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Brown’s Tunnel Vision: The Governor Promotes the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan, Again

A Portrait of Governor Brown in the Capitol Building

(BW) California — Flanked by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Gov. Jerry Brown announced on Wednesday, July 25, that he will forge ahead with a $23 billion plan to build two massive tunnels around the Delta. The Bay-Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), also known as the tunnel conveyance system or peripheral canal, would carry part of the Sacramento River’s flow underneath the Delta in a 37-mile long tunnel system to the California Aqueduct.

“Analysis paralysis is not why I came back 30 years later to handle some of the same issues,” the 74-year-old former governor said in Sacramento Bee report. “At this stage, as I see many of my friends dying — I went to the funeral of my best friend a couple of weeks ago — I want to get s— done.”

Brown’s move is seen by many as igniting an age-old water war, between northern and southern California. The BDCP is financed primarily by south of Delta water contractors, particularly the Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles.

Brown advocated the peripheral canal in his last term as governor, but it was defeated in a referendum in 1982. His father, former Gov. Edmund G. Pat Brown, helped develop the original State Water Project and the California Aqueduct, when he served from 1959 to 1967. Taxpayer-funded bonds provided 78 percent of the financing for the construction of that project.

Funding for this project is not yet determined, but the costs have been estimated. According to the BDCP, the total cost for the entire project is approximately $23 billion, which includes construction, habitat restoration, monitoring and adaptive management. The debt servicing costs associated with financing the project are $1.1 billion a year for 35 years, which significantly increase the price.

In addition to the cost, the BDCP faces considerable hurdles, such as water availability and environmental review. Water in California has been over-allocated and over-promised to a variety of groups, and water needs to go back into the Delta to keep it alive.

The Delta is home to more than 750 species of plants and animals, 33 of which are endangered, and likely to go extinct within the next 25 to 50 years, if not sooner. This includes chinook salmon, Delta smelt and steelhead. While the Delta’s decline is due to many factors, including pollution, invasive species and loss of wetlands, one of the primary reasons for species loss are water diversions and excessive pumping in the estuary. The San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers are the Delta’s primary tributaries. The San Joaquin River has often run dry due to diversions, and the Sacramento River, which once flowed out to sea, is used to convey water to federal and state pumps for export.

The Delta and River Tributaries

The BDCP plan, as set forth in March 2012, would increase water exports to 5.9 million acre-feet, which is 16 to 24 percent higher than average. The most recent version of the tunnels reduces their pumping capacity by 40 percent, from 15,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 9,000 cfs, and it may reduce exports, as well. But that change still gives the tunnels the capacity to export 6.5 million acre-feet of water, which is about the annual average flow of the Tuolumne, Merced, Stanislaus and American rivers.

Increasing exports directly conflicts with the public trust recommendations for the Delta, as set forth by the State Water Resources Control Board. The doctrine of public trust indicates that water is jointly owned by the people, and that it should be managed for the best benefit of everyone, including aesthetic, recreational and ecological values. Those recommendations suggest the need to increase river flows and decrease Delta water consumption by nearly 50 percent, or 13.7 to 14.6 million-acre feet.

While these recommendations will be weighed against economic needs, the point is clear: California has to reduce use to keep its ecosystems intact. And it’s been well-documented that the cheapest way to reduce use is via water conservation, recycling and newer technologies, which improve efficiency.

So why build the tunnel? The pumps, which sit in the southern part of the estuary, are used to convey water up and out of the system. As they do, they kill thousands of fish annually via entrapment. They also alter the habitat of the estuary by creating a north to south flow across a tidal ecosystem, which would naturally flow east to west. The proposed tunnels would move the intake upstream to locations that might be less harmful. The BDCP would also secure water exports from threats such as earthquakes, floods and sea level rise. Some state and federal contractors view the project as vital to the state’s economic well being, but others are critical.

The Sacramento River

Those on the critical end held a rally on the same day of Brown’s declaration. The rally included legislators, citizens, farmers, fishermen and activists from Friends of the River, Restore the Delta and the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. Senators Lois Wolk (D-Davis) and Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) condemned the announcement. “I’m disappointed. Californians resoundingly rejected the same ‘plumbing before policy’ approach in the Delta 30 years ago,” said Senator Wolk, who spoke out against the BDCP at the rally. “We already learned this lesson. It doesn’t need repeating. This is a step backward,”

Wolk and DeSaulnier represent most of the Delta counties in the State Senate. Contra Costa, Sacramento and San Joaquin Counties have all voted to oppose the plan.

“We’re being asked to take a lot on faith,” said Senator DeSaulnier. “We’re being asked to believe that in the future the amount of water diverted from the Delta will be based on science, when science has been persistently ignored up to this point. We’re being asked to believe that fish will miraculously need less water to survive in the future, and that returning water exports to the levels that first decimated Delta fisheries will help restore the estuary. That’s a lot to ask. Too much.”

An updated set of joint recommendations for the BDCP was published July 16. An analysis of that report along with other aspects of state and federal water policy is forthcoming.

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