For many Californians, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is known only as a place mentioned in magazine ads about houseboat vacations.
That the Delta, where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers meet the San Francisco Bay, is only vaguely understood in the state’s main population centers makes it easier to confuse people about the Delta’s value to the whole state and about the greatest threats to its future.
Gov. Jerry Brown demonstrated that recently when he announced his administration’s latest plans for the Delta.
First, the governor scaled back to 30,000 acres – a drop of 70 percent – the amount of the ecologically declining Delta area that would be targeted for restoration. He said this cut would allow restoration to start now to stanch sharply dropping native fish populations in the largest estuary on the West Coast of North America. The smaller the restoration, the easier it would be to direct state money to get it done.
Then, almost in the same breath, Brown reiterated his plan to build two giant, 40-foot-diameter tunnels through the Delta region. What he didn’t mention was that his tunnels plan would likely wipe out many of the species he claimed to be helping.
The tunnels would suck water more directly from the Sacramento River north of the Delta to parts south of the Delta. This almost guarantees that regular freshwater flows essential to keep the Delta ecosystem healthy would not improve or would actually worsen.
The tunnels would also require years of super-heavy construction activity in habitat for about 750 species, including endangered fish, birds and other wildlife. Then, once construction was done, the water diversion and pumping regimen would likely lead to more disruption and endangerment of any wildlife species that survive the construction.
Additionally, the tunnels plan would stir up massive loads of mercury and other chemicals and silt, further degrading an already compromised water source for urban and rural areas.
The environmental and ecosystem impacts would be so enormous that in August, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told the state that the environmental impact report for the tunnels – called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which at that time included 100,000 acres of restoration – was riddled with gaps and contradictions.
Since then, the tunnels plan has appeared to be stalled. The Brown administration assured everyone that the problems with the environmental impact report could be easily fixed, and those fixes would be revealed in a new version soon.
Then this latest proposal surfaced. In essence, the administration decided it would be easier to do the Bay Delta Plan without most of the Conservation.
In making his announcement about this new approach, Brown told the gathered media that the reduction in restoration to accelerate efforts to save the fish was essential. “If anyone has a better alternative, certainly we’ll hear it.”
Here’s the better alternative: Restore the Delta and drop the tunnels proposal. Instead, turn more attention, and money, to the rest of the California Water Action Plan to make every region’s water system more resilient and self-reliant.
To understand that better alternative, the Brown administration and the concrete-loving Department of Water Resources need to face a few hard realities.
The tunnels will not create water. They will only move water, and they will be an incredibly expensive way to move water, both financially and environmentally. Honest cost estimates for the tunnels, with appropriate mitigation for damage, run from about $20 billion to $40 billion.
The Sierra snowpack is no longer a reliable source of water year-round. Climate change has changed what we can expect and anticipate for future water availability. If the tunnels were in operation today, they wouldn’t have much available water to move.
Spending money on huge infrastructure projects to move water around is a waste. This is especially true when so many cheaper options for “creating” local water have gone unfunded or unenforced. This includes improving water efficiencies, water recycling and water conservation.
Finally, the current drought won’t be the last or even, possibly, the worst we see in California now that climate change is upon us.
The Delta is teetering between salvation and ecosystem collapse. If we respond to this latest drought by creating a smarter water system throughout California, and reducing our farm and drinking water dependence on the Delta, we have a chance of saving that ecosystem.
We can’t do that, though, if the state’s governor and water engineers continue to have tunnel vision.
Kathryn Phillips is director of Sierra Club California, the advocacy arm of Sierra Club’s 13 chapters in California.