California Forum

Another View: Delta tunnels in best environmental and economic interest of California

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region is at the heart of a debate that affects the entire state.
The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region is at the heart of a debate that affects the entire state. Sacramento Bee file

Former state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg recently noted the Legislature’s success in producing much needed groundwater legislation and the water bond, which was heartily endorsed by voters throughout the state last November. That success required an accommodation of water, business and environmental interests in all California regions.

Finding a solution to the problems of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will likewise require a statewide perspective and willingness to compromise.

The passage of the water bond, for example, included a substantial sum for water storage, a key Republican goal. But a recent report by UC Davis and the Nature Conservancy points out that new storage will be much more useful if water can be moved through the Delta more efficiently. The state and federal governments are proposing a plan to improve the efficiency of water flow through the Delta and to create new habitat to benefit the environment (“Revised Delta plan still a bad idea”; Viewpoints, Dec. 6).

Water from the Delta serves more than two-thirds of Californians. Those supplies are threatened by the flooding of Delta islands due to storms and earthquakes. Seawater would rush into the Delta, cutting off delivery to public water agencies throughout the state. The plan includes new twin tunnels to move water from the Sacramento River to state and federal water pumps near Tracy, allowing the agencies to continue to receive water while the Delta islands are repaired.

Delta farmers, however, object to converting farmland to habitat and are concerned about impacts of the tunnels on their water rights.

Given the urgency of Delta problems, it might be tempting to simply ignore the relatively few Delta farmers, since their views conflict with the needs of millions of people and the vast California economic activity reliant on the Delta water supply. Fortunately, however, the state has taken the view that the concerns of Delta communities and farmers should be given full consideration.

The tunnels have been redesigned to minimize the impact on farming in the north Delta. Tunnel facilities will be primarily located on state-owned land. Project redesign has reduced impacts on small Delta towns. Adverse effects on important wildlife areas at Stone Lakes and Staten Island have been virtually eliminated by moving facilities elsewhere.

Some farmland will be converted back to wildlife habitat, but much of the new habitat will be created on state-owned land. Thousands of acres of farmland will be preserved due its value to native species. And the state will be required to continue meeting its contractual obligations to supply high-quality water to farmers in Sacramento, Solano and San Joaquin counties.

Completion of this Bay Delta Conservation Plan is supported by a wide range of conservation groups, water agencies and business interests throughout the state. The final plan is yet to be determined, but nearly everyone except for some Delta interests agrees that completing the planning process is in the best environmental and economic interests of California.

Jerry Meral is California water director of the Natural Heritage Institute.