Governor Jerry Brown unveiled plans for a $14 billion tunnel system to divert abundant Northern California water to thirsty Southern California cities and farms that grow half of the U.S.’s fresh produce.
Twin 33-foot tubes, each the diameter of a Los Angeles-class attack submarine, would stretch 40 miles (64 kilometers) from the Sacramento river, south of the state capital, to existing pumps and aqueducts that supply cities such as Los Angeles and San Diego, and irrigate 3 million acres of farmland.
The plan announced today reopens a long-simmering dispute between northern Californians and those in the more populous south, much of which is semidesert. Voters in the most populous U.S. state rejected a similar plan to divert water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in 1982.
“This thing is never going to be free of controversy and conflict,” Brown, a 74-year-old Democrat, told reporters at a briefing in Sacramento. “But we know a lot more today than we did then. Here we are, 30 years later, with a lot more knowledge and a lot more science.”
The tunnels would carry as much as 9,000 cubic feet (255 cubic meters) of water a second, enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in under 10 seconds. Water-user fees would pay for the tunnels, while money from an $11 billion bond proposal on the 2014 ballot would finance restoration of 100,000 acres of floodplain and tidal-marsh habitat.
Supplying water to Los Angeles, the second most-populous city in the U.S., has been contentious since the turn of the last century, when the city’s water superintendent, William Mulholland, built more than 200 miles of aqueducts from the Owens Valley and nearby mountains that fed farms.
Filmmaker Roman Polanski’s 1974 movie “Chinatown,” starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, is set in Los Angeles in what became known as the California Water Wars.
U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, appearing with Brown, said the new tunnels would bring an end to “the epic water wars that have plagued this state for decades.”
The restoration efforts are intended to ease pressure on the ecologically sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta, located at the confluence of two rivers that feed into San Francisco Bay, where native plants and fish have suffered.
Currently, pumps that pull water from the delta kill two out of every three fish that are sucked into the system, pushing some species such as the Delta smelt to near extinction. Federal courts have ordered the state to reduce the intake, forcing farmers to idle thousands of acres.
Salazar said the tunnels would use gravity to draw water under the delta, bypassing the “fish-killing” pumps.
Environmentalists oppose the project, saying it hasn’t been studied enough to ensure that it won’t destroy salmon runs on the Sacramento River. Some farming groups also oppose the proposal because of the fees and because it calls for restoring land now used for agriculture back to wetlands and habitat.
“We’re being asked to take a lot on faith,” said Senator Mark DeSaulnier, a Democrat from Concord, a city in the delta. “We’re being asked to believe that, in the future, the amount of water diverted from the delta will be based on science, when science has been persistently ignored up to this point.”
“We’re being asked to believe that fish will miraculously need less water to survive in the future, and that returning water exports to the levels that first decimated delta fisheries will help restore the estuary,” he said. “That’s a lot to ask. Too much.”