Jessica Brandi Lifland / Polaris

California water wars heat up over $15B tunnel plan

Opponents rally against the cost of WaterFix plan and disruption to farms in the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta

LOS ANGELES — Water wars are part of California’s history, but amid the state’s current epic drought, the fights over the precious resource are intensifying.

The latest flashpoint is California WaterFix, a proposed more than $15 billion project to build two 30-mile-long tunnels up to 150 feet belowground to divert water from the northern edge of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which now supplies water to 25 million residents and 3 million acres of farmland.

The state says the tunnels would protect against disruption when aging levees fail because of rising sea levels and earthquakes.

Levee failures have caused the flooding of delta islands 158 times since 1900.

The debate pits farmers, politicians and some environmentalists against the state and is heating up as the public comment period nears its close at the end of October.

Opponents say that farmers will shoulder the high cost of the project, which will not increase their water supplies. Plus, they charge it would devastate the already fragile delta ecosystem.

“In a time of severe drought, we need to conserve water and augment our water supply throughout the entire state,” congressional opponents, led by  Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-California, wrote in a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown late last month.

Central Valley farmers “will pay a steep increase in costs without a real return in water,” the letter said. And they fear that delta farms and communities will no longer be guaranteed help when levees fail.

“Red flags have been raised across the board on the governor’s tunnels plan that does nothing to fix the state’s existing water supply managements and severe drought problems,” McNerney said Monday at a an opposition rally in Stockton, in the heart of the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta. “The only thing clear is that the tunnels are a repackaging of old ideas that waste billions of dollars and threaten the way of life for an entire region without creating a single new drop of water.”

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, the executive director of Restore the Delta, a grass-roots organization, said that 14 years of tunnel construction “will decimate the delta’s $5.2 billion annual agricultural economy and destroy family farms dating back to the 1850s.”

Opponents call for redirecting funds toward existing conservation and recycling programs and more water storage facilities. California officials say the criticism is unfounded.

“You might ask critics how they can complain that the proposed project would both take too much water from the delta and not enough to be worth the investment,’’ said Nancy Vogel, the deputy secretary of communications for the California Natural Resources Agency.

She said that the state’s intent is not so much to increase the water supply but to modernize a system that has put a strain on the quality of the water and the ecosystem.

The drought, now in its fourth year, has exposed weaknesses in a system that now requires physically removing fish in metal buckets and transporting them in tanker trucks downstream to be released so they’re not drawn into the water system’s pumps.

“The south delta channels also are affected by the reverse flows created when the pumps are turned on,” Vogel said.

WaterFix would build three intakes on the Sacramento River about 35 miles north of existing pumping plants. Because the new intakes would not be on dead-end channels, “the steady flow of the Sacramento River would allow us to install effective fish screens,’ she said.

When river flows are high, water could be diverted without harming threatened and endangered fish, such as delta smelt and Chinook salmon, she said.

“I and my colleagues and every independent scientific effort to look at the future of the delta have come to the conclusion that the status quo is not sustainable in the future,” said Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center. “We’ve kind of hit the wall.”

Climate change and rising sea levels, coupled with more groundwater pumping, have affected the quality and supply of the water, he said. “We may well be seeing a shift in our climate here in California,” he said. “We call this drought a dry run for a dry future. It has exposed weaknesses … This drought has given us a window of what the future might look like.”

California taxpayers would not pay for WaterFix. The project would be funded by water districts, which have already invested more than $200 million in the last eight years on the proposal. That cost is bound to be reflected in water bills, a concern of critics.

There is now a push for a ballot initiative that would put the project up to a vote in 2016.

Even if WaterFix gets the green light, Mount predicted protracted legal challenges that will raise costs even more. The state is moving ahead with permit applications.

He said the project would correct a historical mistake that state and federal agencies made when they decided to take water from the southern edge of the delta, an area that has the worst water quality because of high salt levels. Under WaterFix, the amount of water diverted could go up or down 5 to 10 percent a year, on average, depending on how endangered species fare.

”I understand and appreciate the fear people have that more water will be taken,” he said. “The alternative then is that you need honest conversation about what are the alternatives … Once you’ve stopped this, then what?”

The only alternative on the table — to significantly reduce water exports from the delta — would be painful to farmers and all the communities that rely on that water source, he said.

Even if the state could replace the 5 million acre-feet of water exported from the delta each year, the cost would be exorbitant, Vogel said. “To replace even 1 million acre-feet would require 18 desalination plants of the size now under construction in Carlsbad at a cost of $1 billion,” she said. The plant in San Diego County will produce about 56,000 acre-feet of water a year.

Or it would take 111 water recycling plants of the size recently completed in San Jose for $72 million.

Tom Zuckerman, a third-generation delta farmer also at Monday’s press conference, disagreed. “The current drought reveals the stupidity of blowing $15 [billion] to $50 billion on tunnels which don’t increase the water supply instead of conservation, groundwater storage in wet years and recycling projects leading to regional self-sufficiency at a far cheaper cost,” he said.

“There’s political exhaustion over the delta,” Mount said. “It might be time to cut a deal.”

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