Brown feels heat in new water war
SACRAMENTO — Against the backdrop of loud and vociferous opposition from environmentalists and Northern California Democrats, Gov. Jerry Brown embarked Wednesday on what could only be likened to a ride through the white rapids of water politics.
Brown unveiled plans to build a $14 billion pair of tunnels — to be willingly paid for by farmers and other water users — to move water more easily from the north to the south.
Brown and US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar unveiled the proposal at a Sacramento press conference while environmentalists and a number of Northern California lawmakers, lined up in opposition, were preparing for a Capitol rally protesting the proposal.
"I want to get s— done," Brown told a startled press corps.
The governor's entry into controversial water politics comes only weeks after he pushed through an expensive and increasingly unpopular plan to begin construction of a high-speed rail project.
By pursuing these massive infrastructure programs, the governor could be putting at risk his fall tax initiative, which would boost taxes on the wealthy and hike the sales tax by a quarter cent, critics say.
Brown said he can't worry about the next election — or every criticism — every time he wants to do something big. "If the fear or electoral outcomes will be a basis of paralysis, we'll never get anything done," Brown said. "There's a lot of fearful men walking around that would recommend we climb in a hole and wait 'til it all blows over. Well, it's not going to blow over. Problems are going to increase, whether its climate change, inequality, or political dysfunctionality. It's all there.
The proposal, which has the backing of the Obama administration, also calls for restoring the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a vast network of marshes and sloughs that has seen ecological decline as the state's farms and cities have increasingly tapped it for trillions of gallons of water each year.
In a press release, Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, joined other legislators in criticizing the plan, pointing out storage alternatives.
"A truly comprehensive proposal would include new surface storage, without which there is no capacity to share even more water with our Southern neighbors. This plan benefits Southern California while leaving the North to bear the burdens of flooding, levee maintenance, environmentalregulations and uncertain water supplies," he said.
Likewise, Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, questioned the plan in a video press release.
"We cannot accomplish it by scaring the scarcity, we must accomplish it by providing more supplies of water," he said of the state's mission.
The governor's proposal also threatens the health of the Delta, resulting in possible great harm to fish and wildlife, said Jim Metropulos, lobbyist for the state Sierra Club.
"Californians need to know up-front how much water will be taken from the Delta by the massive tunnels, and how that will impact fish and wildlife and how any negative impacts will be mitigated or avoided," Metropulos said.
"Right now, the science shows that some species, including the winter Chinook salmon, would be harmed by the construction of the tunnels. The project could make things worse for fish and wildlife than not doing anything at all."
Salazar, who insisted that the federal government is ready to move on the plan, said it should address concerns of both environmentalists and water users. The pumps currently reversing the flow of the Delta to provide water to farmers in the Central Valley are effectively killing 95 percent of some species because they are unable to cross the Delta.
"That has to be fixed," Salazar said. "We'll negate the killing effect of the large pumps, which is a big win for those who care about fisheries, who care about conservation and environmental issues of the state."
And the new plan would provide certainty for water users, he said.
"We'll never be able to negate uncertainty — you can't control the weather, but we can create a system that provides a lot more certainty, given the ecological conditions we face. Everybody knows this system we have here is broken."
Under the plan, two huge, side-by-side underground tunnels, each 33 feet in diameter, would carry fresh water 37 miles from the state's largest river, the Sacramento, under the delta to giant federal and state pumps at Tracy.
There it would flow into canals run by the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project, which deliver Delta water to 25 million Californians, from the Bay Area to San Diego, and to irrigate 3 million acres of farmland.
Construction would start in 2017, with the project completed by 2026.
The project, already being called "the peripheral tunnel," is similar to a plan that voters rejected in 1982. That measure would have authorized building a giant "peripheral canal" over roughly the same area.
It sparked a bitter campaign that pitted Northern California voters against Southern California voters.
Legislators who represent the Delta said the plan failed to address the goal of reducing demands on the Delta through water recycling, conservation programs; and fails to strengthen levees in the Delta, which could threaten wildlife habitat as well as the region's economy.