As California dries out under a sunny sky and its farmers hope for rain, the battle has begun over Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed $14 billion twin-tunnels plan to divert water around the environmentally deteriorating Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Unlike when then-Gov. Schwarzenegger proposed a tunnel, the federal government specifically the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Marine Fisheries Service backs the project.
This stamp of approval is important because the Interior Department oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for restoring delta smelt. The National Marine Fisheries Service also has its finger on the delta's pulse. It is charged with increasing salmon and sturgeon populations there.
Besides touting a reduction in fish killed by the delta's massive pumps if the tunnels are built, Brown says the project will protect freshwater diversions from levee collapses and rising sea levels.
"The current plumbing configuration in the delta serves neither people nor fish and wildlife well," says Mark Cowin, the state's Department of Water Resources director. "To do nothing invites disaster."
But while the state's biggest urban water and irrigation districts support the tunnels, there are farmers and environmentalists vehemently opposed to them. The Southern California Watershed Alliance, for example, has launched a website and commercial campaign saying the project is a boondoggle that will bring higher water rates to the south. Many people living in the delta around Manteca, Stockton and Ripon are adamantly opposed to any plan that takes more water out of the ecosystem.
Brown comes to the battle with scars. Voters overwhelmingly rejected his Peripheral Canal plan in 1982. But he is plunging ahead and calling the project "another test of whether we can govern ourselves."
We have supported a solution either around or under the delta that helps the environment and delivers water to farmers and 25 million residents without destroying our neighbors who live within. What we would like is a frank and fair public discussion about the project's merits and costs versus potential alternatives. We are curious about the science underpinning the belief that any plan that diverts fresh water from river systems could actually help restore the delta to health.
Cowin is right. To do nothing invites disaster. But to do the wrong thing accelerates disaster and leaves taxpayers all the poorer.
For more information
To learn more about Browns proposal, go to http://baydeltaconservationplan.com.
Opponents of the plan share their views at www.deltatunnelsboondoggle.com.