That graph is headed in the wrong direction.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Jerry Brown, Water-Tunnel Salesman

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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California Governor Jerry Brown on Thursday unveiled the latest version of his proposal to build two 40-foot-wide, 35-mile-long water tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Reports Bloomberg's Michael Marois:

“The very fabric of a modern California is at stake here,” said Brown, a 77-year-old Democrat. “We just can’t cross our fingers and hope for the best in the delta.” 

Alexis Madrigal wrote a long, entertaining account of the backstory here last year in the Atlantic. This is a shorter, more up-to-date version. 

California moves a lot of water from its relatively wet north to its dry south. This is widely understood. But even though I grew up in California I had never been all that clear on how this happens.

Here's how. The water is collected mainly in three giant reservoirs in the state's north, the federal Central Valley Project's Shasta Lake and Trinity Lake and the State Water Project's Lake Oroville. Then, when needed, it is released and allowed to flow down the Sacramento and Feather Rivers (which eventually flows into the Sacramento). Most of this water would have ended up in the Sacramento anyway, just at different times, but the Trinity water belongs to a different drainage basin and would otherwise gush out to sea near the Oregon border.

Anyway, after this water is released it travels under Santiago Calatrava's wonderful Sundial Bridge in Redding, past the wetlands and rice fields of the Sacramento Valley and past charming Old Sacramento. Not long after that, it sloshes into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where it slows down dramatically. The delta is a vast former wetland that was converted in the late 1800s into California's own Holland, with levees and below-sea-level fields. It's not as picturesque as the original, but neither is it without charm.

To get the water out and send it south, the feds and the state constructed giant pumping stations in the 1960s at the southwestern edge of the delta, which since then has also become the eastern fringe of the San Francisco Bay area. They both suck water out of the delta and then deposit it into the feds' Delta-Mendota Canal and the state's California Aqueduct.

A lot of other interesting stuff happens after that, including getting pumped in and out of the San Luis Reservoir -- the largest off-stream reservoir in the U.S., I learned when I walked into the visitor's center this week -- and over the Tehachapi Range into Los Angeles. But the focus here is on the delta. It turns out that when you pump all that water out of it, weird things occur. Among others, the Middle River and Old River branches of the San Joaquin River often flow backward when the pumps are going.

This apparently confuses the heck out of fish, and often kills them. It also risks sucking salt water into the Delta and even the state and federal water systems during times of drought. And apart from all that, water that's been sitting around in the Delta for a few days isn't nearly as clean as the stuff that flows into it from the Sacramento River.

In 1965, these concerns led the state to propose a Peripheral Canal that would skirt the Delta and deliver water straight from the Sacramento River to the southbound canals. It took a while, but in 1982 -- during Brown's first go-round as governor -- things were finally far enough along for a statewide referendum on the matter. In 1960, northern California voters had opposed the original plans for the State Water Project, but had been outvoted by the southerners. By 1982 the north's suspicion of the south's intentions had hardened, and the Peripheral Canal was seen as a backdoor way to send even more water south. "Yes" majorities in the more-populous south were swamped by "nos" in northern California that seemed like something out of a sham election in a one party state. The Peripheral Canal was dead.

The seeming need only grew, though, especially after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service in the 1990s got much tougher on the pump operators in an effort to protect delta fish. The amount of water allowed to be pumped out of the delta has been declining ever since. Finally, about a decade ago, during Arnold Schwarzenegger's reign as governor, state officials resurrected the idea of bypassing the delta. Only by this time suburban sprawl around the city of Stockton had rendered the old Peripheral Canal route impassable, so they proposed tunnels.

For a time the hope was that the state could get the Fish and Wildlife and Marine Fisheries services to sign off on a 50-year plan to restore delta habitats while guaranteeing certain flows through the tunnels. In 2012 both agencies issued "red flag" memos indicating that this would be a problem, and with today's announcement Brown formally gave up on that. He still wants the tunnels, though, which have been redesigned a couple of times to be less burdensome to people and fish in and around the town of Hood just south of Sacramento, where they would take in their water. The problem is that the water districts south of the delta that would pay for the tunnel might balk without a commitment from the fisheries agencies to back off on their frequent orders to shut off the flow of water.

So is the delta going to get its tunnels? I don't know. They appear to be, on balance, a good idea -- and political conditions have changed enough in California that the long-standing concern that they would provide a backdoor way to dramatically increase water exports to the south seems unfounded. But building large things has gotten a lot harder, in California and elsewhere in the U.S. In that San Luis Reservoir visitor's center there's an exhibit titled "History of California's Water Development: 1769-1962." Is that really going to be where it ends?    

(Corrects reporter's first name in first paragraph of article published April 30.)

  1. This was my first election, and I voted no, along with 95.7 percent of my fellow Contra Costa County voters.

  2. Much of my knowledge here was gleaned from a conversation with Sacramento attorney David Aladjem, but he should of course not be blamed for any errors, omissions or faulty opinions.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net