest bird species. They’d have to share the island with two humongous muck mounds, two construction shafts and some ear-splitting pile drivers.

Twelve years ago, the Nature Conservancy bought the island with $30 million in voter-approved state bond money to protect the cranes. You’d think someone would sue on behalf of the cranes.

One rationale for this super-expensive, land-scarring project is that it’s needed to guard against a catastrophic earthquake. A severe quake, it’s said, could collapse delta levies, sucking in salt water and shutting down fresh water deliveries for several months. A tunnel system would bypass the levees.

I’ve bought into that argument previously. And so have voters, based on polls.

“It’s just propaganda,” says Bob Pyke, a Bay Area consulting engineer who specializes in earthquake protection. “The delta is fairly quiet seismically.” The 1906 San Francisco earthquake on the San Andreas Fault didn’t topple any delta levees “and they were really crappy then,” he says, adding that they’re much sturdier today.

“I call it the earthquake boogie man,” Pyke says. “It’s deliberately overblown because it’s something that sells well to the public.”

We’re looking at chasing farmers off their lands, driving people out of their homes, hacking down wilderness and screwing up recreational boating with construction barges.

Maybe that’s all inevitable in the name of progress. But we need more serious thought — a lot more — given to conservation, recycling, groundwater cleanup and desalination.

Brown hungers to complete the historic water project begun by his late father, Gov. Pat Brown. But a half century later, he should be more innovative — and preservationist. That would be a richer legacy.

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