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Viewpoints: ‘Tunnel vision’ won’t solve Delta’s woes

There’s no question that California is facing one of the worst droughts in its history. As a state that uses more water than we have available – even in “wet” years – there are some critical decisions we need to make about how to move forward.

But as we decide how to spend billions of dollars on the water solutions needed to carry us into the future, it’s critical that we address the short-term needs of this historic drought without getting tunnel vision and losing sight of what’s going to be best in the long run for the businesses and individuals who live and work here.

A central part of the state’s current effort to tackle California’s thorny water challenges is the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, a hugely ambitious project to build two 30-mile-long, 40-foot-wide tunnels that would divert water from the Delta to locations south. While the project was originally intended to meet the co-equal goals of restoring the vital Bay-Delta ecosystem and improving water supply reliability, the current proposal fails to do either.

The proposed BDCP ignores the overwhelming scientific evidence that we must increase the amount of water flowing through the Delta to restore it to health, and instead focuses on siphoning away even more river water than the 50 percent on average we already divert.

This approach would worsen the health of the Bay-Delta and California’s declining fish and wildlife. The state’s own analysis shows that the plan likely would lead to the extinction of several native salmon runs, rather than restoration of the backbone of our commercial fisheries and the jobs they provide. Instead of improving habitat and providing safe havens for the millions of migrating birds that stop at the Delta, it would disrupt a critical haven for sandhill cranes and worsen the condition of wildlife refuges. Also, the BDCP is based on a risky and scientifically unproven assumption that man-made tidal marshes would compensate for taking more fresh water out of the Delta, an assumption that has been debunked by numerous independent scientific reviews.

At $67 billion, the proposed project is exceptionally expensive. The vast bulk of this price tag is solely for constructing, operating and financing the twin tunnels, a cost that ratepayers would be saddled with for decades to come. Plus, the cost of the tunnels would eat up a huge amount of funding that could go to other, more effective water solutions and projects to restore the health and water quality of the Delta.

In its zeal to justify taking more and more water out of the Delta, the state Department of Water Resources – at the behest of several large water wholesalers in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California – has lost sight of the bigger picture and ignored the need for long-term solutions that work within real fiscal and environmental limits, solutions that offer far better alternatives to improve California’s water future.

And we do have better solutions for the Delta’s wildlife and water quality, and for improving our state’s water supply.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Defenders of Wildlife have joined with several urban water agencies, government officials and business groups to call for analysis of a “portfolio alternative” to the current BDCP, one that would take less water from the Delta and would invest more in local water projects that generate new supply, such as improved water use efficiency and recycling. This approach would allow us to restore the Delta as originally intended and increase our overall water supply – all at a lower cost.

Federal and state agencies have refused to analyze this alternative, claiming that investments outside the Delta are beyond the scope of analysis. But Californians can no longer afford not to look at all of our options. The BDCP must be reworked to ensure that the billions of dollars in ratepayer and taxpayer funds will be thoughtfully invested in modern, 21st-century solutions that diversify our water supply and deliver the promised conservation benefits so badly needed to restore the Delta. A healthy water supply and a healthy Delta go hand in hand. We can and must achieve both, but we have to first move beyond tunnel vision.