The recent move by Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny to invalidate the Brown administration’s Delta Plan is good news for water reform advocates. The Delta Plan was an administration blueprint to restore the beleaguered Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta. That was its putative purpose, at least. In reality, it was a flawed — even cynical — document drawn up by Department of Water Resources staffers to expedite construction of the Twin Tunnels, Governor Brown’s massive and prohibitively expensive megaproject that would drain the Delta of life-sustaining freshwater for export to the corporate farms of the western San Joaquin Valley.
Judge Kenny determined the plan does not conform to state law because it contains only “recommendations” for export flows, not clear, quantified and enforceable targets. And without a legally sound Delta Plan, the Twin Tunnels cannot move forward. As lead litigants in the lawsuit that resulted in the decision, we at the California Water Impact Network (C-WIN) are deeply gratified.
But Judge Kenny’s ruling is only a respite for Twin Tunnels foes, not a definitive victory. The Brown administration will certainly exercise the option of revising the plan so that it meets statutory benchmarks; if the courts approve any such revised plan, the administration will move forward with the tunnels project.
Still, the Delta Plan is only the first of three hoops the administration must jump through before any digging can start. The state must also draft a valid Environmental Impact Report for the so-called California WaterFix, the authorizing mechanism for the Twin Tunnels; and the State Water Resources Control Board must approve a proposed change of diversion for the project. C-WIN will continue its opposition to the administration in all three of these arenas.
Why are we so adamant? Independent research confirms that the Twin Tunnels would be an unmitigated catastrophe for California. The project will cost upward of $67 billion, burdening our children and grandchildren with massive debt. It will expedite the export of freshwater from the Delta, imperiling our already beleaguered salmon and Dungeness crab fisheries and threatening the hundreds of family farmers who live in the region.
And who benefits? Not California ratepayers. South Coast residents are still trying to recover from our last encounter with the State Water Project. In the 1990s, Santa Barbara residents voted for the Coastal Branch, an aqueduct connecting to State Water that was supposed to solve all our water woes for a mere $270 million. Now, almost 25 years later, South Coast ratepayers are on the hook for a project that ended up costing $1.76 billion. And for that investment, we have never received full allocations. In 2014, we received only 5 percent of our allotted water; in 2015, it was 20 percent.
The Twin Tunnels manifest all the downsides of the Coastal Aqueduct but multiplied exponentially. They will saddle us with additional debt, ruinous debt, for decades. But most critically, they will deliver no new water. The tunnels are strictly a water conveyance project. In years when there is little water available from the Delta, the flow will be reduced to a trickle.
So who are the beneficiaries? That’s easy: a handful of corporate farms in the selenium-impaired lands of the western San Joaquin Valley. The tunnels will provide enhanced water delivery reliability for these vast holdings; but this lagniappe for agribusiness will come at the expense of urban and suburban ratepayers and the sustainable small family farms of the Delta.
We are now at the point where opposition to the tunnels is almost unanimous. Farmers in the Sacramento Valley and Delta, urban water agencies and ratepayer s, commercial fishermen and sport anglers and environmentalists are all foursquare against the project. Doubts are freely expressed even in the western San Joaquin Valley, where water district managers are realizing the costs outweigh any possible benefit.
So why is Gov. Brown plowing ahead with this disastrous scheme? It remains unclear. To a large degree, the Twin Tunnels are a reprise of the Peripheral Canal that Brown promoted during his first terms as governor in the 1980s. He was deeply incensed when voters rejected a 1982 authorizing ballot initiative for the plan, and he has seemed preoccupied with securing a massive Delta conveyance project ever since. Alternatively, some pundits have suggested that Brown is determined to cap his lengthy political record with several “legacy” megaprojects, including the Twin Tunnels and High Speed Rail.
In any event, Californians shouldn’t be expected to pay through the nose, sacrifice the Delta, and allow agribusiness to seize control of state water simply to establish monuments to a politician’s career. C-WIN will continue to fight the Twin Tunnels, and we invite all South Coast residents to join us in our cause.
Carolee Krieger is president and executive director of the California Water Impact Network, located in Santa Barbara.