Can California Quench Its Thirst and Protect the Environment?

Houses located in the Pocket area of Sacramento along the Sacramento River Photograph by Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo

A century after William Mulholland’s Los Angeles aqueduct first began watering the Southland, the water wars in California show no sign of abating. The state reached a milestone on Monday in its effort to balance equal-but-conflicting goals: channeling more water to dry farmland and cities while restoring the natural habitat already hurt by the state’s thirst.

California has released details of a $25 billion plan to run two tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The tunnels would divert water from supplies north of the delta to existing pumps on its southern edge that push water to Southern California and the agricultural land of the Central Valley. By forcing the water underground for 35 miles, the plan also calls for the restoration of more than 80,000 acres of habitat in the delta, which houses 56 species of plants, fish, and wildlife that have been struggling. The area’s current system of fragile earthen levees are vulnerable to a nightmare scenario known as “California’s Katrina.”

The state’s twin reports explaining the conservation proposal and the impact of the water project span some 34,000 pages; the “highlights” brochures alone total more than 170 pages. The reports look at 14 different alternatives but focus on the one favored by Governor Jerry Brown. As the Wall Street Journal explains, the favored plan includes several modifications to earlier proposals that are designed to mitigate environmental impact: “Its proposed water-transporting rate has been reduced from 15,000 cubic feet per second to 9,000, and the route of the tunnels has been shifted several miles east to avoid some towns and farmland.”

Those changes, designed to address concerns raised by environmentalists, may risk challenges. By reducing how much water the tunnels transport, the proposal may not meet the demands of the farmers and residents in Southern California. At the same time, some environmentalists say the new outline is still too disruptive on the delta’s habitat and won’t do enough to restore the wetlands.

The public has until mid-April to comment on the proposal, and while the intrigue is no Chinatown, Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters predicts “years, or even decades, will pass before the issue is resolved one way or the other.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.