Gov. Jerry Brown evoked California's pioneer spirit two weeks ago in advancing a plan to build a pair of gigantic water tunnels that would dramatically alter the plumbing of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
The day before the governor and federal officials made their announcement, I spent some time with a Delta farmer who is descended from Gold Rush pioneers. His name is Doug Hemly, and the governor might want to pay him a visit before launching the most expensive and divisive construction project in the region's history.
Hemly and his family run a successful farm, Greene & Hemly, that grows pears, apples, cherries and kiwis near the town of Hood. His customers include Gerber, the baby food company, which gives you a sense of the dollars involved. Yet Hemly and his family are unsure about the future of their 160-year-old enterprise. Their orchards, packing plant and family home a stately white mansion perched on a Sacramento River levee sit within the zone where the state plans to build a massive intake facility for the tunnels that would ship water to Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley.
"You could look at it two ways," Hemly told me, sitting in a chair overlooking the river. "There's no point in getting worked up because logic will prevail. Or you could get really worked up because you know that logic won't prevail. It looks like the latter."
California loves a good water fight, and when Brown unveiled his plans to build a modern version of the peripheral canal last month, Delta residents and those of us in the media were ready to dust off that familiar narrative. A headline in the San Jose Mercury News read, "Gov. Jerry Brown fires first shot in new water war." U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, took to the steps of the Capitol and issued a warning to the Brown and Obama administrations. "You've launched your war; we'll fight the battle," he said.
No doubt, Brown's ambition to build a water project that voters rejected thirty years ago will unleash new rounds of protest, litigation and possibly a repeat ballot battle. But much has changed since 1982. Southern California has added nearly 10 million people and has grown steadily more reliant on Delta water. Farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley have grown more powerful and confrontational, hoping to secure more Delta water so they can grow more almonds for an expanding international market.
If the outcome depended on their respective war chests, there'd be no contest in this Delta water battle. Each year, Delta farmers grow about $700 million in crops. By contrast, farmers in Fresno County alone home of the Westlands Water District grow about $6 billion worth annually.
While Delta farming has more history, its perennial risk of flooding make it a risky place to do business. Unlike farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, residents of the Delta don't have the ear of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein or other major power brokers.
Yet the Feinsteins of the world would be wise not to underestimate the Delta resistance. Although the San Joaquin Valley is widely depicted as a home for "mammoth corporate farms," the Delta has a few as well. Corporations such as Greene & Hemly have teamed with wealthy Stockton developers such as Fritz Grupe and Alex Spanos to develop an opposition group called Restore the Delta. Over the last five years, it's grown into an unlikely coalition that includes marina owners, recreational fishing groups, tea partyers, the rock band Cake and environmentalists such as Ed Begley Jr.
Last week, Restore the Delta released a video narrated by Begley that attempts to pick apart plans for the "peripheral tunnels." Supporters say the tunnels 35 miles long, with an estimated price tag of $14 billion will reduce environmental conflicts and help bring more reliable water deliveries to state and federal water contractors. The current system relies on gigantic pumps in the south Delta that transfer water, and have altered the natural flows in the Delta, and kill native fish and leave them vulnerable to predators.
But opponents say the tunnels will simply move the south Delta's problem north to the Sacramento River. And they say the state and federal governments have failed to settle key scientific questions about how much water needs to flow through the Delta, in both normal years and dry ones.
"This is an incredibly complex estuary," said Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and a longtime Delta water warrior. "Only in our hubris would we pretend to understand it."
In its video, "Over Troubled Waters," Restore the Delta conjures up all the iconic images of California water scandals "Chinatown," Kesterson, Owens Valley. It takes issue with cost estimates for the tunnels and claims that earthquakes pose a serious threat to the current Delta water system. It argues that any fix for the Delta needs to improve water quality, which the tunnels wouldn't do because they'd remove fresh water from parts of the Delta that currently depend on it.
"We think it is wrong to sacrifice one region of the state so others can benefit," said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, a self-described "Stockton mom with an email list and an attitude" who serves as campaign director for Restore the Delta. "Should we be taking water from one set of farmers to help another?" she asks.
Delta of contradictions
Despite its name, Restore the Delta has little enthusiasm for state and federal plans to restore tidal marshes and other wetlands in the Delta. Rogene Reynolds, a real estate broker who lives on Roberts Island in the south Delta, said she and her neighbors will fight plans to turn their island into a restoration site. "They want 10,000 acres of farmland to be habitat so they can mitigate for their water project," she said. "That is horrid. I cannot stomach that."
As is to be expected, a group this diverse has trouble getting its messaging right, especially since the Delta is so vast and its concerns about the "peripheral tunnels" vary widely.
In the north Delta, in Sacramento County, the main concern is the location of the water intakes near Hood, the alignment of the tunnels and possible disruption to the farm economy. As now configured, the Brown administration plans to build three intakes, a huge forebay and two tunnels capable of carrying 9,000 cubic feet of water per second. To put this in perspective, the massive Freeport Water Project recently constructed on the Sacramento River has a capacity of only 285 cubic feet per second.
In the central Delta, where farmers' water rights are less secure than those in the north Delta, the bigger concern is maintaining those rights. There's also a concern that the state will reduce funding to maintain Delta levees which currently serve a dual purpose of protecting farmland and shunting water to the pumps farther south.
In the south Delta, landowners fear both habitat restoration and the impact the tunnels will have on their water quality. For more than a half century, many of these farmers have benefited from construction of the state and federal pumps in the south Delta. At most times of the year, those giant pumps draw water from the Sacramento River in an unnatural pattern. Those unnatural flows are harmful to fish, but they provide certain south Delta farmers with more fresh water than they'd get from a natural flow regime, with the south Delta largely fed by runoff from the often low-flowing San Joaquin River.
If the tunnels were built diverting Sacramento River water under the Delta Reynolds and her neighbors fear their water quality will quickly degrade and become more saline. As she puts it, "Saltwater intrusion is the death knell for this region."
'Divide and conquer' strategy?
Now that state and federal officials have announced plans to seek permits for the water project, known as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, negotiations will begin in earnest. The big question: How will the state and feds "mitigate" such a vast construction project and change in Delta plumbing?
Jerry Meral, deputy secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, said the state will continue to pay attention to freshwater flows in the south Delta if the tunnels are built.
Even with a tunnel, the state and federal pumps will continue to draw from the south Delta during certain periods, he said, to maintain fresh water for farms in the region.
Meanwhile, he and other BDCP leaders are talking to city and county officials throughout the Delta about possible state projects that benefit them over the long run.
In Sacramento County, for instance, sanitation officials are concerned about costs to comply with state-ordered reductions of ammonia from the county's wastewater treatment plant. Yolo County also has a pricey water project it is considering. Both of those counties, along with San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties, have flood control projects the state could help finance.
"One of the things they (Brown administration officials) are trying to do is cut separate deals with the five Delta counties," Barrigan-Parrilla said. "Because the five counties are working so well together, they are trying to employ a divide-and-conquer strategy."
The Delta is in a tough spot. Proponents of new water "conveyance" are much stronger in 2012 than they were 30 years ago. While it's possible that Restore the Delta could successfully block the tunnels through litigation or a ballot measure, they'll have to overcome some big money in support of the project. If the Delta counties lose, the tunnels could get built with little or no accommodation for communities that will absorb the greatest impacts.
So it could end up being war, or perhaps a new phase of horse-trading. Hemly isn't sure which way it will go. As the great-great-grandson of a Gold Rush pioneer who chose farming over mining, he and his family have more at stake than just the land they own and the fruit they grow.
"We've lived behind levees, so we have a good sense of what the Delta is all about," Hemly said. "We just want to be part of the conversation."
738,000: Size of Delta in acres
1,100: Miles of levees
423,727: Acres of farmland in crops, 2010
$702 million: Delta crop value in 2009
$2.6 billion: Total economic impact of Delta agriculture, including wineries, canneries, etc.
560,000: Delta population in 2010
360,000: Population in 1990
27 million: Californians receiving water from Delta
Sources: Delta Stewardship Council, Delta Protection Commission, Public Policy Institute of California