Farmers rejected the Delta tunnels, but the battle ain’t over. Here’s what Brown should do next.

Westlands Water District underscored a basic truth in rejecting a decade-long effort to construct a $17.1 billion twin tunnel project to transfer water from the Delta to farms and cities to the south and west: Without clear financing, the project will collapse.

But the vote by seven Westlands board members, representing 600 San Joaquin Valley farm owners, doesn’t end California’s water struggles. Gov. Jerry Brown, the project’s main proponent, could be forgiven if he walks away from the Delta. He shouldn’t. Whoever replaces Brown as governor after the 2018 election will be less knowledgeable on this slow-motion mess.

Politics is the art of the possible, or so the cliche teaches. It may be that “possible” doesn’t exist in this self-interested era of seemingly limitless litigation and permitting. Certainly, no California issue is more complex than water, as The Sacramento Bee’s Dale Kasler and Ryan Sabalow illustrated in their report on Westlands’ vote Tuesday.

But without some version of the California WaterFix, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a rich and vastly re-engineered resource, will continue to decline and diminishing fisheries will dwindle further.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and some farming interests remain supportive of a project in some form. Like other Californians with a stake in the outcome – including those of us in the Sacramento Valley – the governor must look for alternatives.

One could be to urge that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the federal Central Valley Project, become more directly engaged, something that was lacking during the Obama administration.

He could take a cue from the Public Policy Institute of California. Writing in The Sacramento Bee in December, the institute’s Ellen Hanak, Jeffrey Mount and Brian Gray suggested a grand compromise that includes one tunnel, not two, a clear-eyed view of the future of certain endangered species, and incentives for Delta farmers and residents.

A single tunnel would draw half the water from the Sacramento River channel envisioned by backers of the twin tunnels, while easing concerns that a calamitous earthquake would disrupt water transfers, or that Delta water will turn too salty as the sea level rises.

Perhaps the governor should look at the “little sip, big gulp” alternative urged by Rep. John Garamendi, a Democrat who lives and farms in the Delta. His notion is for a conveyance that would provide a third of the capacity of twin tunnels.

Farm owners in the vast Westlands district face a future that depends on diminishing groundwater and deliveries from the Central Valley Project. Ultimately, they may need to fallow their land. The answer is not, as some farmers and politicians urge, to abandon the laws that protect endangered species.

No group was more pleased with the Westlands decision than individuals who profess to have the best interests of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta at heart, and are adamant in their opposition to the tunnels. Perhaps they are right that the project should die. But it feels like déjà vu.

In 1982, a younger Brown advocated for the Peripheral Canal to move water around the Delta to the south. Two San Joaquin Valley farm families, the Boswell and Salyer clans, funded the campaign against Proposition 9, and environmentalists provided votes. The measure lost in a landslide.

In 1960, as the governor’s father campaigned for the State Water Project, the Metropolitan Water District board voted against participating, assuming they could depend on water flowing in perpetuity from the Owens Valley and Colorado River.

Jeff Kightlinger, MWD’s current executive director, told an editorial board member that Pat Brown and his emissary, water lawyer Adolph Moskovitz, went to work and persuaded board members to change their minds.

Notes from those meetings are gone, he said, but the result is clear: Water flows down the Edmund G. Brown Aqueduct. This battle is not over, Westlands’ vote aside.

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