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Twist in the Tunnels Plan

When Gov. Jerry Brown announced two weeks ago at an Oakland press conference that he would radically downsize a 100,000-acre wetland restoration job, environmentalists and water policy activists blew the foul whistle.

The habitat enhancement work was initially billed as an integral part of Brown’s plan to build two massive water diversion tunnels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The 30-mile-long twin tubes are the central feature of Brown’s controversial hydro-engineering project, known for years as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. While Brown remains committed to building the tunnels, he has scaled back the environmental component to just 30,000 acres.

Some environmentalists are hopeful: 30,000 acres is still a lot better than nothing, they say. And, what’s more, there is talk that the work, which could bring declining fish populations back from the brink of vanishing, might begin imminently.

But critics of Brown and his tunnel-touting appointees say government agencies are trying to cheat their way out of existing environmental enhancement obligations that have not yet been met. The government, they point out, made promises to revive thousands of acres of wetland and marsh in 2009—work that remains undone. The new habitat enhancement plan is little more than a ploy to meet a six-year-old debt without adding anything new to the drawing board, the critics say.

“Cutting the habitat restoration to 30,000 acres is just winnowing it down to existing requirements,” said Tom Stokely, water policy analyst with the California Water Impact Network.

In 2009, he explains, state and federal agencies agreed to restore at least 25,000 acres of riverside habitat in the Delta and Sacramento Valley to provide nursery and refuge habitat for fish. That project was intended as a way to partially mitigate the effects of the two giant water pumps in the southern Delta, which have allowed farms in the San Joaquin Valley to flourish while playing a lead role in nearly annihilating native salmon and smelt.

But the project sites slated for improvements in Brown’s newly unveiled habitat plans are the same ones named in the 2009 plan, with only several thousand acres of new land added to the drawing board.

“These are the same projects that the state and federal water agencies were already obligated to complete,” said attorney Osha Meserve, who represents environmental and agricultural interests in the Delta.

The way conservationists see it, the government should be planning to restore at least 55,000 acres of land vital to the life cycles of fish and wildlife, rather than overlaying new restoration objectives on existing ones. Language in the 2009 law, called a biological opinion, even states that the required habitat restoration action “is not intended to conflict with or replace habitat restoration planning in the BDCP process.”

Taxpayers may also be getting cheated.

Meserve explains that the federal and state water agencies that pump Delta water to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley were supposed to be responsible for paying for the 25,000 acres assigned six years ago. That would mean they should now be paying for more than 80 percent of the 30,000 acres, the total tab for which could be $300 million.

However, the California Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation are only being billed, so far, for $130 million—less than half the cost—meaning taxpayers might be covering the remainder.

“This was just a sleight of hand to … shift part of the cost of the project to taxpayers,” Stokely said.

But to others in the environmental community, these details aren’t worth arguing about now.

A half dozen fish species in the Central Valley are teetering on extinction, says Jacob Katz, a salmon and steelhead specialist with the group California Trout. Though not a fan of the idea of two giant water diversion tunnels, he is optimistic about the way Brown has changed the project—specifically detaching the tunnel construction job, now being billed “California WaterFix,” from the wetland and floodplain enhancement work, newly branded as “California EcoRestore.” Whereas these two components were previously being packaged together in one very cumbersome master plan, they are now being handled independently.

This means that the restoration plans—like reconnecting floodplain habitat to the Sacramento River—might finally get moving after years of talk.

“I’d rather have 30,000 acres completed now than a promise for 100,000 acres that is stuck in perpetual planning and never gets done,” said Katz, who is working on a project that would seasonally inundate part of the Yolo Bypass floodplain, providing much needed habitat for young salmon.

Nancy Vogel, a spokesperson with the California Natural Resources Agency, says that within four years thousands of acres of altered riverside terrain could be restored to its natural state. The prior rendition of the BDCP, she says, called for restoring vast tracts of riverside habitat over a much longer time period—at least several decades.

“And 30,000 acres isn’t the limit,” Vogel adds. More land, she says, could be restored later.

As for the controversial tunnels, which could cost tens of billion of dollars, many people doubt they’ll ever be built.

But if they are, it could mean the demise of the Delta ecosystem, critics of the project say. Each tube would be 40 feet wide, and together they will be big enough to nearly empty the state’s largest river.

Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli believes the tunnels will prompt a decline in both Delta biodiversity and productivity of Delta farms, since the upstream water removal might allow saltwater to encroach into the estuary. He also points to an elephant in the room:

“They’re calling this the ‘California WaterFix,’ but the tunnels will not produce a single new drop of water,” he said.

State employees and supporters of the project say the tunnels will directly benefit the river-Delta ecosystem. While dams and invasive predatory fish have both played a role in denting salmon and smelt numbers, the central problem that has beleaguered the Delta ecosystem is the way in which its water is withdrawn. The existing system features two giant pumps in the southern Delta that suck huge volumes of water into a pair of irrigation canals in the San Joaquin Valley. At times, the pull from the pumps is so strong that the seaward flow of river water is reversed. Migrating fish get confused and lose their bearings, and baby salmon trying to reach the ocean swim toward the pumps instead. Millions have died this way.

Gov. Brown’s tunnels would, in theory, solve this problem by eliminating the reverse-flow pattern. They would do this by removing water from the river many miles upstream from the current pumping point. Water left in the river would be able to flow unimpeded downstream and continue to the sea.

Tunnel advocates also promise that the tubes would rarely, if ever, be filled to capacity—which Jonas Minton doesn’t believe. “You don’t spend billions of dollars more than you need to if you don’t plan to use the thing,” said Minton, water policy advisor for the Planning and Conservation League.

While laws are in place to protect Delta water quality and river ecology by limiting how much water irrigators can take, these laws have failed, with Delta smelt, and possibly winter-run Chinook salmon, now closer than ever before to extinction.

John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, which lobbies for fish habitat protection, notes that government agencies have for years promised that pumping from the Delta will not harm fish populations. But through the early 2000s, irrigators were granted so much water via the Delta pumps that the ecosystem collapsed—what biologists say was a direct cause-effect correlation. Over just a few years the commercially valuable fall-run Chinook salmon population plunged from 800,000 spawning adults to just 40,000 in 2009. The disaster prompted a multi-year closure on all fishing, while San Joaquin Valley almond orchards exploded.

“History is remarkably clear in showing that it absolutely matters how big they build the tunnels,” said McManus.

(This story first appeared in the Sacramento News & Review.)

One Comment

  1. Jim Updegraff July 4, 2015

    Don’t trust Governor Brown on tunnels – he speaks with a forked tongue. He cares zero about fish and the environment – will say and do anything to get his tunnels built.

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