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Sac Bee Viewpoints: It’s time to compromise on Delta water projects

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:  Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Contact:  Steve Hopcraft 916/457-5546  [email protected]; Twitter: @shopcraft;

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla 209/479-2053 [email protected]; Twitter: @RestoretheDelta

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Viewpoints: It’s time to compromise on Delta water projects

By M. David Stirling

Special to The Bee

Published: Sunday, May. 13, 2012 – 12:00 am | Page 5E

Click here to read online.

Driving home along the Sacramento River one recent afternoon, I was vividly reminded why the Delta is among Northern California’s most scenic resources. As the levee road twisted and turned along the river, the golden glow of the setting sun cast the river, levees and agricultural fields as a living scene from an early California painting.

For a few minutes I was again caught up in the beauty and value of the Delta. Yet, I couldn’t help thinking of the monstrous plans under way that will greatly change, if not destroy, this unique region of the state.

Like his predecessor, Gov. Jerry Brown wants to build a world record-sized tunnel to divert fresh water out of the Sacramento River in the Delta, and convey it 40 miles south to the federal and state pumping stations near Tracy. For several decades, these pumping facilities have propelled fresh Delta water to Central and Southern California, home to two-thirds of the state’s population and to some of the most fertile and productive agricultural land in the country. While some call for these pumps to be abandoned and Southern California returned to its original arid geography, this is not a realistic option. But Brown’s tunnel plan to send Sacramento River water around the Delta is also unrealistic.

The tunnel plan calls for constructing five intake pumping plants between Clarksburg and just below Courtland. Each of these pumping plants would be built on 20 acres along the river and housed in structures four to six stories tall. Together, they would have the capacity to suck 15,000 cubic feet of water per second out of the river, and transport it over to a humongous tunnel. The plan also includes a new 1,200-acre forebay near Courtland.

The tunnel itself would consist of a 40-mile series of two side-by-side concrete pipes, each having an inside diameter of 33 feet. These giant pipes would be laid 150 feet underground. For perspective, the two pipes that form the Chunnel running beneath the English Channel between England and France are only 25 feet in diameter and accommodate both passenger trains and car-and-truck-carrying shuttle trains.

State Department of Water Resources officials estimate the tunnel project will cost a minimum of $14 billion and take at least 10 years to build. But seldom have government infrastructure projects – much less one of this dimension and duration – been completed without substantial costs overruns. Some government consultants have estimated the project’s cost, start to finish, at closer to $50 billion. And due to the certainty of lawsuits and construction-related obstacles along the way, 20 years to completion is more realistic. The chief engineer for the Department of Water Resources even questioned the practicability of the outsized project, opining at a tunneling conference that “constructability challenges” will “(push) the state of the art of tunneling projects in North America.”

For people living, farming and doing business in the Delta, not to mention the thousands of tourists and visitors who fish, boat, hunt, bird-watch and camp here, just envisioning the project’s horrendous footprint – both during and after construction – causes major heartburn. They see the tunnel project as utterly destructive of a way of life that has endured for more than a century. Many homes – some beautiful old Victorians shrouded in Delta history – and thousands of acres of private land will be taken by eminent domain. Most homes and property will be grossly devalued by the damage the project will impose throughout the Delta.

The Delta’s agriculture-based economy, including some of the finest wine grape vineyards and wineries in the state, as well as a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, will suffer extensively. Instead of restoring the Delta ecosystem, the quality and health of the river and its ecosystem will be worsened by diverting massive amounts of fresh water out of the Delta at its northern beginning. California’s scenic Delta, its rich heritage of agriculture and tourism, and its people will be irreparably degraded.

Here’s a common sense idea: compromise. Instead of building five monster pumping plants and a humongous tunnel, with all of the destructive impacts, why not save the river and surrounding lands – ensuring the continued flow of water to the Central Valley and Southern California – by upgrading the public levees so that neither an earthquake nor a 200-year flood will break or top them? Recognizing that we cannot realistically return the Delta to its 19th century condition, take reasonable steps to clean up the river, enhance its species habitat, and reduce invasive species where practicable. This may not be an ideal fix, but it would be a far more effective, much less expensive, and a faster solution to the Delta’s deficiencies than the tunnel plan.

Otherwise, by the time the tunnel might become operational – let’s say, 2030 – the Delta smelt and other struggling fish species will be only a distant memory.

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