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Delta Flows: California water during national crisis (Part 2)

by Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Executive Director

Last week, the number one box office hit was in the USA was “Jurassic Park” because drive-ins were the only theaters open during the pandemic. 

Jurassic Park contains some great science quotes that can be applied to efforts by the State Water Contractors, the Design Construction Authority, the Department of Water Resources and the Newsom Administration around the pursuit of a Delta tunnel and overall California water management. 

Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

The question the Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the Design Construction Authority have been busy trying to answer in the affirmative is whether scientists (really engineers) could figure out how to build a tunnel through the Delta. Truth be told, if you spend enough money on mitigation, almost any feat of engineering could be accomplished – except perhaps where gravity intervenes. The question the Newsom Administration and water contractors cannot answer satisfactorily is, “Should a Delta tunnel should be built?”


The $11 billion figure quoted for construction of the Delta Conveyance Project is dated and incomplete. The $11 billion figure is in 2018 dollars. In 2018, Metropolitan Water District claimed inflation for construction should be calculated at 5% interest annually. That puts the project over $12 billion today without all the mitigation measures discussed by the Design Construction Authority in stakeholder meetings with Delta community members. These externalized mitigation costs will be absorbed by taxpayers.

Before bond interest, and with externalized mitigation costs, inflation roughly would put construction costs closer to $20 billion. Bond interest generally speaking would double the cost to $40 billion. And if the state is going to make Delta communities whole and leave the Delta “better off” than it is presently, additional billions of dollars would need to be spent.

Yes, the money can be raised through bond funding with California ratepayers and taxpayers as the guarantors. But this does not answer the moral question, “Should public money be spent on construction of the Delta tunnel in a post-Covid society?” Or, should the Delta only be improved and Delta communities protected if the Delta tunnel is built? 

Our state’s rainy-day funds are understandably being exhausted by the pandemic. What cannot be forecasted is how long it will take for the state to be stabilized if the pandemic drags on and cases continue to surge. In water circles, there is plenty of discussion about the financial health of water districts. What type of financial shoring up will public water districts need when federal assistance and unemployment is scaled back starting in July and households cannot pay rent or mortgages, let alone their water bills? 

During the spring, NRDC blogged about water shutoffs in California. Here are the findings pre-pandemic:

NRDC’s review of the 2019 data found that a minimum of 350,000 Californians experienced their water being shut off at least once last year. Indeed, a California study by Pacific Institute showed that while most utilities had a 4% disconnection rate or less, more than a third had disconnection rates from 7% to as high as 30%.

While the NRDC blog and the study by Pacific Institute do not address the percentage of shutoffs in communities of color, Restore the Delta heard repeatedly from Southern California community groups from 2016 through 2018 that a disproportionate number of water shutoffs occurred in communities of color throughout Metropolitan Water District’s service area.

This is one reason that water contractors cannot claim any moral high ground around the idea that the Delta tunnel is a social justice project, as Valley Water’s Gary Kremen attempted to do in his Cal Matters opinion editorial that we replied to in Maven’s Notebook. Tunnel construction will not create local sustainable water jobs for union workers within the boundaries of Metropolitan Water District, or even Valley Water, which is closer to the Delta. At a time when so many need jobs that pay a living wage, our urban water districts continue to focus on water infrastructure that fails to benefit their own customers. At public meetings, MWD and Valley Water will continue to work with union locals from Building and Trades, and prosperity gospel ministers tied to Californians for Water Security (Stewart Resnick’s front group) to talk about how the tunnel will bring them jobs. But it won’t. And when the union members hear our data about how local water projects create a greater number of jobs than tunnel construction, they will nod with us after making comments against us, confused because they realize that we are on the same side of water-job creation, contradicting the talking points they were handed. The tunnel won’t provide any additional water for continuous growth, and the water jobs won’t be local; those jobs will be in the Delta. None of this will help the greater Los Angeles working community, or San Jose, post-Covid.

Tunnel construction costs will drive up expenses for each water district, and without a needed and radical rethinking of what water affordability should entail. The goal must be to bring equity and justice to communities of color throughout the state in terms of water quality and affordability. Meanwhile, the possibility for increased water shutoffs in these communities looms large. 

Although Governor Newsome placed a moratorium on shutoffs during the pandemic and ordered some water reconnections, as NRDC writes, “California has only a voluntary reporting process for shutoffs during the COVID-19 crisis, and current data collection lags far behind states like North Carolina and Michigan.” As with the tracking of groundwater usage, California is trying to catch up with itself in terms of adequate data collection and reporting as it relates to water affordability. We cannot adequately improve policies and create equity for that which we do not measure adequately.  


Recently, Restore the Delta has been hosting a series of webinars entitled, Reframing a Region: Communities of Color in the Delta. We believe everyone who works in water, and/or cares about California history, issues of equity, and our environmental future should listen to this series. One area of historical reference that is deeply important to the tunnel discussion centers around the true and complete connection by California tribes to the Delta. In addition, to the need for protection of the estuary for Northern California tribes who depend on healthy salmon runs for dietary reasons and cultural practices, tribes closer to the estuary have deep ties to the land here itself. Their ancestors lived in villages within and adjacent to today’s political boundary of the Delta. Contrary to history as told by the state, tens of thousands of their ancestors lived here prior to the genocide, exodus, and malaria epidemic; they managed fisheries, including salmon runs, through significant controlled burning of tules. (We commented on this in a letter to the Delta Stewardship Council in January 2020.) Their people also managed the Delta for its natural bounty, and it served as a “grocery store” for area tribes, as Malissa Tayaba, Vice Chair of the Shingle Springs Miwok Tribe explains. 

In short, construction of a 40-mile tunnel through the interior Delta cannot be sold as a social justice project that could offset the current cultural, or environmental losses that a number of tribes will experience with the project in the present. It will not compensate for the historical loss already experienced by other California tribes in the Delta as a result of the state’s historical policies genocide and inequity. The failure of the state’s narrative to account for the truth of what has transpired historically for California’s tribes in the Delta, and the dismissal of such truths by water exporters, does nothing to build for the reconciliation that Governor Newsom called for with California’s tribal community in 2019. 

We would argue that without truth and reconciliation between the state and impacted tribes in a way that satisfies tribal communities, the tunnel should not be built.


Reports by Lawrence Livermore Laboratory “the headwater regions of California’s 10 major reservoirs, representing nearly half of the state’s surface storage, found …on average a 79 percent drop in peak snowpack water volume by 2100.

DWR, the DCA, and the California Natural Resources Agency continue to argue that this is why they must have a tunnel that captures water during wet periods, and that coupled with sea level rise the need for the tunnel during the Covid-19 pandemic is deemed essential business of the state. But, nobody can or will answer how bond debt repayment will be met during increasing dry years when there is no extra water to fill the tunnel. 

As we continue to ask these questions of the DCA; the answers are kicked over to DWR to answer in the EIR; yet DWR spends money to promote the project with claims about how it will help Delta communities, all without addressing the two most important topics, levees and water quality. DWR continues to claim the new conveyance project will protect communities, yet no major flood package has been offered to the Delta, nor has any analysis on water quality impacts been done. 

Climate change mitigation cannot succeed without equity for communities of color. While the Transformative Climate Change grant awarded to Stockton is a step in the right direction, the TCC offers no protection for surface water quality and quantity for Stockton or rural and urban Delta communities. Drawing down Northern California water flows from rivers essential to California tribes is not climate justice. Asking urban ratepayers within Metropolitan Water District and Valley Water to pay for a dry tunnel will not result in climate justice. 

So yes, engineers could figure out how to build a very expensive Delta tunnel and work to mitigate as many construction impacts as possible. But it’s a dinosaur of a project, and as it is with the movie scientists in Jurassic Park, “could does not mean should.” The tunnel can never bring equity to the State Water Project because it counts on excluding marginalized people from the Oregon Border to the Mexican Border from water wealth and equity. Marginalized people will live with the pollution, lose access to natural resources, AND pay the bill. 

It is systemic injustice that is causing so much unrest in our country presently – from Covid-19 to education, to health care, to air quality problems, to problems with policing and criminal justice reform. California water is another system that has institutionalized inequities, and the Delta tunnel does nothing to solve those issues. Equity and justice cannot be realized within a system that provides only the monied majority with all the benefits while excluding those with less power. The State Water Project was not built to benefit all Californians, and neither would the Delta tunnel.