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.

Page 7 of 8

In the first week of May, the Sierra Club wrote a letter to Governor Brown, asking him to abandon BDCP. "You and your administration are relying too heavily on an old fashioned approach to resolving California's water demand at a time when more updated ideas and alternatives are needed," the organization wrote. "Your solution is to build something big before you leave office. Yet building something big and old-fashioned isn't going to ensure — especially during a time of climate disruption — that the people of California and the environment will be guaranteed the reliable and essential water supply needed at a time it is most critical." The Sierra Club also urged Brown to "explore alternative plans to lead California in a bolder, more enlightened and comprehensive direction on water supply."

A diverse group of environmentalists, urban water districts, liberal politicians, and some business interests has proposed such an alternative to BDCP, referring to it as the "Portfolios" proposal. As the name suggests, the proposal tackles California's water problems through a portfolio of investments, including building new infrastructure, increasing conservation efforts, and boosting local water storage capacity and water supplies. If implemented, it would reduce the state's dependence on the Delta and ensure a more reliable water system that is more adaptable to climate change. The alternative plan would also be billions of dollars cheaper than BDCP.

Portfolios still proposes building a peripheral tunnel in the northern Delta; however, it would be much smaller. Scaling back the water tunnel would save an estimated $12 billion, which could then be invested in repairing Delta levees and improving local and regional water supplies.

Other noteworthy components of Portfolios include regenerating groundwater in the Central Valley and building water-recycling plants. Over the years, San Joaquin Valley farmers have sucked far too much water out of the ground, thereby harming overall water quality and making themselves ever more dependent on water deliveries from the Delta. One way to solve that problem is to pump more water back into the ground, also known as regenerating. It would allow farmers to take more water out of the Delta during wet years, when it is plentiful, and save it underground for use during dry years.

Utilizing recycled wastewater for irrigation is another way to improve California's water system. Some municipalities have invested in wastewater recycling plants, and have been able to dramatically reduce their water consumption. Santa Rosa, which recently built a water recycling plant, estimated that it saves more than 45 million gallons of potable drinking water per year. The city hopes to see that number grow to more than 500 million gallons annually in the next couple of decades. "It creates an assured supply of water that is not subject to cutbacks due to environmental problems, climate change, or an upstream diverter taking the water," said Poole of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which co-authored Portfolios.

Portfolios would also invest in improving conservation and water-efficiency efforts and increasing stormwater capturing systems. "There's a huge, undeveloped potential for all of this. ... And we think this would actually generate a bigger water supply than the [BDCP]," Poole said.

Until recently, most water agencies have been hesitant to revamp California's water infrastructure. After all, for much of the 20th century taking water out of the nearest river system was relatively cheap. However, over the past decade crashing fish populations and chronic drought have prompted severe cutbacks on nearly every major river system. "We really have to [cut] back on the Colorado River, the Delta, the Klamath [River]," said Poole.

And as water becomes scarcer, farmers and urban water users will have to pay more for it, which has prompted cities and water districts to seriously consider investing in new and local water supplies. But, Poole noted, "we need to provide the support, both financially and technically, to bring these new facilities on line," which Portfolios would do.

The plan also would also help restore the Delta's ecosystem. "It would take less water out of the estuary than we do today, it would increase flows during critical parts of the year, and it would use the existing south Delta pumps far less than the current BDCP proposal does," explained Poole.

While Portfolios is still only a conceptual plan and has yet to be carefully analyzed, eight water agencies, including East Bay MUD and the Contra Costa Water District, support it — as do 39 members of Congress, state senators, Assembly members, mayors, and county supervisors, along with numerous environmental and business organizations. "There isn't any more water, unless you're really willing to kill the rest of the rivers in California," said Gleick, who supports the Portfolios approach.

He added that when you are up against such a physical limitation, "you have to do something different, and the first thing you have to do is look at waste and inefficiency. When you do that, the answer comes back that we can do far more with far less water. ... There are plenty of alternatives for meeting the state's needs for water more effectively, productively, and efficiently."

However, high-ranking federal and state officials are mostly opposed to Portfolios, including Governor Brown. They think it has been presented too late in the game, and stand firmly behind the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

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