To make the most of rain, state needs Delta tunnels

Gov. Jerry Brown holds up the measure he signed to place a $7.5 billion water plan on the November 2014 ballot.
Gov. Jerry Brown holds up the measure he signed to place a $7.5 billion water plan on the November 2014 ballot. Associated Press file

This week I testified at a legislative hearing on implementing the $7.5 billion water bond passed by voters in November 2014. One legislator asked me if the state was positioned to capture extra rainwater if El Niño brings a strong rainy season.

I pointed out that many California reservoirs are empty enough to capture much of the runoff from this year’s rainstorms, but that isn’t the full story.

California depends upon capturing water when it’s available. Between Jan. 5 and Jan. 31, we missed the opportunity to capture 290,000 acre-feet of water – enough to supply 580,000 homes for a year. The volume of water we have failed to store this month continues to rise.

Similarly, in the winter of 2012-13 – which turned dry after a wet start – we missed the chance to capture at least 700,000 acre-feet of water in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

That’s because the pumping system in the Delta for California’s major water projects is outdated. It poses a risk to native fish and frequently must be restricted, even in the winter when flows are high.

The federal and state pumping plants, built more than half a century ago, are in the south Delta. They pull water through channels in unnatural directions. These “reverse flows” pull fish into dead-end zones in the Delta, where they must be trucked out to safer habitat to survive.

The intakes and tunnels proposed by the Brown and Obama administrations to modernize Delta water infrastructure are the subject of lively debate. Yet the discussion seldom includes the point that without them, we cannot maximize the storage of extra water in wet years.

If the proposed project had been in place last month, additional water could have been drawn into the San Luis Reservoir without violating water-quality standards or rules to protect threatened and endangered fish. The water would be available to serve homes and businesses from San Jose to San Diego and to supply farms from Tracy to Bakersfield.

Much of the debate over the proposed tunnels project revolves around whether it will take additional water from the Delta. Truth be told, in years of below-normal precipitation, there would not be much difference from the amount of water that is taken now.

Yet in wet years, when environmental needs are fully met, some of the high flows could be taken for water supply and routed through screened intakes that minimize harm to Delta smelt, salmon, sturgeon and other native species. We can improve how we move water from the Delta. New intakes in the northern Delta on the Sacramento River would provide a physical fix to the “reverse flows” problem by not drawing fish to places they otherwise wouldn’t be.

This is a polarized debate, yet the status quo in the Delta is far worse. It involves continued risk to species already at their lowest recorded population levels and increasingly erratic water deliveries.

Any proposal to improve the current situation must allow us to capture high flows in the rainiest of years. We need to continue our heavy investment in the conservation, water recycling, groundwater recharge, stormwater capture and desalination that will help make each region of California as self-reliant as possible.

But the 25 million Californians who depend upon the Delta pumping system also need those peak flows from wet years, especially as climate change renders our weather increasingly unpredictable.

John Laird is California secretary for natural resources. He can be contacted at