Why Sacramento Valley ag interests are fighting the latest plan to fix the state’s water system
By Emily Hamann  –  Staff Writer, Sacramento Business Journal

Sep 30, 2022

State water regulators this summer resurfaced a controversial water infrastructure proposal to repipe the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, reigniting century-old battles between agricultural interests in the Delta and urban water users in the Bay Area and Southern California.

In July, the California Department of Water Resources released the 3,000-page draft environmental impact report for the Delta Conveyance Project.
State water regulators and water users that would draw from the project argue it is a modernization of the state’s water infrastructure that is badly needed to ensure the stability of the water supply to most of the state amid the impacts of climate change and natural disasters. But agricultural interests in the Delta and farming communities in the Sacramento region argue that the project will cause them irreparable harm, while doing little to solve immediate problems with the water supply.

A water source for two-thirds of Californians Water from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta is exported to two-thirds of Californians and more than 2 million acres of farmland, through a network of reservoirs, aqueducts, pipelines and other infrastructure that has been under construction since settlers first came to California.  Water from the Sacramento River, which starts in the mountains above Shasta Lake and is fed by the snowpack in the northern Sierras, empties into the Delta, where pumping stations in the south part of the Delta take it to cities in Silicon Valley, farmers in the San Joaquin Valley and over the Tehachapi Mountains to Los Angeles and other cities in Southern California.  For decades, the California Department of Water Resources has been trying to build a bypass for the Delta, so that water can be pumped directly from the Sacramento River into the reservoirs to the south.

The Delta Conveyance Project is the latest iteration of that project.

“Two out of three Californians rely on the State Water Project for all or part of their water supply,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth, in a statement released along with the environmental report. “Modernizing this infrastructure is essential to adapting to a future that includes more frequent extremes of drought and flood, and greater water instability.”

The project would build new diversion facilities on the Sacramento River, each with the capacity to move 3,000 cubic feet of water per second, through a single, 40-foot-wide tunnel dug underneath the Delta into Bethany Reservoir near Tracy.

That’s the preferred alignment proposed in the environmental report. That alignment would call for two intake facilities being built, one between the southern Sacramento County towns of Hood and Courtland and one north of Hood. Other project alternatives could include a third intake, for a total diversion capacity of 7,500 cubic feet per second, south and across the river from the Yolo County town of Clarksburg.
These communities, like many of the farming towns in the Delta, have histories as long as the state itself.

Before the Gold Rush, the Delta region was a tidal marsh, where the San Joaquin River from the south and the Sacramento River from the north hit flat land and spread out, depositing their sediments before flowing into the San Francisco Bay and out into the Pacific Ocean.  As more people settled in the region, however, they gradually corralled the spiderweb of ebbing and flowing streams and marshes into a network of channels constrained by levees, creating islands and draining the water off the fertile sediment deposits so that they could be farmed on.

Today, 415,000 acres of crops are grown in the Delta, generating nearly $1 billion per year, as of 2016, according to a report from the state's Delta Protection Commission.  The state is worried that if the levees fail, in the event of an earthquake or other disaster, it could threaten the water supply for those downstream.  John Durand, an ecologist and senior researcher with the Center for Watershed Sciences at University of California Davis, said that most of the islands in the Delta sit below sea level, and would be flooded if the levees fail.

“If they go, there’s a chance for a big gulp of saltwater to move in from the west,” Durand said. That could render the water undrinkable and detrimental for agriculture.
“What the tunnels do is they’re a workaround for that. They don’t solve the problem of the salty Delta,” he said. “Agricultural interests are not on board, because this is a solution that doesn’t include them.” 

From an environmental perspective, Durand said that one of the ideas behind adding a north Delta intake is that it could help relieve the pressure on the overpumped south Delta.

“The withdrawal of waters from the south Delta has really powerful effects,” Durand said. Over time, the waters in the south Delta have become warmer, encouraging the growth of harmful algal blooms, and choked with invasive water weeds.
“They’ve created slow-moving water that sits there for a long time, and that in turn has supported the growth of invasive species.”

The thinking, Durand said, is that the pumps could be turned off in the south and on in the north or vice versa based on where endangered fish are schooling, for example, and to spread out the impact from withdrawing water across the entire Delta ecosystem.

“The thinking ecologically is that would provide flexibility in the system about when we’re pumping water,” he said.

'Vampire tunnel'

For farmers and policymakers in the Sacramento region, however, the conveyance proposal represents the latest front in a century-long war over water, pitting rural Northern California water users against cities in Southern California.

“It’s a vampire tunnel,” said Rep. John Garamendi, whose district includes the region in south Sacramento and Yolo counties where the intake for the tunnels would be built. “It’s designed to suck the water out of the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Western Hemisphere.”

Garamendi called the issue, which has been kicking around for decades, a “zombie.”

“It doesn’t die,” he said.

As far back as 1965, there have been proposals to bypass the Delta to get water from the north to the south. The first proposal called for a channel from the Sacramento River to take water to the south Delta — parts of Interstate 5 have since been built over where that channel would have been. The idea came to a head in 1982, when a ballot measure that would have allowed for construction of what was called the Peripheral Canal failed to win voter approval.

Gov. Jerry Brown revived the project in its most recent form in 2015 when he proposed the California WaterFix, which proposed the construction of two tunnels with the capacity to pump 9,000 cubic feet of water per second from the Sacramento River. Upon taking office, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that he wouldn’t support that plan, and spoke in favor of a downsized proposal, which prompted the revision into the current plan.

Sacramento County is one of a number of local governments and environmental groups that sued to block the original twin tunnel proposal. The county is also part of the Delta Counties Coalition, along with Yolo, Contra Costa, San Joaquin and Solano counties, which advocates for water management policies that would protect the Delta’s ecology and the water users along its levees.

“Obviously the Delta, its protection, it’s of vital importance to the communities that we all represent,” Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli said.

In 2020, Sacramento County agriculture generated $455 million in value, according to county agricultural commissioner reports. Nottoli said about half of that came from the southern county Delta region. The Delta is home to most of the county’s $156 million wine grape crop and its $26 million pear crop, two of the county’s top commodities.

“It’s a vital contributor to the economy, to the history and culture,” Nottoli said.

The beginnings of the proposed tunnel would be smack dab in the middle of that economic engine.

“Where the intakes are proposed would have a major impact on those communities,” Nottoli said.

State documents show that a typical intake facility would be located along the river bank and extend into the river about 65 feet. A collection of holding ponds and outlets more than 1,000 feet wide would be built on the land adjacent to the intake. The construction itself could take 20 years, impacting these communities and the outlying agricultural operations with traffic and other disruptions as millions of cubic yards of mud and debris is dug out and removed from the tunnel.

“That destroys the area between Hood and Courtland,” Garamendi said. “The construction is very, very significant.”

Critics of the project say the longer-term impacts could have a detrimental effect on the Delta as a whole.

“If you’re trying to maintain the ecology of the Delta why would you take water out of the Delta,” Garamendi said. “There are ways of exporting water that does not harm the Delta and that is to export water when there is excess water in the Delta.”

Ultimately, where, when and how much water can be taken out of the Delta is restricted by state and federal regulations aimed at protecting the ecology and endangered species.

Over the last 20 years, the amount of water exported by the two state water projects that pull water out of the Delta has decreased by more than 1 million acre-feet, due to tightening restrictions as the south Delta has become more and more degraded.

Durand said it’s unlikely that pumping in the north Delta will create the same issues.

“There’s a lot more water moving through the Sacramento River,” Durand said. The source of water into the south Delta, the San Joaquin River, has farmers drawing water from it all the way up the Central Valley, to the point where parts of the river have dried up.

Durand said much of the degradation of the Delta is not due to pumping at all, but other impacts of climate change, including higher temperatures and drought.

“You could stop pumping water from the Delta entirely and that wouldn’t stop it,” Durand said.

Project opponents, however, are hesitant to offer the state and urban water districts another source of Delta water, even with assurances about the environmental protections in place.

“You build this and they will use it,” Garamendi said.

As climate change gets worse, the snowpack that feeds the Sacramento River is expected to get less reliable. At the same time, the Colorado River, another source of water to Southern California, is already overdrawn and is expected to get drier as a result of climate change.  Nottoli questions how the call will be made, when there’s not enough water to go around and there are 25 million people south of the Delta desperate for it.

“You’re going to have the operating guidelines and restrictions and so forth, but if people get thirsty enough, who knows what the future would bring?” Nottoli said.

He argues that the tunnels project does not address the larger issue that there is not enough available water for all of California.

“Just building another straw that takes the water and moves it around the Delta and takes it upstream is not a benefit to that,” Nottoli said. “I do think that there’s a much better way to approach this.”

Both Garamendi and Nottoli agree that the time, effort and money going into this project would be better spent on projects that actually add water to the system, including water storage, watershed management and water recycling projects.

For example, the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based water think tank, estimates that 1.1 million acre-feet per year of municipal wastewater in the Los Angeles region could be recycled and reused.

“There’s a million acre-feet of water available in Southern California today from the sanitation plant,” Garamendi said.

In the meantime, project opponents are trying to block the project.

“The governor is going to need a federal permit,” Garamendi said. “He won’t get it.”

Garamendi has cosponsored a federal bill that would prohibit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which also needs to sign off on the project, from issuing it a permit.
The state is taking public comment on the draft environmental review until Oct. 27. Garamendi said that just like the last tunnel project, this one will be hit with lawsuits that could also slow it down.

“This project will fail as have the previous attempts, because it is foolish and there are better, cheaper solutions that are less controversial," he said.