The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is the West Coast’s largest estuary, an awe-inspiring area of wetlands with 700 miles of waterways and 1,100 miles of levees nestled between the San Francisco Bay and the Central Valley south of Sacramento. It’s one of the most magnificent places in California—a refuge of orchards, marinas, tin-roofed shacks, plantation homes and tiny historic towns that feels more Deep South than Golden State.
The 1949 movie, All the King’s Men—based loosely on the life of Louisiana’s populist Gov. Huey Long—was filmed in the Delta and neighboring Stockton. It is not the only “Southern” movie filmed in this haunting, foggy backwater. Given its unusual geography, small population and location 375 miles north of Los Angeles, the Delta doesn’t garner much attention in the arid and bustling Southland. Yet the battle over California’s water resources is centered in the region.
I certainly suggest a trip there for any California history buff. It’s a short hop from Sacramento and it’s worth a visit to Locke, a national historic site that was home to Chinese immigrants who built the levees and railroads. But learning about the area is a must for anyone interested in our water supplies, especially after the Newsom administration released an environmental report for a proposed tunnel to route Sacramento River water under the Delta and toward the farms and cities southward.
The Sacramento River is the linchpin of our water system. That river flows to the Delta, where supplies become entangled in a mish-mash of waterways and swamps. Orange County water official Brett Barbre compares it to a seven-lane freeway that hits a chokepoint of dirt paths before connecting to a smaller freeway southward. The tunnel project—originally proposed as twin tunnels in 2015, but down to a single tunnel now—would keep the water flowing.
Another good analogy comes from a UC Berkeley professor in the 1980s, when California considered a peripheral canal to circumvent the Delta: “California is on the operating table. The treatment team has elected to perform a delicate bit of vascular surgery….A new vessel is to be implanted, a synthetic conduit that will bypass the tangle of natural vessels around the patient’s heart and carry the vital fluid from the blood-rich head and upper torso directly to the thirsty lap.” You get the idea.
That proposal was put to statewide vote, but was defeated because Northern Californians opposed it by overwhelming margins. Fast-forward 41 years and California still hasn’t relieved this bottleneck, leading to the common situation where officials shut down water supplies whenever an endangered Delta Smelt is found at the pumping station in Tracy. Like everything California proposes, this project will no doubt be overly expensive, but it’s past time to build it.
Despite my critiques of the governor, I was pleased to see the Associated Press explain that the Department of Water Resources’ release of that final environmental report “signals the Newsom administration’s commitment to completing the project” despite opposition from locals and environmentalists. Newsom said that California water supplies could drop by 10 percent by 2040 because of climate change. Whether accurate or not, the state has too little storage now so any boost would help.
And here’s the kicker, again from AP: “State officials said had this tunnel existed during (last year’s) storms, the state could have captured and stored enough water for 2.3 million people to use for one year.” That’s a lot of water. Solving the Delta flow problem will assure more consistent supplies so San Joaquin Valley farmers don’t have to plead with regulators for their allotted amounts whenever we have inevitable dry years
Environmentalists are, of course, livid. The Sierra Club claims it will destroy the ecosystem and instead urged the governor to “work with environmental and social justice groups” to “develop better proposals.” I’ve seen the kind of proposals that emanate from such groups and, well, you can be sure they never include boosting supplies. Leftist groups tend to say no—and file lawsuits—against anything that creates more water for people.
As someone who loves—and lives near—the Delta, I would never support a destructive project. But the current environmental situation is a mess, with salt-water intrusion from the Pacific Ocean and subsidence (sinking) threatening farmland and towns. Salmon populations have been dropping despite the state’s prioritization of fish flows. The tunnel would reinvigorate the Delta ecosystem by separating water flows and restoring surrounding habitats.
California has endured two severe droughts in the last decade. We’ve been bailed out by an above-average rainy season last year and perhaps this year. But we can’t just rely on Mother Nature. Either California builds the water-infrastructure projects it needs, or we head toward a future of rationing. The tunnel isn’t a cure-all, but it’s one part of that needed strategy. Good for Newsom for moving it forward.
This column was first published in The Orange County Register.