The Delta is dying. The planet is warming. Is California too focused on the tunnels?

Aerial photos of the region to be affected by the Delta tunnels near Walnut Grove. Tyler Island Road is at the lower left, Andrus Island Road is at the upper right.
Aerial photos of the region to be affected by the Delta tunnels near Walnut Grove. Tyler Island Road is at the lower left, Andrus Island Road is at the upper right.

For far too long, too many leaders in California have had tunnel vision – Gov. Jerry Brown, local elected officials, water district executives.

The epic battle over the Delta tunnels – how many, how big, who pays – has consumed this state, in one form or another, for generations. It has occupied legions of scientists and armies of lawyers – “a million hours” of study, as the governor once put it. The most recent environmental impact report has 90,000 pages of findings in it.

It’s a reasonable idea, but it has diverted attention from other ways to reliably supply the world’s sixth largest economy with water, to the point that we’ve lost sight of the most important question, just as climate change is raising the stakes.

It isn’t whether to build the tunnels. Rather, we should be asking: What is the best strategy to secure California’s water future? And, beyond that, how can we stem the ecological collapse of the largest and most important estuary in the Western United States?

Let’s be frank. Even if all goes smoothly, construction on the current one-tunnel plan wouldn’t start until next year and would take at least 10 years to finish. That’s if all the financing for the $11 billion project falls into place quickly – and not counting the inevitable lawsuits, which will bring further delays.

In the meantime, there are billions of dollars worth of other good ways to quench California’s thirst and make the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta healthier for fish and humans. Tunnel or not, the state should accelerate work on replenishing groundwater, recycling wastewater, capturing stormwater, and expanding reservoirs and desalination, where it makes financial sense and has community backing. The state is already making substantial investments in some of these other projects, including through Proposition 1, the $7.5 billion bond issue approved by voters in 2014.

Framing the tunnels and other projects as an “either-or” misses the point on a “more or less” issue like water. Water customers may pay for one and taxpayers for the other, but global warming has ramped up the uncertainty in the whole debate. With predictions of more rain instead of snow in Northern California, drier conditions in Southern California and drought or deluge weather patterns, “all-of-the-above” has to be California’s approach. Sure, we must shore up our plumbing, but we must also capture and conserve and store water closer to where we live.

The Delta Counties Coalition – representing Contra Costa, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Solano and Yolo counties – and the Brown administration absolutely disagree on the tunnel project. But they actually agree on many other key components of a broader water strategy.

That became clear in recent meetings The Sacramento Bee editorial board held with four county commissioners in the coalition and with Karla Nemeth, the new director of the state Department of Water Resources and Brown’s point person on the tunnels. Surprising as it may be, given the bitterness of California’s water wars, those areas of agreement are promising.

For instance, both sides complain about the vast amounts of water that flow unused into the Pacific Ocean after “atmospheric river” rainstorms, like the one this weekend. Tunnel opponents say this points to the dire need for more reservoirs to store that water for when it’s needed. Nemeth says it shows the tunnel project’s importance: During the 2016 winter storms, she notes, the project could have pumped 480,000 acre-feet south, enough to supply 3.6 million Californians for a year.

Both sides are right. Dams are massively overpriced now compared to conservation and groundwater storage. But if done right, something like the proposed Sites Reservoir in Colusa County – which would be nearly twice the size of Folsom Lake and has bipartisan backingcould be a valuable place to park a downpour.

And though Southern California puts the north state to shame in saving water, Los Angeles still gets about 30 percent of its water from the Delta. That won’t end overnight, though L.A. has some ambitious and innovative ideas about becoming more self-sufficient. Neither will the need for infusions of fresh water to sustain endangered fish, keep saltwater at bay and hold the tragically over-engineered Delta ecosystem together.

So a tunnel has advantages, too, which is why the plan keeps being resurrected. The idea – to divert water from the Sacramento River and take it 40 miles to federal and state pumping stations at the southern end of the Delta – dates at least to the peripheral canal, rejected by California voters in 1982.

Supporters say tunneling would move water more efficiently to Central Valley farms and SoCal suburbs, help the ecological health of the Delta, and be indispensable in case of a major earthquake or levee failure. Opponents fear – incorrectly, we think – that it’s a water grab.

Environmental groups are concerned that the Brown administration delinked the tunnels from restoration. Behind the idyllic scenery – the century-old towns, the island farms – the Delta’s natural tides and marshlands are as critical to the West Coast as the Chesapeake Bay is to the East Coast. But 150 years of human manipulation are turning it into a dead sea.

But Nemeth says the delinking was to avoid holding habitat restoration hostage to the fate of the tunnels, and that the state will meet its goal of restoring 30,000 acres by the end of 2018. Important work also is going on with local water districts to restore habitat on tributaries that feed into the American, Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers before they reach the Delta, upstream.

Brown and Southern California water interests pursued a $17 billion plan for two tunnels; that was all but nixed last September, when the Westlands Water District – which represents 600 San Joaquin Valley farm owners and is the nation’s largest agricultural water district – decided it couldn’t or wouldn’t pay its share.

The current plan, called California WaterFix, calls for moving ahead with one tunnel now and a possible second tunnel later. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which has 19 million customers, had been considering whether to provide up-front financing for the two-tunnel plan, but backed off on Monday. But Friday, it reversed course again; the district board plans to vote Tuesday on either spending about $5 billion on the one-tunnel plan or nearly $11 billion on the twin-tunnel proposal.

If MWD’s ratepayers want to ante up, and can inspire others to chip in, we’ll welcome this scaled-down piece of the solution, though distrust and history may have hardened the political divide beyond hope.

But letting debate over the Delta tunnel drown out all else can no longer be an option. While we wait, policymakers and elected officials need to pull their heads out of the tunnels, find some common ground and start thinking in terms of “all of the above” to make sure California has enough water for generations to come.