One tunnel would still devastate Delta

A sign opposing a proposed tunnel plan to ship water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to Southern California is displayed near Freeport in 2016.
A sign opposing a proposed tunnel plan to ship water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to Southern California is displayed near Freeport in 2016. AP file

California WaterFix is at an impasse, or so it seems. In a perfect world, the project’s gaping hole in funding from State Water Project contractors, embarrassing outcomes from state and federal audits, and vehement opposition from the general public and environmental groups would have killed the tunnels.

But the real world functions on compromise and profit. This view is echoed by those, including Jay Lund of UC Davis’s Center for Watershed Sciences, who say there is “no perfect solution” to California’s water crisis and suggest that tunnel opponents consider a single tunnel in the Delta.


Any compromise, however, must provide benefits to all. And any version of WaterFix – whether one tunnel or two – will sacrifice the health and safety of communities and wildlife in the Delta, the San Francisco Bay and Southern California.

In fact, fewer diversions operated more aggressively would likely intensify impacts. Plus, a fewer number of intakes could further endanger fish, while siphoning off critical Sacramento River freshwater flows into the Delta.

If the Brown administration makes the risky claim that the project’s prior analyses cover a single tunnel, or a tunnel built in stages, it will only widen legal claims against the project. There are no permits, approvals or engineering plans for a single-tunnel project. In addition to construction differences, a single tunnel would need to be reanalyzed at the State Water Resources Control Board and elsewhere. There would be years more permitting and litigation, then a decade and a half of construction.

So what would tunnel opponents like to see in a true compromise? For starters, we could abide by the mandate in the Delta Reform Act of 2009 to reduce reliance on the Delta. Neither one tunnel or two would do that.

From there, let’s find solutions that we as a state can agree on – fixing leaky pipes, capturing stormwater, recycling water, increasing desalination and doing a better job of keeping fish out of the south Delta pumps. State and federal water contractors should make good on the nearly 10-year old requirement to restore 28,000 acres of habitat. We all need to help restore our upper watershed that supply the Delta with freshwater.

These are the discussions we need to have, in a transparent manner rooted in a truly public process. Delta community members, environmental justice advocates in Southern California and environmental organizations should all have a seat at the table.

Collectively, we have amassed a vast amount of knowledge about the Delta that could be redirected to solving our water problems. Any solution to California’s water woes must be equitable, scientifically supported and economically viable. Neither the twin tunnels nor a single-tunnel project is any of these things.

Instead of wasting time and throwing good money after bad, let’s end this folly today, and work together on an honest compromise that creates a sustainable water future through regional water projects and other actions already endorsed by the state and accepted by the public.

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla is executive director of Restore the Delta and can be contacted at

Osha Meserve is a Sacramento-based attorney who has represented Delta community and wildlife interests and can be contacted at