SF Chronicle: Dissent brews over governor’s $16 billion water project

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San Francisco Chronicle
Dissent brews over governor’s $16 billion water project

By Kurtis Alexander
July 26, 2016
Original link at San Francisco Chronicle.

By the time the Sacramento River winds its more-than-400-mile course from the slopes of Mount Shasta past the state capital, it’s well into its leisurely stride, running slowly by fields of sweet corn, tomatoes and alfalfa.

But this lazy stretch of river, just south of Sacramento, is a metaphorical whitewater. The rural Sacramento County town of Hood, at the north end of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, is where state and federal authorities have planned the starting point of California’s hotly debated tunnel project — a $16 billion proposal by Gov. Jerry Brown to improve water deliveries to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California, as well as parts of the Bay Area.

On Tuesday in Sacramento, state regulators are set to begin what are expected to be six months of hearings on whether Hood’s riverbanks are an appropriate place to draw water from the Sacramento River.

While the question hinges on a handful of technical issues — mainly if water rights will be violated, and if the project will harm threatened fish — the meetings by the state water board mark the first real public debate on the project and are certain to stoke broader concerns about who’s getting California’s precious water, and who’s not.

“There are strong feelings about this,” said Indar Chetty, who runs the small Hood Market on River Road and for years has heard local residents worry that the delivery of water through the tunnels will dry up their delta backyards. “Something has to be done about water. But they can’t pump as much as they want out of the river. Next thing we know, there’s not going to be any water here.”

Water for canal systems

The proposal by the state Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation — championed by Brown — calls for a pair of 40-foot-wide tunnels to carry Sacramento River water 35 miles beneath the delta to the outskirts of Tracy. Pulled by gravity, the freshwater would enter the massive state and federal canal systems and flow south to cities and farms.

Currently, water is pumped directly from the delta into the canals of the State Water Project and Central Valley Project. This has altered circulation in the delta’s wetlands and wreaked havoc on migrating smelt and salmon populations.

State and federal authorities are often forced to halt pumping from the delta because of the problems, limiting water deliveries. This past winter, for example, the agencies estimate that 486,000 acre-feet of water, enough for 3.6 million people for a year, went undelivered.

Changing the location where the water is drawn, which requires approval from the State Water Resources Control Board, is the government’s answer to the quandary.

“We’re not asking to take more water,” said Nancy Vogel, a spokeswoman for the Department of Water Resources. “We’re only asking to change the point where we divert it.”

Growing opposition

Taking water from the Sacramento River, however, raises a new set of concerns. The ubiquitous signs demanding “Stop the Tunnels” along the country roads of the delta signal rising acrimony — the counterpoint to signs farther south heralding the start of a “Dust Bowl” due to limited water deliveries.

Opponents of the tunnels worry that water draws near Hood will reduce the amount of freshwater running into the delta, where a balance between river water and salty inflows from San Francisco Bay is crucial. Both fish and farmers would suffer from poor water quality or too little water.

“The more they take off the Sacramento, that’s less going through the delta,” said grower Bob Ferguson, 67, who relies on delta water to irrigate asparagus, corn, wheat, safflower and alfalfa. “It’s something that we’re very, very concerned with and watching very carefully.”

While state and federal authorities vow to ensure sufficient water for the fragile delta ecosystem and remain bound to take no more than their water rights allow, the critics are wary. Many water agencies north of the delta are uniting against the tunnels because they’re concerned that their rights to the Sacramento River may be undermined.

Approval of the new water draws, which won’t come up for a vote until at least next year, is a major step to clearing the way for the three intake plants near Hood.

The state water board isn’t the only hurdle to the plan. Dubbed California WaterFix, the project must survive additional reviews by local, state and federal agencies and satisfy the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Money is also a big issue. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, one of the biggest supporters of the tunnels, is expected to provide funding, along with other water agencies served by the project, including some in the Bay Area. However, the benefit to backers is becoming increasingly murky.

Restrictions on state and federal water draws may tighten as the delta’s environmental problems are studied and as statewide water supplies dwindle amid drought and climate change. While proponents of the tunnels expect more water to become available with the project, that’s no certainty. Reliability is a clear advantage, but a bump in supplies is not.

Ballot measure

California voters might also have a say in the controversy. A wealthy Stockton farmer qualified a November ballot measure, Proposition 53, that requires voter approval for state borrowing above $2 billion, which the project is likely to require.

This month, Brown enlisted former U.S. Interior Secretary and political heavyweight Bruce Babbitt to help navigate the bureaucracy. He and other proponents achieved a victory last week when the state Supreme Court, overturning a lower court decision, gave project officials the right to enter private property to begin planning the tunnels.

Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email:kalexander@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @kurtisalexander

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