Brown makes urgent plea for delta tunnels

Gov. Jerry Brown at a Capitol briefing last year on his revised state budget. Photo: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Gov. Jerry Brown delivered an impassioned defense of his ambitious plan to drill huge tunnels through the delta east of San Francisco to move more northern water south, saying California’s economic well-being depended on it.

Brown said during a state budget briefing that the huge public works project – easily, the largest in the nation’s history — “is an economic necessity that I’ve laid out, not because I want a legacy but because it appears absolutely imperative for the economic well-being of the people of California into the future.”

“The water that is needed for Santa Clara, half the water for the Silicon Valley flows through the delta, 80 percent of the water for Livermore, for the farms in the Central Valley, for the people of Southern California. That water is at risk as it flows through the delta, protected only by hundred-year-old earthen levees,” the governor added.

Efforts to move more water through or around the delta have been sought for decades, at least since the 1940s. In 1982, California voters rejected the Peripheral Canal, a 42-mile long canal around the edge, or periphery, of the delta that would have shipped more northern water to the south.

The administration’s plan calls for two tunnels 35 miles long and nearly four stories high through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, plus an array of environmental protections for the sprawling, fragile estuary, the largest on the West Coast. About $15 billion to $17 billion would be spent constructing the tunnel system, with the price tag covered by state and federal contractors who get the water. Some $5 billion to $8 billion would be spent on environmental protection projects, according to early estimates, a cost that would be divided between the state and federal governments.

The proposal has not received final approval. It is opposed by a number of environmental groups, fishing advocates and delta property owners who say their land and livelihoods are threatened, and court challenges have been launched.

Efforts to move more water through or around the delta have been sought for decades, at least since the 1940s. In 1982, California voters rejected the Peripheral Canal, a 42-mile long canal around the edge, or periphery, of the delta that would have shipped more northern water to the south.

“Since the time of my father (Gov. Pat Brown), people have said, ‘How do we deal with that?’ There was an idea of a peripheral canal, there now is the notion of tunnels. One way or another, we have to deal with handling what could be a catastrophic destruction in the delta,” Brown said.

The delta is the chokepoint of California’s water system. At least half the state’s drinking water comes through the delta, which is fed by rivers and melting Sierra snows. Both state and federal agencies pump water out of the delta to water districts in the Central Valley and Southern California. But the delta’s environment has deteriorated with the incursion of saltwater.


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  • Bright Heathen

    So Brown’s way of “handling what could be a castrophic destruction in the Delta” is just to shoot it in its head? Sweet.

  • Volunteer fact-checker

    “Environmental projections”? Really? John Howard, please proof-read more carefully, or make sure an editor has a look. Choose “environmental projects”, such as the planned tidal wetland habitat restoration efforts, or “environmental protections” which would be vague and not especially appropos to the discussion. It’s also sloppy to say the tunnels will “move *more* water” (emphasis mine). The point isn’t to move more water, but to move the same amount of water more reliably, without entraining fish and generally distorting the Delta’s pre-development hydrology. The last sentence looks like a desperate effort to summarize what might have been a well-reasoned paragraph, but ended up being a sloppy combination of errors. First off, it’s “intrusion” not “incursion”, and pre-development, it happened every late summer. The Delta’s environment has deteriorated for a dozen reasons, but sea water intrusion isn’t one of them.

    • Rogene Reynolds

      Maybe “pre-development” should go back to before the State Water Project of the 1960s. Dial back the exports and see if the Delta rebounds. The Delta is not the only man-made environment in this state. Why should it be the economy that takes the hit? The governor is playing favorites. Follow the money. Thanks for the opportunity to comment. Rogene Reynolds, South Delta

  • samrivers

    Fellow commenter Bright Heathen isn’t giving the Governor and his cohorts enough credit. They don’t want to shoot the Delta in the head; rather, they propose to slowly starve it to death by taking about half of the fresh water that an estuary needs and sending it through tunnels under the Delta. That will result in the Delta suffering a slow, agonizing death while the almond barons in the southern San Joaquin Valley and the unaware folks in Southern California get the water they want, in part at the expense of all taxpayers (at least $8 billion of the project cost, before interest, will come from State General Obligation Bonds or Federal appropriations) and the vast majority of us will get no benefit at all from the boondoggle project.

  • Volunteer fact-checker

    Bright Heathen- We humans ask the Delta to perform two conflicting functions: Be an estuary ecosystem and be a source for irrigation and municipal water supply for 2/3 of the state and its economy. If the Hayward Fault cuts loose (which some geologists say is overdue), the Delta will go back to fulfilling its brackish-water ecosystem function, but you can kiss off the state’s economy for one to two years (and not just the agricultural sector, which is a small fraction of the state’s overall economic production- Silicon Valley and Hollywood get their water from the Delta, don’t forget). Following your analogy, installing the tunnels and associated tidal wetland restoration would be more like a kidney transpant or heart bypass surgery. Yes, the tunnels are controversial, but it’s because our demands on the delta are contradictory.

    • billmonroe

      the Hayward Fault runs through the Bay area not the Delta. When it “cuts loose” there is going to be horrific destruction in cities like Oakland and San Jose, if any Delta levees fail that will be minor in comparison. The real earthquake danger to California’s water is the California Aqueduct built on the San Andreas Fault or the San Luis dam built on Ortigalita Fault. The proposed tunnels are to be held together with “gaskets and dowels” I would not want to bet my water supply on them surviving a major earthquake.
      Bill Wells
      Executive Director
      California Delta Chambers & Visitor’s Bureau

    • Chris Gulick

      “brackish-water ecosystem function”

      You might need a little fact check of your own there friend.
      In 1906 C&H Sugar built their facility in Crockett CA fully 20 miles west of the Delta. Why do you suppose they chose that location where the Carquinez Straits meets San Pablo Bay ?
      Could it be because it was the confluence of deep water shipping, railroad access and FRESH water ?
      Don’t spend a lot of time wondering, it’s true.
      The Delta is or at least was primarily a fresh water system until man began diverting water.
      For the San Joaquin River the last nail in the coffin was likely the completion of the Friant Dam that effectively ended any positive outflow on that river.
      Building a diversion to redirect the remaining flows of the Sacramento River would be repeating history with the same results likely.
      How does that do anything to contribute positively to the health of the Delta ?
      You’re right about conflicting functions.
      If we are going to sacrifice the Delta to satisfy the insatiable demands of Central Valley agriculture and China’s need for almonds and pistachios then so be it.
      Let’s just be honest about the costs and benefits, put it to a vote of the citizens who own the Public Trust resources that are at risk and see what the will of the people really is.
      Anything less is not acceptable.

  • Terry G. Spragg & Associates

    There is a better, far less expensive way to move large volumes of water through the Delta following a catastrophic levee collapse event that is less harmful to the environment that has been submitted to DWR, MET and others. An economic and technical proposal on the development and testing of an Emergency Fabric Pipeline that has the potential to quickly, economically and easily deliver up to 500,000 acre feet per year through the Delta is available from DWR, MET, Restore the Delta and elsewhere. This is an easy and inexpensive theory to test. This test has been proposed to DWR and MET. Two Southern California water agencies have submitted Resolutions to DWR and MET asking for support for testing this technology.

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  • PerfectForm

    So they want to use subsidized water (who paid for building the State and Federal water projects) so they can plant more almond and pistachio trees in the San Joaquin desert, then export over half of them? Big agriculture is the Sacred Cow in this state, still using 80% of the state’s water, and they hardly provide any jobs compared to the service industry, tech, and tourism. Oh, and then there are the rice farmers in the north getting crop subsidies, using subsidized water, and exporting the rice to Asia. I am not against getting cleaner water to the residents of SoCal, but I am against all the fields that never should have been planted south of the Delta. They drained a giant lake (Tulare), controlled all the runoff into reservoirs, and now want more from NorCal.

  • genebeley6428

    Hey, Jerry, this is California, where great technological minds roost. Our smart brains can come up with a far better, much less expensive way to supply more GUARANTEED water to everyone than your juvenile bully approach that will ruin the Delta for everyone. $1 billion each for new desal plants like San Diego County is building in Carlsbad will give them a guaranteed amount instead of committing themselves to an open checkbook for your insane plan that has NO guarantee. I’ve already seen an office water cooler than produces water from AIR and by golly, it tasted good! I think this is the type of Kool-Aid you should be serving at the Capitol and throughout California. You’ve got my telephone number. Call me and I’ll tell you who to subsidize to get that technology into the manufacturing stage with even bigger machines than home coolers! Even if you give these home coolers to every household south of the Delta, it would free up one heck of a lot of water for farmers at a cheaper price than the twin tunnel boondoggle that will end up costing over $70 billion. About the only people and companies who will be happy with the twin tunnels are your big political donor friends who will end up with the contracts to build the tunnels and allied vendors, and beneficiaries like Stewart and Linda Resnick, who will thank their darlin’ Diane Feinstein for helping to jam it through. You could be the hero if you cancel the project NOW for the betterment of all Californians and take a smarter, easier approach. It’s almost laughable that the ones who have destroyed the Delta so far promise to fix it. If you believe that Jerry, are you ready to buy the San Francisco Bay Bridge from me before it collapses again because we farmed the job out to China and got some rusty bolts and other cost cutting hardware in there?

  • Frogasaurus Rex

    Another example of the Governor not listening to the people. The voting population said NO to the Peripheral Canal. Why didn’t you listen.

    We have way to much technology these days to build antiquated projects like dams and open canals… or tunnels that lead to open canals… My cell phone has more computer power than we sent astronaughts to the Moon with! Mount Solar panels on top of a Tesla and you have a car that never needs to be fueled or plugged in…

    Solar desalination is a way to create NEW water! without the crazy energy drain. Make Smart decisions that have a nexus to the future!!!!

    Keep up or get out of the way.

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