Broke California Unveils Fish-Saving Boondoggle

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Illustration by Tomi Um Close

Illustration by Tomi Um

Victorian-era farmhouses are common sights along the Sacramento River. Photograph by Steven Greenhut Close

Victorian-era farmhouses are common sights along the Sacramento River. Photograph by Steven Greenhut

Boathouse at Walnut Grove. Photograph by Steven Greenhut Close

Boathouse at Walnut Grove. Photograph by Steven Greenhut

Sacramento River from a drawbridge at Walnut Grove. Photograph by Steven Greenhut Close

Sacramento River from a drawbridge at Walnut Grove. Photograph by Steven Greenhut

The old Chinese town of Locke is a state historical site in the heart of the Delta. Photograph by Steven Greenhut Close

The old Chinese town of Locke is a state historical site in the heart of the Delta. Photograph by Steven Greenhut

Steel drawbridges such as this one at Walnut Grove connect the levee roads on both sides of the river. Photograph by Steven Greenhut Close

Steel drawbridges such as this one at Walnut Grove connect the levee roads on both sides of the river. Photograph by Steven Greenhut

Delta town of Courtland, not far from the northern end of new proposed tunnels. Photograph by Steven Greenhut Close

Delta town of Courtland, not far from the northern end of new proposed tunnels. Photograph by Steven Greenhut

California’s political leaders believe that their efforts to reduce greenhouse gases will slow climate change around the globe. Now they want to tackle a Herculean environmental task in their own backyard.

In March, Governor Jerry Brown and state water officials released the first four chapters of an emerging plan that promises not only to resolve California’s traditional water-supply conflicts, but to restore the largest estuary on the West Coast, changing the flow of the huge Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and reviving 57 endangered wildlife species.

“It may be the most ambitious habitat restoration project ever conceived in the United States,” said the Sacramento Bee. The director of fish and wildlife boasted that the project is “potentially observable from space.”

The Delta, in Northern California, is where most of the state’s water flows out of the mountain ranges before heading to sea. The area is home to 1,000 miles of waterways, 70 islands and more than 1,000 square miles of land sitting below a system of aging levees. It is known for its old steel drawbridges, Victorian-era estates, vast orchards, marinas and historical towns, including Locke, a village built in 1915 and settled by descendants of Chinese workers who built the levees.

Aside from its charm, the Delta is ground zero in California’s endless battle over scarce water resources -- a crucial source of water for 3 million acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley and for more than 20 million people in Southern California metropolises.

Voter Disapproval

When he was governor more than 30 years ago, Brown ignited a Northern California versus Southern California war by pushing a “peripheral canal” project that would have diverted water around the Delta. Voters rejected the plan in a 1982 ballot initiative.

Today, Brown is championing a new version of the same idea, called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Instead of canals, two 40-foot-diameter tunnels would start at the north end of the region and then burrow underneath the Delta for 35 miles to existing pumping stations and canals at the south end, reducing reliance on the current aging system of levees and dams.

The plan has the twin goals of restoring habitats within the region and assuring a more reliable source of water. Currently, Delta smelt, protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act, tend to swim downstream toward the pumps that send the water southward. Millions of them get killed each year.

The tunnels would change the flow of the Delta and include sophisticated fish screens that are designed to save the smelt and other species. The project includes environmental restoration of more than 100,000 acres of marshes and grassland.

The plan would not increase the water-flow capacity -- the pipes coming out of the southern pumping plant would not be widened -- but would improve reliability by eliminating the lawsuits that routinely stop the pumps to ensure that there’s enough freshwater to protect the fish. In other words, engineering is being proposed to fix a legal and regulatory problem.

Brown claims that the state has learned much about water ecology in the decades since the peripheral canal was rejected, but the main lesson he seems to have learned is about politics. His administration says it has full authority to carry out the project without any decision from voters or the state Legislature.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan would take 10 years to complete, and initial costs are $14 billion for just the tunnels, with a total project cost two to three times that amount plus the usual overruns. These are large costs, given the state’s chronic fiscal troubles and onerous levels of debt and unfunded liabilities.

Federal Role

State ratepayers will pay most of the project’s costs, though the plan also depends on infusions of federal dollars, and on bonds. Water rates have been soaring over the past few years, and this will impose higher bills on consumers and businesses.

For what? Environmentalists argue that the project might endanger rather than save some species, while taxpayer groups wonder whether the expense justifies the modest water-flow benefits. And that assumes everything goes according to plan.

Here’s an area where environmentalists and free-market advocates should find common ground. Bureaucratic control of the West’s water resources has distorted development patterns by subsidizing water use in arid regions. Consider that farmers continue to grow rice and hay (for export to Japan) in Southern California’s Imperial Valley, one of the hottest desert regions on Earth.

Instead of letting a small group of bureaucrats impose this costly habitat plan, the state should look at less-expensive alternatives: privately funded seawater desalination, better water recycling, the development of markets and a more local focus on fixing levees. (Most of the state’s water simply flows into San Francisco Bay, so some argue that dams in the northern Sacramento Valley to provide additional storage would be a better use of funds -- that is another debate.)

Is the tunnel project really worth the financial costs and the likely destruction -- the years it would take to build, the planned flooding of 20 percent of the Delta’s land for habitat restoration and the potential confiscation of farms? As Restore the Delta, an environmental group, argues, tunnel supporters want to turn the “unique, beautiful, productive Delta region into a permanent way station for water going somewhere else.”

The advocates say the tunnels are more earthquake-proof than the levees that form the current backbone of the Delta waterways, but there are many ways to shore up levees without re-engineering an entire ecosystem.

California’s water-supply challenges deserve options beyond a multibillion-dollar government-directed boondoggle based on scientific guesswork. Sometimes, it would be better if officials thought smaller.

(Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. He is based in Sacramento, California. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Steven Greenhut in Sacramento at steven.greenhut@franklincenterhq.org.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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