Mike Dunbar

Mike Dunbar: Why the water bond must pass

Sometimes, people take identical facts and reach opposite conclusions.

I don’t dispute the facts that Dr. Rob Santos, the veterinarian and Turlock Irrigation District board member, used when he wrote “Here’s why I can’t vote for Brown’s water bond” (Oct. 19, Issues & Ideas). I just completely disagree with his conclusion.

It is utterly crucial that Proposition 1 passes. If it doesn’t, then the people who have targeted “our” water – the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus rivers – will become even more desperate to get it. And with their greater resources, political clout and money, it will be harder to stop them. The only way to save our water is for this bond to pass.

First, the facts Santos and I share.

▪ Gov. Jerry Brown first tried to move our water south three decades ago with the Peripheral Canal. The plan was to detour the Sacramento River around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta directly to the California Aqueduct. Voters stomped on that scheme in 1982, and we thought it was dead. We were wrong. It’s back, but now it’s known as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, and its centerpiece is the twin tunnels. The state’s $25 billion plan lists “co-equal” goals: 1) make water deliveries south more “reliable” and 2) “save” the Delta.

▪ To “save” the Delta, the state plans to suck most of the Sacramento River – which supplies 75 percent of the Delta’s water – into two 40-foot pipes and send it under the Delta. The state’s scientists tell us – with straight faces – that they will “save” the largest estuary on the West Coast of North America by taking water out of it.

▪ Without most of the Sacramento River, the only way to keep saltwater from the San Francisco Bay out of the Delta is to have more freshwater flowing in from the San Joaquin River, which is about a quarter of the size of the Sacramento. The San Joaquin’s biggest tributaries – bigger, in fact, than the San Joaquin itself – are the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced (in that order). They are “our” rivers.

But how will the state take our water? By demanding more of it to “save” the rivers and the fish within. The State Water Resources Control Board – under the direction of former Natural Resources Defense Council lawyer Felicia Marcus – has already said it. Repeatedly. The water board wants 35 to 40 percent of our rivers to flow into the Delta. That’s more than double the amount it takes now. Such flows might help fish, whose prospects are doubtful due to a warming climate, say many scientists, but it will definitely change the lives of everyone in our region. Our most profitable crops can’t be grown with such sharply curtailed water deliveries.

▪ This won’t come to a vote. Since the Peripheral Canal was so roundly defeated in 1982, Brown has said he will ask those who will most benefit from the tunnels to pay for them. That means water districts in the South Valley and the giant Metropolitan Water District will have to find $25 billion. Easy for some, not so much for others.

So how does the water bond affect this?

If the water bond passes, it’s likely two reservoirs – Temperance Flat on the San Joaquin and Sites off the Sacramento – will be built. Those who benefit – mainly farmers – will have to pay half the cost of those reservoirs.

Those farmers are smart – and they’re tight with their money. If they’re being asked to pay for two dams already, they are less likely to want to pay for tunnels, too. And that could fracture the BDCP’s coalition.

Even if the water bond passes, the state water board will come after our rivers. And we’ll likely have to give up some water. But we can truthfully argue that the Sacramento is more important to the Delta. And it’s unlikely South Valley farmers will be clamoring to pay for more projects.

With the water bond, we have a fighting chance to keep more of our rivers in our reservoirs. Without it, it will be a much tougher fight.

Bee Opinions Page Editor Mike Dunbar can be reached at mdunbar@modbee.com or (209) 578-2325.