A better alternative to Delta tunnels

The proposed Delta tunnels and intakes would go near Courtland.
The proposed Delta tunnels and intakes would go near Courtland.

The way we move water from Northern California to the south is the worst of all worlds. It is not efficient in moving water and is harmful to the Delta ecosystem.

California needs a better conveyance system – one that is reliable, protects the environment, can be used to supply more water and anticipates climate change.

While Gov. Jerry Brown’s twin tunnel project increases reliability of quality water for export, it fails in other respects. The basic idea is to take a large slug of water out of the Sacramento River before it reaches the Delta. Then you would need another large slug to be released from upstream reservoirs to protect Delta water quality and ecosystem. That is simply not efficient.

There is a better alternative – a conveyance system on the western side of the Delta, a desalter to improve the quality of water at the place where it is conveyed and a barrier downstream of the conveyance system to provide reliability.

A western conveyance system would allow all river flows to go through the Delta in a natural way. It is true that the water quality is not as good in the western Delta, but a desalting plant would improve quality. Finally, a barrier – giant flapper gates similar to pinball machines – would protect the conveyance system’s operations if levee failures or high tides threaten to make the water too salty at a western conveyance system’s intakes. Similar systems have been constructed and used in Europe for decades as storm surge barriers.

Tunnel proponents will no doubt argue that this concept has been studied and rejected. Not true. What was looked at years ago were primitive systems, basically throwing rock barriers across the Sacramento River in the western Delta.

Tunnel supporters will also say that they have studied this issue of improving conveyance systems to death and that the tunnels are the best option. Not necessarily. It is never too late to do the right thing.

The alternative is based on common sense. Let the water flow through the Delta before it is exported south. Such a plan is doable, is more efficient, less costly and meets the coequal goals of providing a reliable water supply and protecting the Delta ecosystem.

Craig Wilson is a former Delta watermaster and former chief counsel to the State Water Resources Control Board.