Even as our reporter Pat Brennan was writing last Sunday’s huge front-page curtain-raiser on the state’s $25 billion proposal to radically alter the Sacramento Delta and send more water to Southern California, opposition was conferencing at an Irvine hotel.
I was there. And anybody who thinks this new plan is going to have an easier time getting sign off from Northern Californians than the failed 1982 Peripheral Canal plan did hasn’t spent any time listening to Northern Californians with a stake in the outcome.
The 1982 Peripheral Canal, championed by Jerry Brown in his first iteration as governor, called for an above-ground canal to bypass the Delta and send water to SoCal – water that would otherwise have gone out to sea. The new proposal, called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, would essentially do the same thing but with a pair of 35-mile-long tunnels. Brown is, again, throwing his muscle – some say his legacy – into it.
The Peripheral Canal was the political issue in California in 1982 – and voters soundly rejected it, 63 percent to 37 percent. The tunnel plan may well end up being the political issue in California in 2014, but because of different funding and regulatory mechanisms than the Peripheral Canal, voters are very unlikely to be able to weigh in with a single up-or-down vote the way they did in 1982.
Rather, the tunnel system will be vetted and ruled upon by a handful of state and federal environmental agencies that will be basing their decisions upon two things: 1) a 20,000-page environmental-impact report that will be released on Dec. 6; and 2) the public comment generated by that report in the succeeding 120 days.
It’s all but a given that the state agencies will ultimately approve the EIR. It’s not as clear about the feds, but there’s a strong sense that the momentum generated when $200 million is spent simply writing an EIR is difficult to overcome.
The group that gathered at the Hilton last week consisted of board members of SoCal water agencies that import NoCal water. They want more NoCal water, of course, but Irvine Ranch Water District board member Peer Swan, organizer of the conference, wanted his counterparts to see that the governor’s plan is not necessarily the way to go about it.
For example, one premise of the governor’s plan is that the Delta levees are in grave danger of failing and that the tunnel system inoculates SoCal’s water supply from such a catastrophe because it would draw off the SoCal water before it has to pass through the fragile levee system. Well, one of the presenters last week was Gilbert Cosio, a civil engineer who has spent 30 years shoring up the levees. He showed how 60 percent have been retrofitted to safety standards, or will be within four years. A logical inference is that the rest can be completed within a reasonable amount of time at a cost far less than the tunnel project.
Another presenter was John Cain, who has spent much of his career restoring floodplains in the Delta area. By simply expanding the floodplains of existing NoCal rivers – through land purchases from private owners – water storage will be greatly enhanced, which would provide more security for SoCal. Another idea is to move the tunnels to a location that would shorten them from 35 miles to something closer to 20 miles.
We heard from Melinda Terry, the general manager of a water district in the north Delta. She said her agency is “considered the reasonable people in the Delta,” yet its opinion is that “there are zero benefits for the Delta.”
The EIR looks at 15 alternatives to the twin-tunnel plan, but it’s hard to see them being taken seriously unless there is fierce, well-funded opposition. Swan thinks Brown is locked into a plan that looks very much like his old one, even if it isn’t the best one. Lawsuits are inevitable, but government has a way of outspending or outwaiting the weak.
As the EIR release looms, Swan called this initial conference “a shot across the bow” to wake up SoCal interests that haven’t been paying attention. Seems to me it will come down to whether the prospect of more water at any cost will drive SoCal water lords to embrace the project, or whether they have the stomach for analysis that might anger a popular governor. As for the voting populace – I think we’re already out of it.