Tunnel Vision Part Two: Rivers in Peril 

How Jerry Brown's plan to build two giant water tunnels, along with legislation in Congress, could ultimately spoil the last of Northern California's wild and scenic rivers.

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Running the tunnels at full capacity would require pumping the water through the tunnels, which is more expensive, she added. But Vogel acknowledged that the tunnels would nonetheless have the capacity to handle 15,000 cubic-feet per second (CFS) of water — the equivalent of 10.9 million acre-feet a year. She said it would add about $1 billion in extra costs to do so. She also said in a follow-up email that increasing the amount of water shipped through the tunnels also would require a new permit-approval process.

However, building the tunnels larger than needed also will add billions to the cost of the project, thereby raising questions as to whether it makes sense to make them that big if there wasn't a possibility to use them at their full capacity. In addition, paying an extra $1 billion down the line to run them at full capacity is not a lot of money, considering the stakes, so it's feasible that such a scenario could become reality.

Environmental groups, not surprisingly, are wary, and believe that Westlands and Metropolitan water districts are pushing for the larger tunnels in order to get their hands on more water in the future. "It is hard to imagine that the exporters would pay the additional billions of dollars to construct the 15,000 CFS tunnels ... unless the true plan and project is to operate at that level," Friends of the River wrote in a letter to federal water officials earlier this month.


Peltier of Westlands Water District said the agency has taken no position on the proposed removal of the federal wild and scenic status on the Merced River — or of removing the designation from any other California river. However, the district does support raising Shasta Dam, which would require the lifting of a state wild and scenic protection on the McCloud River.

Moreover, people who have kept close tabs on Westlands over the years say the district has repeatedly made deceptive moves and kept its true motives under wraps in order to further its interests and those of Big Ag. In fact, Westlands owes its current prosperity to a decades-old deception.

Today, Westlands is the largest water district in the nation in terms of acreage. It includes 600,000 acres of desert land on the western side of the San Joaquin Valley that has been turned into an agricultural cash cow thanks to cheap water diverted from Northern California through the Delta. As we reported last week in part one of this two-part series, Westlands began receiving Delta water after a politician bankrolled by the district, US Representative Bernard Sisk, a Fresno Democrat, vowed to Congress in 1960 that the water would allow Westlands to become a bastion for small-scale family farms.

However, that promise never came true. Instead, Westlands and the factory farms it represents used the huge profits that they reaped from all that water to make sure that the area has remained primarily in the hands of Big Ag. Records show that Westlands and its major growers have spent millions on lobbying and political donations over the past few decades. At the same time, the district has pocketed more than $1 billion in taxpayer subsidies, according to an exhaustive report on the history of the irrigation district by longtime journalist Lloyd G. Carter that was published by Golden Gate University's Environmental Law Journal.

Westlands not only exerts considerable influence in Sacramento, but it also has plenty of political juice in Washington, DC. The district's primary Beltway lobbyist, Norman Brownstein, is a well-known political power broker. The late Senator Ted Kennedy once dubbed him the "101st Senator."

In 2011, Westlands spent $160,000 lobbying Congress, and then shelled out more than double that amount — $360,000 — in 2012, lobbying on issues relating to the US Bureau of Reclamation and the US Endangered Species Act. The Endangered Species Act protects threatened fish in the Delta and is one the main reasons why Westlands has not received more water from the estuary.

Westlands growers also have contributed heavily over the years to Feinstein and Congressman Costa, the San Joaquin Valley Democrat who is co-sponsoring the bill to remove the wild and scenic designation on the Merced River. In 2011, Costa authored the More Water for Our Valley Act, which sought (unsuccessfully) to weaken the Endangered Species Act and ease restrictions on pumping water out of the Delta. In 2012, he teamed up with Feinstein and Republicans in a push to raise Shasta Dam. And just last month, Costa introduced the More Water and Security for Californians Act, which also seeks to weaken fish protections and increase water exports from the Delta.

Over the years, Westlands also has attempted to sway public opinion in its favor by claiming that water cutbacks from the Delta due to fish protections have caused high unemployment and widespread poverty in the western San Joaquin Valley. But according to Carter's research, the Westlands area has been plagued by crushing poverty for decades for reasons that have nothing to do with the amount of water flowing to the area. Instead, the region's economic deprivation is primarily the result of giant factory farms employing migrant workers at rock-bottom wages. In 2008, Costa's Congressional district had the dubious distinction of being named the poorest in the nation.

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