Capitol Journal: Everyone is at odds over Gov. Brown’s delta tunnels plan — here’s a compromise that could stop the fighting

Delta waterway
A waterway that connects to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta runs along Route 4, just outside Stockton.
(Los Angeles Times)

When enemies are in face-to-face combat, they’re often blind to an obvious path to potential compromise.

That’s certainly true of water warriors, who have been battling over California’s most valuable and limited resource since statehood. Fights don’t get any more ferocious than over water in this state.

Agriculture just won a major battle over environmentalists in Congress because of an alliance between House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

But still raging in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is a decades-long struggle that will affect 25 million Californians and 3 million acres of farmland.


Gov. Jerry Brown, San Joaquin Valley farmers and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California are trying to burrow two 40-foot-wide, 35-mile tunnels through the heart of this bucolic estuary.

They want to siphon fresh water from the Sacramento River before it flows into the delta and pour it into southbound aqueducts on the other end.

The tunnels are needed, the projects’ promoters say, to fix the current north-to-south water delivery system.

Pumping at the south end of the delta is unreliable because it kills baby salmon and other endangered fish, so federal judges often tighten the spigot on water releases.


Plus, there’s the danger of delta levees collapsing in an earthquake, although this has never happened in recorded history. Global warming also could raise seas, advocates argue, and send more saltwater into the estuary. Therefore, the water should be captured at the delta’s north end while it’s still fresh.

Naturally, delta farmers, recreationists, local communities and the salmon fishing industry are vehemently opposed to the twin-tunnel monstrosity. They consider it a water grab — similar to Los Angeles’ virtual draining of the Owens Valley in the Eastern Sierra a century ago.

That water raid was fictionally immortalized in the movie “Chinatown,” which should be part of every school kid’s lesson plan.

Delta people and Northern Californians generally don’t trust the governor, San Joaquin Valley irrigators and L.A. when they promise to limit their delta water pilfering.

“‘Just trust us’ doesn’t work,” John McManus, head of the Golden Gate Salmon Assn., wrote in a recent Sacramento Bee op-ed piece. “Our salmon runs [have been] decimated by broken promises.”

“The twin tunnels are big enough to drain the entire Sacramento River dry at most times of the year,” McManus wrote. The project is “too big, too expensive and too damaging, which is why it is hopelessly bogged down.”

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The state pegs the tab at $15.5 billion. But it’s double that when borrowing costs are added. Water users — homeowners, farmers — would pay through their monthly bills.

Fortunately there are think tanks. One of them thought about the tunnels and suggested a solution so simple that all the warriors should be embarrassed. Build just one tunnel, it advised.

The nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California came up with that non-rocket science concept, calling it “a grand compromise.”

“If we fail again to find common ground, the political paralysis that has plagued the delta for decades will continue,” the policy institute’s water experts wrote in another Bee op-ed article.

They noted that eliminating one tunnel would limit the water that could be taken and “greatly reduce” construction costs. The best guess is that costs could be lowered by 30% — to less than $11 billion, plus interest.

It would still “significantly improve the reliability and quality of water supply,” they wrote.

To help delta counties, the institute suggested strengthening vulnerable levees to reduce flood risk. Local residents should also be provided access to the fresher water, the experts said.

“One way to put minds at ease is to downsize the infrastructure,” Ellen Hanak, longtime director of the institute’s Water Policy Center, told me. “It gives people more confidence there can’t be a water grab.”


Why two tunnels and not just one anyway? “Redundancy,” says the state Department of Water Resources. If one tunnel clogged up or needs repair, the other would be available.

But come on! That’s like buying two yachts so one is always available if the other is in dry dock.

At any rate, Hanak notes, the south delta pumps would still be a redundant water mover. And they could be modernized to make them more fish-friendly.

The best argument for two tunnels, however, is that they could gulp twice as much water as one during a very heavy storm.

Of course, neither side is wild about the “grand compromise.” But when I contacted them, nobody said absolutely no way.

“It’s an idea to kick around,” says Roger Patterson, assistant general manager of the Metropolitan Water District. “But my guess is one tunnel wouldn’t perform very well.”

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, who heads an anti-tunnel group called Restore the Delta, told me: “We’re not going to say ‘no’ to everything forever…. But we absolutely will hold their feet to the fire on drinking water quality. The estuary is going to die if you keep taking so much fresh water out of it.”

There are political dynamics to be considered.

Brown will be termed out in two years and his most likely replacements, in interviews with me, have expressed views ranging from skepticism to hostility toward the twin tunnels.

And who knows about President-elect Donald Trump? He might want to drain the whole estuary.

Hanak gets the last word: “We’re suggesting that one tunnel is better than none. The status quo is getting us nowhere fast. That’s the worst alternative.”

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