Capitol Journal: When it comes to the California delta, none of Gov. Jerry Brown’s potential successors have tunnel vision

The Middle River in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Jerry Brown scored big last week in his tenacious effort to build monstrous twin water tunnels in the California delta. But his legacy project could still collapse. No potential successor supports it.

Brown will be termed out in January. Nothing’s going to be built before then, and the needed permits probably won’t even be awarded. The next governor could pull the plug. And all the wannabes are talking like they just might. At the least they’d hit the pause button.

One tunnel might be OK, says the Democratic front-runner, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, but two are too many.


“There is room for cooperation and compromise around a single tunnel,” Newsom emailed me last week after the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California committed nearly $11 billion to largely finance Brown’s $17-billion twin-tunnels project.

“The status quo is unacceptable,” Newsom continued, referring to the delta’s quirky, unreliable plumbing. “The issue of responsible [water] conveyance — one that protects and advances the health of the delta — has to be a priority of the next governor.

“But that can’t be our only approach. I strongly believe California must work to reduce our dependence on the delta by focusing on regional solutions, investing in critical water infrastructure like recycling and ground water replacement, and conservation.”

That’s also the position of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. He wants to rely less on the delta and by 2035 obtain half the city’s supply from local storm-water runoff and wastewater recycling.

A former L.A. mayor, gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, also isn’t persuaded that the twin tunnels make sense.

Villaraigosa thinks “before we divide this state around the proposal for new twin tunnels, let’s understand all of our options,” says campaign spokesman Luis Vizcaino.


“Have we done enough to conserve? Are we using the latest technologies to refresh our underground aquifers? Are we moving forward with all appropriate speed in building new storage to capture water during rainy years? Are we capturing and cleaning urban runoff? Are cities recycling water as much and as well as they can? We need to adequately answer those questions first.”

Short answer: No.

And the state also isn’t moving fast enough toward the inevitability of widespread desalination.

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Newsom and Villaraigosa are the most probable replacements for Brown, based on polls.

Two Republican candidates — businessman John Cox and Assemblyman Travis Allen of Huntington Beach — are solidly opposed to the tunnels. But the odds on either being elected governor are virtually zilch in this deep blue state. They are, however, battling Villaraigosa for second place in the June 5 primary and a runoff spot in November.

Two trailing Democrats — state Treasurer John Chiang and former state schools chief Delaine Eastin — also are leery of the tunnels.

“California’s primary clean water supply is out of date and unreliable because we can’t adequately capture and store water when it’s available,” Chiang emailed me, apparently referring in part to California’s snail pace at dam building.

“Despite new financing by the Metropolitan Water District,” Chiang continued, “we must first ensure that we are doing everything possible to protect our ecosystems, our water supply and our economy. … That’s why I believe it’s important to continue this debate.

“Rushing into a decision without fully addressing all the concerns could be something we regret for the next 100 years. The state, working hand-in-hand with local communities and California voters, can come up with a creative solution.”

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That sounds like Chiang thinks California voters should be given a say on any tunnels project — something they’re being denied under Brown’s plan. Southern California water users also aren’t being offered a vote on whether they want their monthly bills jacked up to pay for the tunnels.

The original state water project went before voters in 1960 and was narrowly approved. It was created by Brown’s father, Gov. Pat Brown.

In Jerry Brown’s first tenure as governor, he talked the Legislature into authorizing construction of a Peripheral Canal to funnel fresh Sacramento River water around the brackish delta and into southbound aqueducts. It was considered the best way to protect salmon, striped bass and tiny smelt from fish-chomping pumps. But voters repealed the legislation in 1982.

Since then, the delta fishery has tanked, partly because of the pumps. Courts have tightened the water valve to protect the critters, provoking howls from San Joaquin Valley farmers and jitters among Southern California water interests.

Brown’s answer is the tunnels — two 35-mile, 40-foot wide pipes down the center of the delta, disrupting orchards, water fowl areas and little towns. Fresh water would be siphoned from the Sacramento River before it enters the delta.

Northern environmentalists detect a southern water grab. The coastal fishing industry fears there’ll be even fewer salmon because of less fresh water flowing through the delta. Local farmers and residents also are fighting the loss of fresh water that would be diverted into the tunnels.

Eighteen lawsuits have been filed. Many more will be.

“Jerry is stubborn about certain things,” says Eastin, who adamantly opposes the tunnels. “He wanted the Peripheral Canal. The tunnels are the Peripheral Canal with a lid on it.”

“The state isn’t doing water planning,” she adds. “We’re just doing expensive things like tunnels — an old idea.”

Water is a critical problem for California. Always has been. But it doesn’t get discussed much on the campaign trail. It’s not sexy absent a severe drought.

Fortunately, Brown’s successor won’t be limited by tunnel vision.

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