If Delta ‘tunnels’ are built, we’re the biggest losers

A campaign sign along Highway 160 south of Sacramento argues against the Delta tunnels. Gov. Gavin Newsom is downsizing the project to a single tunnel.
A campaign sign along Highway 160 south of Sacramento argues against the Delta tunnels. Gov. Gavin Newsom is downsizing the project to a single tunnel. Sacramento Bee file

EDITOR'S NOTE: In a previous version of this story, the number of acres to be restored in the California WaterFix was misstated. The state plans to restore 30,000 acres, reduced from previously announced 67,000 acres.


A million people live in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. If Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to siphon water to Los Angeles is completed, all of us are going to suffer.

In building two tunnels under Brown’s California WaterFix, the state will be forced to confiscate ever more of the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus rivers. We are resolutely opposed to this plan and have been since it was first hatched.

That position now puts us in direct opposition to our big-sister newspaper, The Sacramento Bee. In an editorial published Sunday, The Sacramento Bee endorsed – albeit, tepidly – the WaterFix, saying one of its centerpiece twin tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta would be a “welcome” part of the solution.

We’re not alone in our opposition. The San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, Stockton Record and The Fresno Bee all have said the tunnels are a bad idea. Not one major newspaper north of Bakersfield sees the wisdom in building a pair of 40-foot diameter tunnels capable of sending the entire Sacramento River under the Delta.

The Sacramento Bee even disagrees with itself. In 1982, it editorialized against Brown’s original water grab – Proposition 9’s Peripheral Canal. The tunnels are basically the same plan, just wrapped in concrete and buried 150 feet. This time, The Sacramento Bee likes the idea.

There is one other major difference. In 2018, Brown won’t risk asking voters for permission. He wants southern California’s gargantuan Metropolitan Water District and south Valley farmers to pay for his WaterFix tunnels, even if they have to build them one at a time. That plan could doom it. We hope so; this awful idea will hurt us and the Delta.

That’s because the Sacramento River provides 80 to 85 percent of the water flowing into the Delta. Divert significant portions south, and salty San Francisco Bay water will come rushing deep into our Valley. The only thing capable of holding back all that salty water would be far greater flows from the San Joaquin River.

This is where we come in. Without our rivers, the San Joaquin is a trickle. So, in Phase I of the WaterFix the state already is demanding that twice as much water – sometimes three times more – flows down the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus rivers into the Delta. The state says it’s all for the sake of salmon. But their insistence that only greater flows can save salmon is laughably inaccurate.

Peer-reviewed studies have shown the key to more salmon isn’t more water, but better habitat, more wetlands, less predation and facilitating natural migration signals only the salmon understand. Others have called the Delta a “killing field” for salmon, admitting that simply flushing more water through the Delta – without first fixing it – will be a waste.

Speaking of waste, a single tunnel will cost at least $12 billion. But that’s chickenfeed compared to our region’s cost of losing so much water.

For 130 years, residents in Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties – with the enthusiastic blessings of the state – have been building dams, digging canals and sloughs, creating reservoirs and installing turbines to generate millions of kilowatts of electricity. What good are dams without water behind them?

If the tunnels aren’t built, there’s a better possibility the state will actually focus on its promise to “restore the Delta.” Today, the Delta is an engineered system of armored sloughs and channels; it resembles nothing like the marshes and wetlands of 130 years ago. Non-native species eat virtually all the Delta smelt and juvenile salmon.

The WaterFix says the state will restore 30,000 acres of marsh and wetlands – down from 67,000 acres which was reduced from 100,000 acres originally planned. Still a great start, but why not do that before ruining our region.

Modesto residents get half their drinking water from the Tuolumne River; 8,400 farmers use it to generate $3 billion in food products – almonds, milk, walnuts, grapes, melons, peaches, apples, apricots, cherries and much more.

In adjoining south San Joaquin and Merced counties, similar percentages of the Stanislaus and Merced rivers serve the same purpose – providing water for drinking and growing food worth a combined $5 billion.

Crops are processed in dozens of wineries, canneries, drying sheds, ice cream and candy factories and hulling facilities. These thousands of jobs don’t pay well by Bay Area standards, but they keep the wolves away from the doors of some of the most industrious, but poorest, people in California.

After generations of investing in water infrastructure, ag land in our counties sells for 10 even 20 times the price of ag land in water-poor areas. Crush that tax base, and see public services from law enforcement to education ruined.

The state knows all this, admitting farmers won’t even be able to make up for diminished irrigation flows by pumping groundwater. The state also knows less irrigation water means switching from highly profitable tree crops – which Modesto-area farmers pioneered – to annual crops that can be abandoned when water is scarce. The state’s response: Tough.

When irrigation water first flowed to our fields, in the 1890s, it was called a miracle. Excursion trains carried San Franciscans to “Paradise Valley” to marvel at it.

By building the tunnels and taking our water, the state will make the finest irrigated farmlands in California resemble the fields now so common to the south: drier, dustier and sinking as water is sucked from beneath. This isn’t just a water grab, it’s an attack on the state’s most powerless people.

It’s a matter of social justice and economic survival.

Legions of state bureaucrats try to justify this water grab, and now The Sacramento Bee considers it a good idea. The tunnels won’t save the Delta, but they will hurt us. Don’t build even one.