Delta plan meets fierce opposition
By: Alex Breitler
SACRAMENTO - Calling it a "big idea for a big state," Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday repeated his desire to build twin tunnels to divert water away from the Delta to cities and farms as far south as San Diego.
And - in less decorous terms - he explained his motive.
"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. I want to get this thing done the best I can.
"We're going to take into account the opposition," Brown added, "but we're not going to sit here and twiddle our thumbs and stare at our navel. We're going to make decisions and get it done. If we have to fight initiatives or referendums, we'll fight those, too. But somehow before I'm ready to turn in my payroll card, I expect to get some very important things done, and this is one of them."
Brown's announcement was swiftly condemned by protestors on the west steps of the state Capitol, including elected officials, businesspeople, farmers and fishermen from the Stockton area.
"He's not a leader. He's a dictator," Stockton Mayor Ann Johnston told the crowd of about 200 people. "At this point in time, he is telling us what is best for us, what is best for the state of California, but what it does is it ruins the Northern California agriculture economy, the family farms, all of the things that we count on as citizens living in this area."
Despite the rhetoric and hoopla, there was little news Wednesday. Details of Brown's revised Bay Delta Conservation Plan have already been reported. So have critics' concerns.
The "new" plan calls for diverting Sacramento River water near Hood into gravity-fed tunnels that would extend about 35 miles to existing pumping plants near Tracy, the start of the aqueducts that feed farmland in the San Joaquin Valley and cities on the far side of the Tehachapi Mountains.
This would reduce the number of fish sucked into those pumps. But it would also reduce the amount of fresh water in the estuary - another potential problem for fish, farmers and residents of the Delta.
The latest version of the plan is a smaller than the one contemplated during the old Peripheral Canal fight of the 1980s and even the more recent proposal by the Schwarzenegger administration - a project that fish agencies said would harm, not help, threatened fish in the Delta.
The new proposal is still enough to divert half of the Sacramento River at various times of year, but one of the wildlife agencies that will have oversight of the plan sounded optimistic Wednesday.
"Do we think these changes are going to work? We believe, yes," said Will Stelle of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In some ways, however, the plan remains an expensive experiment. Besides the $14 billion tunnels, officials would spend billions more converting 113,000 acres of Delta farmland to wetland habitat. However, it's unclear the degree to which habitat will help fish. That answer might not come until the tunnels are already built.
"(The new proposal) is no less destructive and no less damaging to the extraordinary resource of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta," U.S. Rep. John Garamendi said on the Capitol steps. "To the governor, you launched a war. We'll fight the battle."
American Indians joined business-types wearing suits for the rally, only a few blocks from where the governor spoke inside of the state's Natural Resources Building.
Some were angry that the governor excluded the public from the announcement.
"It should have been done where the concerned citizenry were able to hear it first-hand," said Ron Addington of The Business Council of San Joaquin County. "Why couldn't he look us in the eye?"
Informed of the governor's comment about desiring to get the project done, Stockton Vice Mayor Kathy Miller said, "It's a personal goal, and as the governor he should be setting goals to help all the people in the state of California."
Roberts Island landowner Rogene Reynolds, a veteran of the 1982 fight, agreed.
"I think he wants a legacy," she said. "If he really cared about all of California he'd realize it isn't good for all of California. Why is our administration choosing one region over another?"
Addressing another controversial point, the state's refusal to conduct a full financial analysis for the project, Johnston told the crowd: "Come to Stockton. We've had projects we didn't do an adequate cost-benefit analysis on, and look where we are."
Brown acknowledged there would be opposition to his vision.
He emphasized that California is "one state," and argued that the tunnels would be "absolutely essential" to dealing with threats to the water supply from earthquakes and climate change. Outside experts view Delta levees as vulnerable, although opponents to Brown's plan argue the levees can be fortified to deal with that risk for far less money than the cost of the tunnels.
While Brown referred to his plan as a "preferred alternative" - a legal term used in the environmental review process - his official news release called the announcement merely a "path forward." Other alternatives, including a no-tunnel plan, will be considered as a draft plan is issued this fall.
Notably, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar affirmed the federal government's commitment to the project.
"We are one in moving forward to solve the problems that have bedeviled this state for the longest of times, with the epic water wars that have been part of this state for five, six decades," Salazar said.
One major water district that relies on Delta exports sounded pleased with Wednesday's announcement. The Kern County Water Agency called Brown's remarks "tangible evidence" that the state and feds will, indeed, complete the plan by next year.
But there is still concern whether the millions already spent by water users will ever yield water.
Published 1 year, 4 months ago under Rivers to Oceans