Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Gov. Jerry Brown gets ready to swim upstream

Gov. Jerry Brown announced plans to build a giant twin tunnel system in July 2012.
Gov. Jerry Brown announced plans to build a giant twin tunnel system in July 2012. Associated Press file

Jerry Brown is a little like a salmon.

Brown led the campaign to persuade voters to approve the $7.5 billion water bond in 2014. In part because of his exhortations in 2015, in which he derided “nice little green grass getting lots of water every day,” we are tearing out our turf and conserving.

But if 2016 is to be counted as a success, Brown once again must focus on water, specifically the massive California WaterFix project that includes the twin tunnels and restoration of Delta habitat.

“It is a critical year. Either a decision gets made this year, or there won’t be a project,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District, which supplies water to 19 million Southern Californians and is the most consistent supporter of the tunnel concept.

“We have studied it enough,” Kightlinger said. “It is either thumbs up or thumbs down within the next 12 months.”

Brown embraced the tunnels in 2012 when he announced his desire to get stuff done, although he didn’t exactly use the word “stuff.” Ever since, he and his aides have been advocating for the two tunnels – 40 feet in diameter, 30 miles long and $15.5 billion in cost – to divert Sacramento River water by the Delta, to farms and cities to the south and west.

“Until you’ve put a million hours into it,” Brown said last year as if dismissing tunnel critics, “shut up.” Brown said it with a grin, though predictably, Delta interests feigned outrage and used it as a rallying cry.

The governor hasn’t exactly put a million hours into studying the project. But he has been working on water since he was governor the first time, intent on completing the job begun by his father, who helped build the Edmund G. Brown California Aqueduct. He certainly has devoted enough time to water to know that a $15.5 billion project that would take a decade to build and involves water is like swimming upstream.

Consider the obstacles: Understanding that few issues are as divisive as water, congressional Republicans tell thirsty San Joaquin Valley farmers that if only the Endangered Species Act were weakened or abolished, their almonds would have plenty of water. Where, exactly, it would come from is less clear.

Dean Cortopassi, a wealthy Stockton-area farmer, is promoting an initiative on the November ballot that, if approved, would limit the state government’s ability to fund the $15.5 billion project.

Studies required by the California Environmental Quality Act and the National Environmental Policy Act have been years in the making, and should be completed in 2016. Then Brown must obtain permits from state and federal agencies. There will, of course, be lawsuits.

Obama administration officials who have been working on the project are on their way out. If they fail to act before President Barack Obama leaves office, the next administration would insist on reviewing the proposal anew. That could add years to the process.

Californians for Water Security – a coalition of unions, some farm groups and chambers of commerce – supports the tunnels. But politicians who might be the governor’s natural allies are missing from the list.

Although legislators need not vote on the tunnels, neither Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, nor has Anthony Rendon, the incoming Assembly speaker, who also represents Los Angeles.

If “there is not a critical mass” of Southern California lawmakers in support, Rendon said by phone last week, “then I could see where he could have a problem.”

“The jury is still out,” Rendon said. “A lot of folks in L.A. are on both sides. I don’t know yet.”

Then there’s the matter of money. Farmers, including those who have bet the farm on the availability of water to irrigate almonds, have been less than enthusiastic about the project.

The Metropolitan Water District might be able to pay for the tunnels on its own. But that won’t happen. All 25 million potential beneficiaries would need to chip in.

“The idea that our ratepayers would subsidize other ratepayers would be unacceptable,” Kightlinger said. “We’re going to need everyone to pay a fair share.”

That would include the users in the Bay Area where opposition traditionally is most intense to anything that can be characterized as a Southern California water grab, no matter that much of the Bay Area relies on Hetch Hetchy for its water.

The Metropolitan Water District hardly speaks with a single voice. The San Diego County Water Authority, a part of the MWD, has fought with the district for decades over the cost of water. That feud could continue, depending on the amount San Diego customers would be asked to pay.

“That is pivotal for a lot of agencies to understand where they stand,” San Diego water board Chairman Mark Weston said by phone.

Given all the obstacles, Brown will need to do much more than offer derisive or dismissive comments. He’ll need to sell Californians on the need for the project. Either that or come up with a Plan B, which would not surprise me.

Brown is one of the few politicians willing to focus on water, and doesn’t give up easily, like a salmon. The mighty fish spend years in the ocean and then swim hundreds of miles upstream, avoiding anglers and navigating fish ladders, only to beat themselves silly against rocks, a little like politicians who aspire to get water stuff done.