Opinion Columns & Blogs

Gov. Brown’s tunnels project is a Delta disaster

Executive Director of Restore the Delta Barbara Barrigan speaks on the north steps of the state Capitol in Sacramento in opposition of the state's proposed Delta tunnel project.
Executive Director of Restore the Delta Barbara Barrigan speaks on the north steps of the state Capitol in Sacramento in opposition of the state's proposed Delta tunnel project. Sacramento Bee File/2015

Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Morain recently conflated the proposed Delta tunnels with a project that offers a solution for managing California’s water in our changing climate. This argument misses the mark.

Gov. Jerry Brown is correct when he says that President Trump’s decision to leave the Paris Climate Agreement is disastrous for the environment and will have negative consequences for California. California just experienced a five-year drought and climate scientists predict more weather extremes in the decades to come.

But the Delta Tunnels fail to qualify as a project to address climate change because they will not restore the Delta’s ecosystem or improve California’s water supply reliability as mandated under the 2009 Delta Reform Act.

Let me explain.

The existing pumps at Tracy will be used rather than the tunnels about 52 percent of the time because flows through the Delta will be too low to use the new facilities. And because there is no plan to screen the existing pumps, large fish kills will continue at the Tracy pumps.

San Francisco Bay residents just voted to tax themselves in order to create more wetlands to combat sea level rise. But the Delta Tunnels construction will cause a net loss of 15,000 acres of wetlands within the estuary. The Brown administration has argued that the Delta can’t be saved due to sea-level rise.

A recent UCLA study found that the Sierra snowpack will decrease by about 30 percent by the end of the century. Other reports indicate that runoff for the Delta watershed will decrease 38 percent over the next 40 years.

While less water will be available for export, staff from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California told a recent Bay-Delta Committee meeting that water sales will be used to finance the $17 billion in bonds that will have to be paid with interest, as well as additional annual operation and maintenance costs.

How can Metropolitan or any other water district secure financing when less and less water will be available for sale? Economist Jeff Michael, Director of the Center for Business and Policy Research at the University of the Pacific, has stated the tunnels cannot be built without a taxpayer subsidy.

The engineering report for CA WaterFix indicates that the proposed new intakes at the town of Hood are being designed for 18 inches of sea level rise, yet the Delta Stewardship Council’s plan for the Delta indicates that we should be planning for 55 inches of sea level rise.

The $17 billion tunnels will very likely become a stranded asset if proper mitigation is not completed in the Bay Area and coast for dealing with sea level rise.

Four million people live in the Delta counties. The Delta is home to PG&E power lines and natural gas facilities, highways, railroads and other key pieces of infrastructure for the state. Levees will need to be raised to mitigate for sea level rise even if the tunnels are built to protect people and billions of dollars of important infrastructure. The Delta cannot become a sacrifice zone.

If Delta fisheries are going to survive in a changing climate fresh water flows will need to be augmented and protected, not exported from further upstream within the Delta.

The design for the new proposed intakes includes large sedimentation ponds where water would be filtered to pass through the tunnels so that the tunnels will not become clogged. These ponds would be clogged during periods of flooding and high water flows like we experienced this year because so much debris moves downstream.

It should be noted that with climate change droughts will be longer, and floods will be more extreme. Tunnels will not protect people or the state’s water supply.

While we celebrate Brown building overseas alliances to do the hard work of mitigating climate change and reducing emissions in light of the Trump administration’s failure to do so, the public should not be misled that the Delta tunnels are a climate change project.

Unless dealt with in an expedient and aggressive manner, climate change will create havoc for the Delta’s ecosystem and management of drinking water supplies for millions, but the Delta Tunnels will fail to mitigate these impacts. The tunnels will make water management in California worse.

If preparing for climate change is the goal, $17 billion would go much further and provide more jobs, if we build more projects like the ones featured in our California Sustainable Water Plan.

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of Stockton is executive director of Restore the Delta. Connect with her at barbara@restorethedelta.org.