If Gov. Jerry Brown had his way, the tunneling machines would be boring right now under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, carving out space for a pair of 40-foot-wide tunnels to ship Sacramento River water to cities and irrigation districts south of the Delta.
But things aren't going well for Brown's tunnel project, part of a 6-year-old effort known as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Earlier this month, federal fish agencies again raised concerns about the project's impact on imperiled salmon and other species. In particular, the National Marine Fisheries Service warned that, combined with climate change, the tunnel's diversions could contribute to the extinction of winter-run chinook salmon in the Sacramento River. It also expressed concern that the diversions, in certain conditions, could leave insufficient flow in the river for fish migration.
The agency's letter was alarming to water contractors, some of which were already leery of further investments in BDCP unless they can be assured of an expeditious process. In February, for instance, the Kern County Water Agency wrote Brown, threatening to "withdraw" from the project if federal agencies don't finish their reviews and support it by July 1.
Last week, BDCP was also supposed to release a report on its projected costs and funding sources, but now that has been put off until May 6. Speculation abounds on whether the report was delayed because of disputes among water contractors on sharing costs for the project. Richard Stapler, spokesman for the Natural Resources Agency, acknowledged there have been "disputes on the edges" about sharing costs. But he said that other factors, including the general complexity of the economic analysis, were the cause of the delay.
Brown, clearly worried about further schedule slippage, last week sent a letter to the U.S. secretaries of interior and commerce, calling on them to marshal their forces to release an environmental impact statement and Federal Register notice on the project this summer. "I stand willing to mobilize whatever resources we have at our disposal to assist the federal government in their document review," Brown wrote in the letter, sent Monday.
We agree federal officials need to step up on BDCP, but not in the way Brown proposes. What is really needed is for the Obama administration to address some of the gaping flaws in BDCP, which the governor has so far refused to acknowledge or confront. These include:
Sidelined stakeholders. From the start, BDCP's approach has been to tell Delta and Northern California stakeholders that a canal or tunnel will be built, with input from them as an afterthought. That's hardly a way to negotiate a pact that will settle decades of water battles, or comply with the state's goal of ecosystem restoration and more reliable water supplies.
South of Delta storage. Tunnels or no tunnels, the only way to ensure more reliable water supplies for San Joaquin Valley agriculture is the ability to store big gulps of water when the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers can provide it. These gulps could go into groundwater storage, or expansion of existing surface storage, such as the San Luis reservoir. BDCP adherents offer lip service to this. That's not enough.
Alternatives to big tunnels. A coalition of environmental groups, water agencies and other interests is pressing BDCP to honestly examine what it calls a "portfolio" option. It would include a single tunnel instead of two; south of Delta storage; and more emphasis on water recycling and conservation. While Resources Secretary John Laird says this alternative will be studied, it is well known his staff, as well as water contractors, oppose this option, leaving little hope it will be faithfully examined.
Operational details. The Brown administration is still pushing a "build it now, figure out how to operate it later" approach to the tunnels. That won't work. Northern California wants ironclad assurances that future operators of the tunnels won't seek to maximize diversions at the expense of the environment or Delta and upstream water users.
We and many others have made these points before. As long as they go unheard by the Brown administration, the opposition to BDCP will grow, and grow and grow.