The first time Jerry Brown was governor of California, his greatest policy defeat came when resentful Northern Californians voted almost unanimously in 1982 to reverse a legislative vote authorizing a massive ditch around the delta of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers.
This was called the Peripheral Canal; it aimed to bring Northern California river water to the farms of the San Joaquin Valley and cities in Southern California.
Once that plan died, anything remotely similar became political anathema for decades until Brown retook the governor’s office in late 2010. Demonstrating that his goals rarely change, Brown soon began pushing for a more sophisticated and expensive version of the canal, this time two giant underground concrete culverts rather than an earthen ditch like the original canal plan.
Brown has pushed this tunnel plan all through his second go-’round in the Capitol, and now it may be reaching a decisive point. Not only are water districts around the state becoming concerned about who will pay the project’s cost of about $17 billion (plus interest), but local governments in the immediate area are alarmed over a host of environmental issues.
In late August, Sacramento County sued to stop the plan, which might make water supplies more reliable, but would produce very little more water than moves south from the Delta area without the tunnels in an average year.
Cities like Stockton and Antioch, hard by the Delta and its latticework of canals and streams, plus the Placer County Water Agency and several groups of commercial fishermen also are suing.
Sacramento County’s action says the state Department of Water Resources ignores environmental harm to the Delta, including the taking of almost 700 acres of the county’s farmland out of production during the projected 13-year construction period. The county also says its water quality will drop, as would the quality of water flowing to and through the Delta after the tunnels open.
State officials deny most of this, insisting water quality in the Delta will improve and be far more controllable if the tunnels are built. The conservation groups Restore the Delta, Friends of the River and the Sierra Club joined the lawsuits, too, insisting the 35-mile-long tunnels flout the California Environmental Quality Act (known as CEQA) and would cost up to $67 billion by the time they’re done.
Enter money. This project might be a pretty tough sell in Southern California once more of the public…