Brown’s Anticonservationist Plan to Re-engineer the SF Bay Delta

Part of the Carquinez Strait separating the delta of the Sacramento River from the San Francisco Bay. Part of the Carquinez Strait separating the delta of the Sacramento River from the San Francisco Bay.

Conservationist and environmental organizations in California – The Southern California Water Alliance, the Environmental Water Caucus, the Winnemen Wintu tribe, Food and Water Watch, California Sports Fishing Protection Alliance (to name a few) – are building support for a giant rally against Governor Brown’s twin tunnels (misnamed the Bay Delta Conservation Plan), an industrial project to re-engineer the San Francisco Bay Delta.

Each tunnel, designed to send more estuary water to arid regions of the state, is large enough for a high-speed rail. According to Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, “Draining fresh water from the Delta will only doom sustainable farming and decimate salmon and other fisheries.”

The rally will take place at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, July 29 on the steps of the Capitol Building in Sacramento, California.

Like the Florida Everglades, the Bay Delta watershed is a national treasure. Every American has a stake in the outcome of the fierce controversy over the re-engineering of our unique and precious estuary.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan is 40,000 pages long. To keep it simple, the $25 billion water-transfer project is based on a single assumption: that California’s water ecosystem crisis is caused by a lack – a lack – of engineering projects in the Delta watershed. As if the Delta needs more steel, more pumps, more cement (and more farmers dispossessed through eminent domain). The peripheral tunnels, the industrial heart of the project, do not replace, they actually augment hundreds of dams, aqueducts and pumps that already send water to corporate farms and cities south of the Delta.

The Central Valley Project, initiated in 1933 as an ongoing federal subsidy for corporate farms, now includes 20 dams, 11 hydroelectric generators, 500 miles of canals, aqueducts, ditches, dredged channels and countless pumps.

The State Water Project, begun in 1960, added 29 dams, five hydroelectric power plants, hundreds of miles of canals and pipes reaching from the southernmost regions of the state up to Lake Davis, Frenchman Lake and the upper tributaries of the Feather River, where the Orville dam, the tallest dam in the United States, towers 770 feet above its riverbed.

At Tracy, 11 thundering pumps are lined up in a row. An 80,000-horsepower engine moves 6.7 billion gallons of water south through the San Joaquin Valley, where it runs up to a 2,000-foot-high barrier – the Tehachapi Mountains. The Edmonston Pumping Plant shoots water up 1926 feet through 10 miles of tunnels inside the mountains.

“Engineering mentality assumes that there must be a technological fix to water shortages. There’s no need to live within our means, to tailor land use plans to available water supply . . .”

Except for the Florida Everglades, ruined by development and unrestrained growth, the SF Bay Delta watershed is the most micro-managed, over-developed estuary in the United States. Including the mighty rivers that once replenished it, our Delta is now the most complex, extensive, and costly hydraulic system in the world.

True, there are bigger dams on larger rivers in China, but no region of the world draws more water from more rivers through more conduits at greater public expense over greater distances than Southern California. When is enough enough?

No water-conveyance system – not the Los Angeles Aqueduct that turned Owens Valley into a dustbowl; not Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Las Vegas and other desert city conduits that drained the Colorado River so dry it no longer reaches the Sea of Cortez; not the water transfers that put Mono Lake on life-support; not the subsidized Central Valley Project that ended wild salmon migrations up the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers; not the massive State Water Project, which Governor Pat Brown proclaimed in 1960 “a permanent solution to the state’s water crisis”; none of the federal- or state-sanctioned projects, nor all of them taken together, has ever appeased the water appetites of agribusiness, developers and land speculators and the powerful Association of California Water Agencies that still frames water policy in Sacramento.

Flouting Conservationist Consensus

The very title of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, like Chevron Oil TV ads on clean air, is disingenuous. Crafted by the development and water lobby, the plan is profoundly anticonservationist. The entire project goes contrary to the long-held consensus that fishery declines and mass habitat degradation are the direct result of excessive technological interventions in nature’s ecosystems.

In 1969, Barry Commoner, one of the founders of the environmental movement, wrote: “We need to reassess our attitudes toward the natural world on which our technology intrudes. . . . Modern technology has so stressed the web processes in the living environment at its most vulnerable points that there is little leeway left in the system.”

“The larger the technical fix,” writes Cynthia Barnett in Blue Revolution, “the larger the unintentional consequences for the next generation, or even for the next fiscal year. The constant re-engineering of past engineering mistakes is a costly drain, which America keeps circling while our most important water resources go down.”

In Unquenchable Robert Glennon writes, “Engineering mentality assumes that there must be a technological fix to water shortages. There’s no need to live within our means, to tailor land use plans to available water supply, because an engineering solution can solve the problem and allow growth and unsustainable water practices to continue for a while longer. This is how we’ve always conceived of water problems: There must be someplace to go for more water . . . a new pipeline to import more water.”

It is absurd to believe that one more engineering project, crafted by the same power elites that have dominated water policy throughout the 20th century, will somehow bring stability to a state whose leaders continue to promote growth in desert regions already living beyond their regional means.