Tunnel Vision Part One: Delta in Peril 

How Jerry Brown's plan to build two giant water tunnels could devastate the largest estuary on the West Coast.

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Sending more water through the tunnels during the summer and fall would also raise water temperatures in the Delta, limiting the available habitat for Delta smelt. "Even wet years would functionally become dry years for a third of Delta smelt's [one-year] life cycle," Fish and Wildlife wrote.

Ryan Wulff, a senior policy advisor for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service in the Central Valley, noted that BDCP has the potential to improve conditions for Chinook salmon, mainly because of the ability to place fish screens on new north Delta intakes. However, he also pointed out that, because BDCP hasn't nailed down specific flow levels, it's unclear how the giant tunnels might affect green sturgeon. "BDCP has made significant progress, but we need to make sure that the biological goals, which are good, remain the foundation of the plan," he said. "We also want to make sure we're not trading the problems in the south [Delta] for new ones in the north [Delta]."

BDCP officials contend that the 120,000-acre habitat restoration project would offset any harm caused by the twin tunnels, but Fish and Wildlife called that conclusion "speculation" that does not reflect current scientific understanding. "The idea is that they're going to restore habitats, inundate floodplains, take down some levees, let the water get back into the shallow marsh areas, and that will more than account for the massive diversion of water from the system," said Rosenfield. "But it won't. Plain and simple."

State Department of Water Resources representative Vogel noted that BDCP is "a revocable permit, which we will lose if the fish population drops below a certain level."

But the details of the permit haven't been worked out yet, and due to the great uncertainty in BDCP, many believe that non-negotiable environmental protections should be written into the plan itself (which could happen during the permitting process next year). "We don't want to step into a fifty-year permit without knowing what we're getting into," Rosenfield said. "We need assurances that if something doesn't go as planned, exporters won't get more water."

There are also concerns that the twin tunnels may increase how much water is pumped out of the Delta. Current environmental regulations limit water exports from the Delta to an average of about 4.8 million acre-feet a year. However, under BDCP, between 4.8 million acre-feet and 5.6 million acre feet could be pumped from the Sacramento River and the estuary — and even more in the future, if needed.

Still, Vogel expressed frustration toward accusations that BDCP is going to "'drain the Delta dry.' We could never do that, we have so many regulations we need to meet."

State law, the US Clean Water Act, and the US Endangered Species Act ensure minimum outflows of freshwater into the Delta, and prevent the estuary from exceeding certain salinity levels. However, a handful of powerful water districts, Big Agribusiness, and their political allies, have been trying to gut these protections for years. And if they are successful, then water exports out of the Delta may not only increase; they could skyrocket.


Over the past half-century, several large and influential water districts have wielded considerable political power in Sacramento and are now driving the plan to build the giant water tunnels with Governor Brown. These water districts, which shower campaign contributions on elected officials and keep high-priced lobbyists on retainer, also have filed numerous lawsuits over the years in an ongoing effort to weaken environmental laws and regulations.

The most aggressive plaintiff has been the Westlands Water District, the largest irrigation district in the United States (by acreage, not members). Westlands provides irrigation water for western San Joaquin Valley factory farms and Big Agribusiness, and over the years it has used its influence to undermine environmental protections. "They're the poster child for a water district that works purely in their own interest," said Peter Gleick, executive director of the Oakland-based environmental think tank the Pacific Institute. "But sometimes their interests don't align with broader social, environmental, or state interests."

Westlands irrigates hundreds of thousands of acres of harsh desert in the western San Joaquin Valley. The region sits in the rain shadow of the coastal range, and sees a meager eight inches of precipitation on average each year. Very few rivers or streams flow into the region, and its alkaline soil is plagued by poor drainage, which has caused high levels of toxic selenium to accumulate over the years. The water district also has sucked the underground aquifers dry. "It is really an area that should have never been farmed," said Richard Walker, an expert on California agriculture and a retired professor of geography at UC Berkeley.

But tens of millions of acre-feet of highly subsidized Delta water have turned this inhospitable land into a cash cow for Big Agribusiness. There are very few small farmers in the region, and today the western San Joaquin Valley is covered in high-value, water-intensive crops. "We have some of the highest yields of tomatoes ... some of the highest yields of almonds," boasted Jason Peltier, Westlands' chief deputy general manager. "In the fall and spring, Westlands alone grows nearly 100 percent of the lettuce in the US. We [offer] a tremendous value to our food supply."

In 1960, the state began pumping Northern California river water to the western San Joaquin Valley after Fresno Democratic Congressman Bernard Sisk — whose political campaigns were bankrolled by Westlands — promised to turn the dusty valley into a bastion of small-scale family farmers "sharing the productivity and the bounty of fertile lands blossoming with an ample supply of ... water," according to an exhaustive report on the history of Westlands written by longtime journalist Lloyd G. Carter and published by Golden Gate University's Environmental Law Journal.

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