Brown’s Bay-Delta Conservation Plan would divert water from the Sacramento River — via two tunnels constructed underneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta — to the California Aqueduct and Delta-Mendota Canal, the state and federal canals that carry water as far south as the Los Angeles Basin.
The river water currently flows south into the lower reaches of the Delta in western San Joaquin County to two pumping stations outside Tracy that fill the aqueduct and canal.
The planned tunnels are projected to carry 9,000 cubic feet of water per second out of the river through a series of screened pumps near Clarksburg, south of Sacramento and north of Lodi.
According to Brown, the $13 billion project will provide a more reliable supply of water for farmers on the west side of the arid southern San Joaquin Valley and cities including Los Angeles and San Diego.
The proposal also considers “habitat restoration” of 113,000 acres of Delta an equal priority.
“(It) balances the concerns of those who live and work in the Delta, those who rely on it for water and those who appreciate its beauty, fish, waterfowl and wildlife,” Brown said during his announcement, for which he was joined by Ken Salazar, the federal secretary of the interior.
Those who benefit from the project will pay for it, according to the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan. That includes Tracy residents, who will likely see water bill increases of up to 30 percent if and when water flows through the twin tunnels.
The project should be ready to export water in 10 to 15 years, and environmental impact documents about the plan will be available for public review within a few months.
Battle lines drawn
Opponents, however, have characterized the move as a water grab that pays lip service to protecting the Delta.
They also worry that the acres of promised habitat restoration — which would include the flooding of some Delta islands — would lead to the destruction of fertile Delta farmland without any significant benefits.
“It boils down to some basic facts. The Delta is in a crisis … and the proposal is, let’s take water before it reaches the Delta,” said John Herrick, the manager and general counsel for South Delta Water Agency, which is tasked with maintaining water quality and quantity in the Delta around Stockton and Tracy.
“But the Delta’s in trouble now,” he said. “How can the freshwater Delta get better by having less water flowing through it?”
The California Department of Water Resources estimated that the Sacramento River’s flow on Monday, July 30, was 21,800 cubic feet per second at Freeport, about five miles upstream of the pumps proposed in the governor’s plan.
Right now, the pumps outside Tracy pull the Sacramento River water south through the Delta, sometimes sucking water upstream through the lower branches of the San Joaquin River, which runs south to north.
Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, the executive director of advocacy group Restore the Delta, said preventing as much as 9,000 cubic feet per second of fresh water from reaching the Delta around San Joaquin County would be devastating for farmers who get their water directly from the Delta.
“What keeps the south Delta alive more than anything now is that water being drawn down toward the pumps from the Sacramento River,” Barrigan-Parrilla said.
According to the county’s agricultural commissioner, Scott Hudson, more than a third of San Joaquin County’s land is in the Delta, and the majority of that third is devoted to agriculture.
Agriculture — the largest economic force in the county — accounted for $2.2 billion in gross production in 2011.
Barrigan-Parrilla said degradation of the southern Delta’s water quality would be a serious blow to the industry.
“San Joaquin County would suffer the impacts of this project greater than all the other counties,” she said.
In response to the governor’s plan, the University of the Pacific’s Business Forecasting Center concluded in a study that the tunnels’ cost is “roughly 2.5 times larger than their benefits.”
“It is clear that the Delta water conveyance tunnels proposed in the draft BDCP are not justified on an economic or financial basis,” the report states.
Michael Miller of the California Department of Water Resources doesn’t anticipate dire consequences as Barrigan-Parrilla does.
Miller explained that the tunnels on the Sacramento River wouldn’t take “9,000 cubic feet per second all day, every day, 365 days a year.”
“A couple of things people tend to forget: The state water resources control board … requires fresh flows out past Rio Vista (downstream from Freeport),” he said. “Those flow criteria have to be met. … You’re still going to have your freshwater pool out in the Delta.”
Miller said the governor’s plan would “take the fish out of the equation” when it comes to pumping water out of the Delta.
Several times in the past few years, restrictions were placed on how much water could be siphoned because of the endangered Delta smelt, an inch-long fish considered by many to be a bellwether of Delta health.
The placement of pumps envisioned in the governor’s plan, Miller said, would avoid that issue and also make sure the tiny fish weren’t sucked into the pumps near Tracy.
“The screens in (the new) system in the river would be small enough — and that’s why the intakes would be so large — is the screens have to be small enough so that the screens don’t affect the fish,” he said.
California Natural Resources Agency spokesman Richard Stapler said that there would “absolutely” be enough fresh water in the Delta.
“We still have flow criteria; we still have environmental responsibilities,” he said. “We can’t move more water than there is.”
But that’s just what Barrigan-Parrilla and other activists fear.
She worries that, during construction of the tunnels, more pump intakes would be built to supply those south of the Delta with more water than the present plan envisions.
A working draft of the governor’s plan dated July 24, however, states that environmental laws would not be weakened to allow for maximum pumping, even if more pumping plants are added.
“The state and federal water projects have had the capacity to export close to 15,000 cubic feet per second of water from the south Delta for decades, but have always been operated in compliance with state and federal endangered species and water quality laws,” it reads.
Barrigan-Parilla also criticized the management plan for protecting fish and wildlife in the Delta.
The governor’s plan calls for a “decision tree” regarding habitat restoration. During the next 15 years, 30,000 acres of Delta land would be converted to aquatic habitat, with 83,000 acres converted in the years thereafter.
During that time, operating criteria for the tunnel system would be established by various regulatory agencies, as the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan cites “uncertainty” about what is causing some animal species to decline and how habitat restoration would affect those species.
The plan states, “Science will play a key role in all phases of (the project), providing information about the benefits of habitat restoration and increased flows for sensitive fish species, among other issues.”
Barrigan-Parilla called the plan backward.
“You don’t make a commitment to build the largest public works project in the history of California and then figure out … how to operate it over the next 15 years,” she said.
Tracy front and center
Tracy is at the fulcrum of the escalating debate.
The massive pumps that feed the canal and aqueduct are mere miles to the northwest, and the city draws water from streams that flow into the Delta and water that is pumped out of it into the Delta-Mendota Canal.
And the tunnel project, according to the city’s deputy of public works, Steve Bayley, would mean major charges for Tracy residents.
According to Bayley, who has helped manage Tracy’s water supply and waste system for 18 years, city residents would likely see their water bills rise if the governor’s plans go forward.
Tracy pulls about one-third of its annual water supply from the Delta-Mendota Canal, and the governor’s plan calls for water users who would benefit from the tunnel project to pay for it.
“I know (water rates) will go up significantly if the tunnels are built and we have to pay for them,” Bayley said. “It won’t be ‘if they go up,’ it’ll be ‘how much.’”
Bayley estimated that the average annual water portion of a city resident’s utility bill could increase 30 percent, from about $27 a month to $35 a month — and that’s if the current price tag of $13 billion doesn’t inflate.
But the benefits touted by Brown would not necessarily make a difference for Tracy, Bayley said.
The city has a contract with South San Joaquin Irrigation District for 10,000 acre-feet of water a year. An acre-foot is enough water to supply about 2.5 four-member households a year.
Combined with the contract for 17,000 acre-feet a year from the Delta-Mendota Canal and a 9,000 acre-foot groundwater reserve, Bayley said the tunnel project promises Tracy extra expenses without significant advantages.
“We have reliable supplies without this project,” Bayley said. “I don’t think the cost-benefit is there to the Tracy residents.”
The Tracy City Council and the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors are both on record as opposing the governor’s proposal.
But there could be a benefit, Bayley said, in terms of the city’s sewage discharge.
Tracy doesn’t meet state environmental standards for its treated wastewater and is building a desalination facility to get its effluent up to code. But if the Delta ended up more saline because of the planned water diversions, he said, the standards for discharging treated waste would likely relax.
“If it became more salty, they would have to somehow change the standard,” he said, though he noted a development of that sort would have a “negative impact to Delta farmers, because they would have more salt to deal with.”
Some of those farmers are part of the Naglee-Burk Irrigation District, which delivers water for use on more than 2,000 acres north of Tracy.
District Secretary Robert Mehlhaff confirmed that the district’s water comes from Old River and Tom Paine Slough, so the governor’s proposal wouldn’t change rates for Naglee-Burk customers.
But Barrigan-Parrilla believes those farmers will pay for the governor’s plan one way or another.
“The south end of the Delta is going to become a saline, freshwater swamp,” she predicted.
Several other water districts in the Tracy area and down the west side of the Central Valley depend on water pumped into the Delta-Mendota Canal and California Aqueduct, and they stand to benefit in terms of quality and quantity if the governor’s project is seen through.
Frances Mizuno is assistant executive director of the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which represents 32 water agencies that receive water from the Delta-Mendota Canal.
She said the governor’s proposal would ensure a stable supply of water for customers from Tracy to the southern reaches of the San Joaquin Valley and in San Benito and Santa Clara counties.
“(The tunnel) is really the only way we can have some sort of sustainable and viable water supply for our future,” Mizuno said. “Our water supply is very restricted.”
Mizuno said several years of light rainfall, combined with environmental restrictions on how much water could be pumped from the Delta, devastated farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.
Many farmers left fields fallow or cut down orchards, she said, because there was not enough water to keep them irrigated. Even in wet years, Mizuno said, many farmers do not get all the water spelled out in their contracts with the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the Delta-Mendota Canal.
“2011 was a wet year — we only got 80 percent of our (contracted) water supply,” she said. “Only 40 percent this year.”
She said the new tunnels would make sure fish weren’t caught in the Delta pumps; allow more water to be captured in times when there is more than enough in the river; and ensure farmers a larger share of what they are promised.
“The biggest problem is the lack of water supply,” she said. “We’re not taking water from anyone else — we’re trying to get the water that we have contracts for.”
But Herrick, the South Delta Water Agency manager, said there is too little water in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta system to satisfy all users.
He said it’s an issue of basic math, proven by the drought of 2007 to 2009, when some Delta-Mendota users received less than a quarter of what their contracts promised.
“In the third year of drought, the water delivery system was bankrupt,” Herrick said. “There simply isn’t enough water all the time.”
He added that the only way to ensure that Delta-Mendota users get more water would be to take it from those in the Delta with more senior water rights, because the tunnel plan would not add water to the state’s overall supply.
“There isn’t any magic silver bullet that will create 2 or 3 million acre-feet of water in that third year of drought,” he said.