There are Better Answers than Tunnels for Our Water Woes

Aug 8, 2017
Sejal Choksi-Chugh
by Sejal Choksi-Chugh

Governor Jerry Brown claims to be an environmental leader. He recently basked in the international spotlight, proclaiming California as a climate leader. So it’s extremely disappointing that the governor continues to push for a massive, expensive water project that will irreparably harm San Francisco Bay’s environment.

The Brown Administration recently praised the federal government for giving a green light to the governor’s proposal for two 30-mile water tunnels through the Delta. The tunnels are designed to increase delivery of northern California water to cities and farms, mostly in southern California.

Those tunnels (officially called “WaterFix”) will mean less fresh water flowing to the Bay and Delta, which are already starved for fresh water. Two major river systems, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, flow to the Delta. From the Delta, fresh river water flows to the Bay, mixing with salty ocean water. That mix makes the Bay and Delta a rich habitat for fish, birds and other wildlife.

But too much fresh water is already being diverted, for cities and farms, before it reaches the Delta. If the tunnels siphon off more water, scientific experts agree that California’s struggling salmon fishery will be decimated. Endangered native fish will be pushed further toward extinction. The risk of toxic algae blooms will rise, and there will be less habitat and food for migrating birds.

Plus, the tunnels will result in less sediment washing into San Francisco Bay to help build up eroding shorelines. So shoreline communities might be even more vulnerable to sea level rise caused by global climate change. Governor Brown, this is not what climate change leadership looks like.

While the tunnels are not the answer to the state’s water woes, California cities and farms do need a more reliable water supply. And the ailing Bay and Delta ecosystems do need help. Here are some ways our state can provide a real fix, at a fraction of the tunnels’ estimated $67 billion cost:

Let the rivers flow. Too much water is being taken from the rivers upstream of the Delta. If water can be better allocated upstream, more water could flow through these riverbeds to maintain healthy river, Delta, and Bay ecosystems, plus reach areas south of the Delta.

Store more water underground. Water that falls on cities during the rainy season can be captured and stored underground. That water supply can later be filtered and purified for use during dry months. This could result in cities needing less water from upstream rivers.

Restore habitat on a large scale. California has shovel-ready plans for large-scale Delta habitat restoration that will increase survival of fish, including salmon and other native fish on the brink of extinction. All that’s needed is funding.

Recycle more water. Orange County has a sewage treatment plant that produces water pure enough for uses that include landscaping and industry. Upgrading the state’s urban sewage treatment plants to produce recycled water is a smarter investment than building costly water tunnels.

For more on the ill-advised tunnels proposal, see Baykeeper’s recently-released position paper, “Delta Tunnels Aren’t the ‘Fix’ California Needs.”  

The Delta tunnels are not yet a done deal. Support is eroding among some southern California urban and farm agencies that have pushed for them. Baykeeper and our coalition partners throughout the state are mounting strong opposition and advocating for Bay Area water districts to vote no on the tunnels. We’ll also keep advocating for better solutions to California’s water woes—for the good of cities, farms, the Delta and San Francisco Bay.

Photo by Fabrice Florin, Flickr/CC

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