Carolee Krieger: Twin Tunnels Water Grab is Doomed to Fail

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Viewpoints: Twin tunnels water grab is doomed to fail

by Carolee Krieger

Special to The Bee Published Thursday, Apr. 25, 2013

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan, a scheme to divert water from the Sacramento River around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the south state via two 35-mile-long tunnels, is touted by proponents as the last great hope for the Delta's beleaguered fisheries.

The twin tunnels, they claim, will greatly reduce the number of salmon, striped bass, sturgeon, Delta smelt and other species that are now lethally diverted into canals and ditches or reduced to gruel by the giant federal and state water project pumps in the south Delta.

Commercial fishermen, sport anglers and conservationists have been wary of this hype – and recent comments from the National Marine Fisheries Service indicate their concerns are well-founded.

In a comment letter to the Brown administration released last week, the fisheries service noted there are six critical issues in the plan that remain unaddressed by the California Department of Water Resources and 18 issues where work is ongoing but still unresolved. The service noted that only one issue of concern has been settled to the satisfaction of federal scientists.

In terms of direct fisheries threats, the agency noted that the twin tunnels may work in malign concert with climate change to drive the endangered Sacramento winter-run chinook salmon to extinction. More broadly, states the letter, the diversions enabled by the tunnels could reduce the Sacramento's flow to the point that salmon and other fish would find migration impossible.

The agency also observed that claims of the project's environmental benefits are overblown, particularly in regard to the proposed restoration of 65,000 acres of fisheries and wildlife habitat. The fisheries service said such an effort is unlikely to succeed because it will be difficult to acquire all the needed land. Indeed, the letter notes, the Department of Water Resources has not provided any specific feasibility analysis to identify just how this land will be obtained, and at what cost. Rather, Water Resources blithely bases related analyses on the assumption the restoration will be successful; there are no "bounding analyses" examining the effects of the twin tunnels if habitat restoration does not proceed as planned.

Further, the letter states, Brown administration claims of the positive impacts of the planned habitat restorations are probably exaggerated. One of the goals of the restoration is the expansion of habitat for juvenile salmon and other fish during moderate to wet years. While this habitat won't be available to fish during dry years, DWR characterizes such events as rare. To the contrary: as the fisheries service points out, below-normal to low water years occur 40 percent of the time.

Though it is couched in polite language, the fisheries service's analysis should not be construed as anything but a rejection of the twin tunnels project. Given that the current administration in Washington is Democratic, and Gov. Jerry Brown is by any reasonable evaluation the most powerful Democratic governor in the union, any federal demurral, no matter how fastidious in construction, must be considered a forthright condemnation of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

Even Gov. Brown's determination to build mammoth "legacy" infrastructure projects cannot hide the shoddy science and duplicitous huckstering behind this boondoggle – and federal scientists were obliged to point this out.

Nor do the federal comments address the tremendous burden this project will impose on California citizens. Indeed, the price tag trumps even the profound environmental impacts as a reason for rejecting the conservation plan.

Administration officials peg the costs for the twin tunnels at $24.5 billion. Past experience has taught us to accept such figures at our financial peril. All we have to do is look to Southern California for an example.

In 1991, Central Coast water agencies supported the construction of the coastal branch, an aqueduct that connected to the State Water Project. The state assured participants the cost for the project would tally out at $270 million. Twenty years later, ratepayers are saddled with $1.76 billion in debt and maintenance charges – and they're worse off in terms of water security. Due to high statewide water demands and scant supplies, the four coastal cities receive no more than 36 percent of their allotted water.

We can anticipate similar price inflation for the twin tunnels. Nor will the project guarantee additional supplies for the parched south state.

Jerry Meral, deputy director of natural resources in charge of implementing the conservation plan, acknowledged the tunnels are simply a delivery system for existing water, designed to shuttle Sacramento River flows around the Delta in as expeditious a manner as possible. They will do nothing to augment supplies.

California deserves a better plan. In fact, one exists – a rational and cost-effective strategy based on conservation, recycling, groundwater recharge and the retirement of impaired agricultural lands.