Delta News

Jerry Brown’s tunnels meet flurry of criticism, but will it matter?

Critics of the Delta water tunnels project say it will bury the Kaydix fruit packing facility near Walnut Grove, seen here in 2013. Despite vocal opposition to the plan in recent weeks as well as a measure qualifying for the November 2016 ballot that could complicate the project, the developments didn’t appear to tilt controversy surrounding the project beyond its traditional bearings.
Critics of the Delta water tunnels project say it will bury the Kaydix fruit packing facility near Walnut Grove, seen here in 2013. Despite vocal opposition to the plan in recent weeks as well as a measure qualifying for the November 2016 ballot that could complicate the project, the developments didn’t appear to tilt controversy surrounding the project beyond its traditional bearings. RBenton@sacbee.com

Gov. Jerry Brown’s response to the latest volley of opposition to his plan to divert water under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta lacked the cheekiness he exhibited in May, when he playfully told his critics to “shut up.”

He accused opponents of doing a “profound disservice to California’s future,” but the subtext was the same: No matter how difficult the financing or loud resistance to the project may grow, the fourth-term governor is plowing ahead.

He says the $15.5 billion project, with implications for everything from the area’s farming community to its scenic drives, will bring stability to a water system on which millions of Californians rely.

“The Delta pipeline is essential to completing the California Water Project and protecting fish and water quality,” he said in a statement Oct. 30. “Without this fix, San Joaquin farms, Silicon Valley and other vital centers of the California economy will suffer devastating losses in their water supply.”

In recent weeks, opponents protested at the state Capitol and submitted volumes of critical comments to state and federal officials on the environmental impact of the plan. A wealthy Stockton-area farmer and food processor, Dean Cortopassi, qualified for the November 2016 ballot a measure that could complicate the project, if not stop it altogether.

Yet the developments didn’t appear to tilt controversy surrounding the project beyond its traditional bearings. Delta landowners, Northern Californians and many environmentalists have for years opposed a conveyance, while labor unions and building trades groups that stand to benefit from a project support it.

“What’s new?” said Jerry Meral, who served as the chief steward of the tunnels project while deputy secretary of the state’s Natural Resources Agency.

“The people who filed the comments who haven’t wanted this project for 10 years or so and are still upset, so that’s not surprising,” said Meral, who retired from the state in 2013 and now works for an environmental group supporting the tunnels plan. “I’m sure there were people who didn’t like the pyramids, but in the end they got built because, frankly, the people who had the power to build them built them.”

I’m sure there were people who didn’t like the pyramids, but in the end they got built because, frankly, the people who had the power to build them built them.

Jerry Meral, former deputy secretary of the state’s Natural Resources Agency

At Mel’s Mocha & Ice Cream in Walnut Grove, where “Stop the Tunnels” signs abound, Christina Doyle counted tips and said conversation about the tunnels has carried on persistently – and unchanged – for five years.

“People are hopeful that it will stop, but people are terrified at the same time,” she said. “Everyone’s pissed. Everyone has been, is, and will continue to be pissed.”

Brown has been seeking to build a water conveyance around the Delta since he was governor before. His earlier diversion plan, the peripheral canal, was defeated in a referendum in 1982.

In his return to office, Brown has argued that a conveyance is necessary to stabilize water deliveries that serve millions of Californians and to restore the Delta’s fragile ecosystem.

Opponents say the project will damage the environment, but the significance of their input is unclear. Brown’s tunnels plan, which would be permitted administratively by state and federal officials, does not require legislative approval or a public vote.

The prospect of financing, however, appears problematic. In public comments last month, downstream water agencies that would pay for the project raised concerns about the cost of the project and the reliability of future water deliveries.

“I think it’s got quite a lot of hurdles ahead of it, in my view,” said Jeffrey Michael, director of the Center for Business and Policy Research at University of the Pacific. “It’s the commitment of the governor that’s propping the project up at this time.”

Michael said Brown “has the politics in his favor” without the need for a vote, but is “trying to harpoon many whales at once.”

“Even if it were to obtain some regulatory approval, it’s going to be very difficult to finance the project.” Michael said. “When you actually look at the numbers, there’s serious questions as to whether this will make sense.”

When you actually look at the numbers, there’s serious questions as to whether this will make sense.

Jeffrey Michael, director of the Center for Business and Policy Research at University of the Pacific

The Brown administration plans to finalize environmental documents for the project by mid-2016. Before then, it is possible Brown will negotiate a modified project with the water users he needs to fund it, said Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at University of California, Davis.

“I think we might not have seen the final proposal yet,” he said.

Lund said the tunnels’ prospects have been helped by increasing concern about long-term water supplies, with awareness heightened by Brown’s focus on the issue and California’s long-term drought.

“You have to sort of look at this in a historical time frame,” he said. “I think that the chances of something like this happening are higher now than they’ve been in a long time.”

The water project and a $68 billion high-speed rail system constitute Brown’s largest public works initiatives. He will term out in 2019, and “as always, we talk about the legacy ... the sand is going out of the hourglass,” said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson.

“There’s an urgency in terms of the clock,” Whalen said.

Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, a Lakewood Democrat and the lower house’s incoming speaker, said the project “has a long way to go,” predicting it will take several years to know whether a project will be approved.

“I think, you know, the jury’s still out,” he said.

But Rendon, while unsure about the tunnels project, said the Delta ecosystem, “as a place, as a water supply, needs to be figured out.”

“I don’t think we have that long to wait,” he said.

Opponents of the tunnels project are settling in for a lengthy fight. Sen. Lois Wolk, a Davis Democrat who calls the tunnels an “expensive waste of time and taxpayer and ratepayer money,” said she expects the fate of the project to be decided by a court – and likely not for “many, many years.”

“In the meantime, there will be different administrations, there will be different priorities,” she said. “It’s becoming clear to me that these two tunnels are a relic of the 19th century.”

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders

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