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California Dries Up as Brown Pushes $15 Billion Tunnel

By Michael B. Marois
February 03, 2014 1:08 PM EST 359 Comments
Low water levels are visible at the Stevens Creek Reservoir in Cupertino, California, on Jan. 30, 2014.
Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Low water levels are visible at the Stevens Creek Reservoir in Cupertino, California, on Jan. 30, 2014.

California’s worsening drought is raising the stakes for a $15 billion plan endorsed by Governor Jerry Brown to build two 30-mile (48-kilometer) water tunnels under an ecologically sensitive river delta east of San Francisco Bay.

The tunnels, each as wide as a two-lane interstate highway, would ship water more reliably from northern California to thirsty farms and cities in the south. They would also bolster the ecosystem of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which is on the verge of collapse from feeding water to 25 million people and 750,000 acres (304,000 hectares) of farmland.

The drought, which officials say could be one of the worst in California’s history, is forcing farmers in the fertile central valley region to fallow thousands of acres of fields and has left 17 rural towns so low on drinking water that the state may need to start trucking in supplies. The tunnels are the biggest part of a $25 billion Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

Reservoirs are at about 60 percent of average, according to state water data, and falling as rainfall remains at record low levels. Mountain snowpack is about 12 percent of normal for this time of year. Brown is urging the state’s 38 million residents to conserve and warning that mandatory restrictions are possible.

“This isn’t a coming crisis,” Mark Cowin, director of the Water Resources Department, the state’s largest supplier, said last week. “This isn’t an evolving crisis. This is a current crisis.”

Biggest Rain

The San Francisco Bay area got the biggest rainfall of 2014 yesterday with 0.85 inch (2.2 centimeters) at San Francisco International Airport as of 4 p.m. local time, according to the National Weather Service. More precipitation is possible later in the week. Forecasters said it would take far more rain to end the drought.

California, the top U.S. agricultural producer at $44.7 billion, needs water to produce everything from milk, beef and wine to some of the nation’s largest fruit and vegetable crops. Lost revenue this year from farming and related businesses such as trucking and processing could reach $5 billion, according to estimates by the California Farm Water Coalition.

The tunnels would permit the state to begin pumping water directly from the Sacramento River at the northern end of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect endangered smelt, salmon and other fish being killed by the existing water pumping system in the southern delta.

Fish Kills

The tunnels would move as much as 9,000 cubic feet (255 cubic meters) of water per second. The state now is forced to curtail flows to a fraction of that because of the fish kills.

In his State of the State speech last month, Brown urged support for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which includes the tunnels, saying it should be part of a broader effort to protect the state from droughts in the future.

“Among all our uncertainties, weather is one of the most basic,” he said. “We can’t control it. We can only live with it, and now we have to live with a very serious drought of uncertain duration.”

Proponents say the tunnels would also better protect the state’s water supply from earthquakes, which could collapse levees along the delta and flood the area with saltwater.

The plan would spend an additional $10 billion over 50 years to restore almost 150,000 acres of wetlands and other wildlife habitat and to shore up hundreds of miles of levees. Water customers would pay for the tunnels through higher monthly bills. Taxpayers would have to cover some of the cost of the restoration.

‘Flawed Assumptions’

Opponents to the tunnels say they won’t ease droughts and may take too much water out of the delta for farmers and green lawns in Los Angeles.

“The governor’s tunnels are based on flawed and outdated assumptions that there is ‘surplus’ water to export,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director Restore the Delta, a group that opposes the plan. “We have had three dry years in a row and the governor admits the tunnels won’t add one drop of water to our drought-plagued state.”

Public comment on the proposal is being taken through April. Federal approval is pending. Brown would need to sign off on the final plan before construction could begin in 2017.

The tunnels would funnel water to existing canals of the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project, which deliver water to southern and central parts of the state.

Serving Households

About two-thirds of Californians get at least part of their water through the State Water Project. Besides serving households and businesses, the system irrigates crops in the San Joaquin Valley near the center of the state -- the world’s most productive agricultural region.

It was Brown’s father, the late former governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, who championed the State Water Project, asking voters in 1960 to approve $1.75 billion of bonds to begin construction. Today, the system includes 34 reservoirs, lakes and storage facilities, 20 pumping stations, five hydroelectric power plants and more than 700 miles of aqueducts and pipes, making it one of the largest public-owned and operated water systems in the nation.

State water department officials said Jan. 31 the deepening drought means they won’t be able to deliver any of the 4 million acre-feet of water sought by local agencies from the State Water Project. An acre-foot is the volume needed to cover an acre of land one foot deep with water.

‘Unprecedented’

Enough water will continue to flow to maintain public health and safety, the department said. The state is curbing delivery so that a small amount can be held in shrinking reservoirs to keep salt water from seeping into the delta and damaging the water supply.

California gets most of its rain in December, January and February. Los Angeles, which normally gets almost 15 inches (38 centimeters) of rain a year, got less than 4 inches in 2013, according to the National Weather Service. San Francisco, where 22 inches is typical, got 6.

“We are in an unprecedented and very serious situation,” Brown said Jan. 17, when he declared a statewide drought emergency.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael B. Marois in Sacramento at mmarois@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net

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