PD Editorial: Seeking a ‘grand compromise’ on delta tunnels

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We’ve made no secret of our objections to Gov. Jerry Brown’s plumbing project — drilling two enormous tunnels, each one 40 feet in diameter and 35 miles long, to divert water to Southern California cities and Central Valley growers.

Brown’s plan looks even worse with President Barack Obama’s acquiescence to congressional legislation guaranteeing more water for irrigation at the expense of endangered salmon and the environmentally fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Sucking even more water into the giant pumps near Tracy without regard for the impact on fisheries and delta farms will increase the likelihood of an ecological disaster.

Moving the diversion upstream, as the governor proposes, could improve conditions in the delta while limiting service disruptions for water contractors in the valley and Southern California.

That’s a worthy goal. But, as John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, wrote recently in the Sacramento Bee, “The twin tunnels are big enough to drain the entire Sacramento River dry at most times of the year.”

Heck, they might even be big enough to contain the 80,000-page flood of environmental documents pertaining to the tunnel plan that state water officials plan to release today.

Supporters say the tunnels wouldn’t become an added drain on Northern California rivers. Maybe, maybe not. Brown’s term will be over long before anything is built, and California has a long history of questionable water management practices. In any event, it’s a risk we shouldn’t take.

As McManus wrote: “A project this size isn’t credible. It’s too big, too expensive and too damaging, which is why it is hopelessly bogged down.”

Yes, it’s bogged down. But it may not be hopeless. Water experts at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California recently unveiled a proposal that is worthy of consideration: build one tunnel, not two.

Ellen Hanak, Jeffrey Mount and Brian Gray of PPIC, also writing in the Bee, explained that a single tunnel would cap the amount of water that could be diverted while reducing the $15.5 billion tab (plus interest) for the twin tunnel plan.

“Even at half of its proposed capacity, the project would significantly improve the reliability and quality of water supply,” they wrote. “And by having two locations to draw water from the delta — a new tunnel plus the existing south delta pumps — the project creates the necessary flexibility to better manage the environment.”

The single tunnel is one element of a proposed “grand compromise” that also includes a more flexible approach to managing water in the delta and strengthening levees to protect against flooding and saltwater intrusion.

The PPIC approach is, at a minimum, half as bad as the governor’s proposal.

The status quo isn’t a credible option. Pumping water from the southern end of the delta disrupts the migration of salmon and other endangered fish, while efforts to protect endangered species often lead to disruptions in the flow of water into the canals serving the valley and Southern California. No one benefits from a perpetual water war. So let’s call a cease fire and determine whether a single tunnel would make water supplies more predictable, protect salmon fisheries and the delta — and lower the price tag for this multi-billion-dollar project.

The PPIC proposal has been greeted with guarded optimism by some opponents of the twin tunnels, and it hasn’t been flatly rejected by the biggest supporters, so perhaps there really is room for compromise — something we don’t see often enough in Sacramento or Washington.

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