Dan Morain

Jerry Brown plunges ahead on twin tunnels

People try to catch fish along the Sacramento River near Courtland in February. A $15.7 billion tunnel project promoted by Gov. Jerry Brown to build giant pipes underground to ship water south from this river which feeds the Delta, is splitting farmers and politicians throughout the state.
People try to catch fish along the Sacramento River near Courtland in February. A $15.7 billion tunnel project promoted by Gov. Jerry Brown to build giant pipes underground to ship water south from this river which feeds the Delta, is splitting farmers and politicians throughout the state. Associated Press file

Jerry Brown is jumping into the deep end, and he’s asking the rest of us to take a leap with him.

On Thursday, California Department of Water Resources and the feds will release environmental studies of the $15.5 billion twin tunnel project. Nine years in the making, the document runs 90,000 pages and goes by the catchy title “The Bay Delta Conservation Plan/California WaterFix Final Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement.” If printed, the opus would fill 40 boxes, at the cost of many trees.

“We’ve put everything we have into it,” the governor said, making his case in an interview that, for the sake of California’s future, the tunnels must be built. “The best scientific thinking says California needs the project.”

Brown, the lawyer-politician, cites engineering and science for the urgency of the tunnels. Climate change is upon us. That will lead to sea-level rise, which will foul Delta water.

Geologists cite the inevitability of a major earthquake that would wreck Delta levees and interrupt freshwater transfers to million of Southern Californians for months if not years.

“Either with an earthquake or longer with sea-level rise and extreme weather events, the California water project will collapse,” Brown said. “Quite simply, its plumbing is not adequate to the future.”

Brown lists steps that have led to today’s reports. Scientists and engineers culled through 100 concepts, whittled that down to 19, and settled on the twin tunnels, 30 miles in length, Alternative 4A.

“This is nine years of intensive, careful analysis that has been subjected to more outside scrutiny and critical review than any other project in the history of the world,” the governor said.

A year ago, water experts told me that 2016 would be the do-or-die year for the tunnels. Twelve months have come and gone, and a firm decision has yet to be made. But ever so slowly, California could be finding its way out of the doldrums, though where that journey leads is to be determined.

As Brown and I spoke, the State Water Resources Control Board, made up of his appointees, wrapped up hearings in Modesto. There, farmers made clear their fears that the state would force them to fallow fields if authorities direct more water to the environment in the hope of preserving the remaining fish in the San Joaquin River basin. Soon, that process will focus on the rights of those of us who rely on the Sacramento River.

At the same time, federal authorities are preparing to implement the first significant act of Congress affecting the federal Central Valley Project in 25 years. Central Valley farmers believe the law will allow the feds to transport more Delta water to irrigate their orchards.

The state has been working on the tunnel project since Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tenure. The Obama administration spent eight years studying it, after inheriting the concept from George W. Bush’s administration.

Now the decision to grant federal permits or not will spill into Donald Trump’s administration. If the feds stick to a timetable established by President Barack Obama, the decision would be made in March. But Trump is a wild card.

“I don’t think the president wants to destroy the economy of California,” Brown said of Trump. “… It’s not about being conservative or liberal. It’s about having the plumbing that meets the needs of the 21st century.”

Brown believes the tunnels, plus Delta restoration, could help native fish rebound from the edge of extinction. But under Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress, federal protections for endangered species, including Delta fisheries, could be weakened. And if the tunnels are built, Central Valley farmers can be counted on to amp up pressure to maximize water exports.

Brown and his successor would need to provide ironclad assurances that they would operate system in ways that protect the environment. The tunnels could export no more than 9,000 cubic feet per second. That’s a reduction from an initial plan, and far less than the 23,000 cubic feet per second contemplated in 1982 when voters rejected the peripheral canal that Brown advocated when he was governor the first time. But it’s still a river’s worth of water, too much in the view of many Northern Californians.

Nine years later, other questions remain. One is financing. The Metropolitan Water District could raise rates on its 25 million customers. But the MWD won’t pay for the tunnels alone, and farmers would balk at paying unless they are assured of more water. And if more water is sent south, wouldn’t that further damage the Delta and the fisheries that depend on water washing down the channels and sloughs?

To his credit, Brown sticks with the project. He leaves no doubt that he believes the tunnels are the best option. For all the chatter about how Brown insists on building the tunnels to cement his legacy, there is little political upside. The tunnels are costly and complicated. At the earliest, no shovel would touch the soil until the end of 2018, as Brown prepares to leave office.

For the Californians who won’t take the time to read 90,000 pages, the question will come down to this: Do they trust Brown’s judgment?