Growing Evidence Highlights Cracks in California Delta Tunnels Plan

An unpublished analysis shows that Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to build twin tunnels won’t benefit either farmers or citizens, writes Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta.

Written by Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
A sign opposing a proposed tunnel plan to ship water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to Southern California is displayed near Freeport.Rich Pedroncelli, AP

As Water Deeply readers already know, the Peripheral Canal was rejected by California voters in 1982 when Jerry Brown was governor. But the proposal was reborn in 2015 as the California WaterFix, often referred to as the Delta tunnels.

Recently, advocates for the Delta tunnels have been experiencing severe heartache over revelations that undermine their proposal. Using the California Public Records Act, Restore the Delta found that the state commissioned an economic analysis of the proposed tunnels, but it was never published. The Associated Press picked up the story and put it on their international wire.

“Giant tunnels that Gov. Jerry Brown wants to build to haul water across California are economically feasible only if the federal government bears a third of the nearly $16 billion cost because local water districts may not benefit as expected, according to an analysis that the state commissioned last year but never released,” the AP reported. “The findings run counter to longstanding state pledges that the districts that would get water from the tunnels would pay the full cost.”

In the economic analysis, Dr. Jeffrey Michael, director of the Center for Business and Policy Research at the University of the Pacific, found confirmation of problems he had long suspected.

“Because costs exceed benefits for agricultural users, the report actually finds that the tunnels are not economically feasible as this requires benefits to exceed allocated costs for all users,” Michael wrote. “Thus, much of the rest of the report attempts to rationalize public subsidies to lower the costs for agricultural contractors.”

Even more troubling is the report’s assumption that water yields (the difference in export water delivery with and without the tunnels) are four times higher than actually outlined in the petition to the State Water Resources Control Board.

Meanwhile, none of the agencies or water districts who promised to pay for the Delta tunnels have committed to paying for the new proposed project.

If peripheral tunnels are Moby Dick, Jerry Brown has become Captain Ahab.

As the economic and water delivery arguments for the Delta tunnels falter, tunnel boosters have launched a PR war. Corporate farms like the Wonderful Company, along with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, are running a PR campaign through the astroturf group “Californians for Water Security.” Westlands and San Luis and Mendota Water Authority are funding a fake Latino group called “El Agua es Asunto De Todos.”

As the New York Times explains, “El Agua is bankrolled by more than $1.1 million from the Westlands Water District, the nation’s largest agricultural irrigation contractor, a state entity created at the behest of – and largely controlled by – some of California’s wealthiest and most politically influential farmers.”

In a recent Water Deeply op-ed, tunnel proponent Gerald Meral serves up the same talking points he used since the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which did not meet environmental standards and could not get federal permits. Meral’s claims remain unsubstantiated by modeling or science.

For example, Meral argues that, “… a big infrastructure project could ease the sharing of the Delta’s resources for both fish and people.” But there is little proof for that claim.

The Revised Draft EIR/EIS show that all fisheries do worse with operation of the tunnels. Taking 50 percent or more of the Sacramento River before it ever flows across the estuary is a terrible idea. The project would create new reverse flows around the new intakes that are problematic for juvenile salmon. The Revised Draft EIR/EIS shows that even smelt do worse with the Delta tunnels. Why? Fisheries do best with reduced water exports from the Delta.

The tunnels would also degrade water quality for all other beneficial uses, including drinking water for the 4 million people of the Delta.

The 2009 Delta Reform Act is quite clear: The state must reuse to reduce dependence on exported Delta water. The 2010 hearings on Delta flows at the State Water Resources Control Board found that restoration of the estuary and improved water quality begins with more freshwater flowing through the Delta and out to the Golden Gate.

The way to accomplish this is with a sustainable export regime based on sound science. Removing more water from the estuary is not being warmly received by permitting agencies – like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which gave the most recent draft a failing grade.

Federal fishery agencies are also on record as being skeptical that the Delta tunnels would protect fish species suffering from the lack of adequate freshwater flows through the Delta. Their approval is still required before the project can happen.

To keep pretending the Delta tunnels, as proposed, would protect the Bay-Delta estuary and the profits of Metropolitan Water District and Westlands almond growers is like hunting obsessively for a whale while driven by a thirst for revenge.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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