Should California build the 2 new water diversion tunnels as outlined in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan?
This is a salient question, that has its fair share of proponents and opponents and competing opinions on how, when, and whether this large scale infrastructure project should actually be built. First the building of the two large water diversion tunnels will cost a lot of money, to the tune of $15 billion, and the construction could take more than 10 years to be completed.
Additionally, there are still political and environmental issues with allowing water to be diverted away from watersheds that would normally flow into the San Joaquin Delta, especially in times of extreme drought.
Proponents argue that the new water diversion tunnels will allow for water from the Sacramento River to flow around the San Joaquin Delta, without disrupting the natural watershed flow, allowing for a reduction in the ecological concerns for the delta Smelt and Salmon, as well as other riparian species that require a consistent flow of fresh water for their survival and breeding cycles.
The state of California is currently required by federal endangered species laws to heavily reduce water extraction from the delta to curtail further destroying the protected Smelt populations. One of the arguments the state puts forward for the construction of the diversion tunnels is to appease the federal government’s intrusion on state water allocations by making efforts to decrease disruption of fresh water flow to endangered fish species.
Another strong argument state legislators and Governor Brown put forward for the need to build the Sacramento River diversion tunnels is that the Bay Delta Conservation Plan’s diversion tunnels are important for repairing the state’s aging water infrastructure. Currently the San Joaquin Delta’s hodge-podge of canals and waterways consist mostly of earthen levees that are prone to earthquake damage, proponent argue. The state government, and Brown in particular want to build the new diversion tunnels, in hopes of returning some of these aging canals and levees back into natural wetlands.
Alexis Madrigal points out in his Atlantic article “American Aqueduct: The Great California Water Saga” that “The levee system is actually improving, thanks to smart investments by the state over the last 25 years.. (and) the state could seismically upgrade the Delta’s levees, securing the water supply and the people who live behind them.”
Environmentalists argue that the state’s original plan to convert 55% of the current delta into watersheds is already too low, and according to recent reports the state has reduced its commitment to watershed reclamation to approximately 30%. Which is not a trend that environmentalists view positively.
Interestingly, although wetlands reclamation sounds like a good idea in theory, environmentalists such as Bill Jennings of the California Sportsfishing Protection Alliance say that merely building new wetlands is insufficient for environmental protection if there is insufficient fresh water to flow into these wetlands. Jennings says, “any water transported around the delta will only exacerbate poor water quality. Habitat isn’t simply acreage,” he said. “Habitat is adequate water and water quality.””
Perhaps the biggest opponent to the state’s plan to return parts of the delta back into wetlands argue that the small-scale farming businesses adjacent to the delta will be required to vacate the lands and put local farmers out of employment. Farmers that have business in areas that will be ‘reclaimed’ by the state for new habitat are most in danger of losing their livelihoods, and are justifiably concerned about the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.
Other arguments on the converse side say that the new tunnel diversions will cost $15 billion to state taxpayers, and further allow for diverted water to be delivered to the large Kern Water Bank, which is partially privately owned by a large agribusiness.
Farmers and Environmentalists argue against the new diversion tunnels because they say water will be diverted away from the San Joaquin Delta and potentially damage farming business adjacent to the Delta in times of serious drought, while water still flows to the Kern Water Bank.