When a Sacramento County judge made a ruling last week blocking California from issuing $8.6 billion in bonds to pay for the first phase of high-speed rail, opponents of the bullet train immediately called on the governor to scrap it. The Bay Area News Group, which operates the Oakland Tribune, the Contra Costa Times, and the San Jose Mercury News, praised the judge’s ruling as being “right on” and labeled Jerry Brown’s high-speed rail plan “a fraud.” The true fraud, however, is not high-speed rail; rather, it’s Brown’s $25 billion plan to build two giant water tunnels in the Central Valley.
As the Express reported earlier this year in a two-part series, the water tunnels threaten to destroy the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and its endangered fisheries, while mostly benefiting large and politically influential agribusinesses in the arid San Joaquin Valley. High-speed rail, by contrast, could actually improve the environment by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the state, according to a study co-authored by UC Berkeley professor Arpad Horvath. High-speed rail also would benefit far more Californians, especially Bay Area residents, than the massive water tunnels plan.
That’s not to say, however, that high-speed rail doesn’t face significant obstacles — because it does. Judge Michael Kenny delivered a significant blow last week when he ruled that California’s high-speed rail authority could not issue voter-approved bonds until it identifies $25 billion of additional funds needed to complete the entire rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco. In all, the high-speed rail plan is projected to cost $68 billion, with a significant amount of that funding coming from the federal government.
However, as the Mercury News reported last week, Judge Kenny’s ruling could also imperil $3.3 billion in federal funds already earmarked for the project. The reason is that those federal dollars may be dependent on state matching funds — and so if the state cannot issue $8.6 billion in bonds, then the federal government might rescind its $3.3 billion.
Yet despite these financial roadblocks, Governor Brown doesn’t appear ready to give up on high-speed rail. And he shouldn’t. Yes, the project will be expensive to construct. But that doesn’t make it a “boondoggle,” as opponents have labeled it. In truth, it’s a public works project that’s worth pursuing — because it could improve both the state’s economy and our environment at the same time.
As the Express reported last year, Horvath’s study concluded that a high-speed rail system would consume less energy and emit fewer greenhouse gas emissions and less pollution than cars or airplanes — even after accounting for future improvements in auto and plane fuel efficiency. The reason is that high-speed rail will run on electricity, and California has been creating — and will continue to create — more renewable sources for electricity generation. Moreover, high-speed rail promises to boost commerce between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area by making it easier to commute back and forth between the state’s two major metropolitan centers.
Governor Brown’s plan for two giant water tunnels, by contrast, is a true boondoggle. Although some of the freshwater diverted through the tunnels would go to Southern California residents, the real beneficiary of the project is the powerful Westlands Water District, which represents big factory farms in the dry San Joaquin Valley. How dry? The Westlands area is actually a harsh desert that gets only about eight inches of precipitation a year and does not have water of its own for farming. Indeed, if one were looking for the worst spot in California to develop agriculture, Westlands would be the poster child. “It is really an area that should have never been farmed,” Richard Walker, an expert on California agriculture and a retired professor of geography at UC Berkeley, told the Express earlier this year.
And yet the governor is pushing forward with a $25 billion plan that would send more than a million acre-feet of freshwater a year from the Delta to Westlands factory farms — businesses that also happen to employ some of the top lobbyists in the state and are among the biggest political campaign donors in California. In short, the giant water tunnels plan both smells of corruption and is a bad idea.
Plus, the giant water tunnels could ruin the largest natural estuary in the West by diverting too much freshwater from the Sacramento River before it reaches the Delta. The absence of freshwater could make the Delta too brackish and inhospitable to threatened salmon populations. Moreover, the governor is proposing to build the tunnels to carry far more freshwater than the Sacramento River can supply, thereby raising fears that the project could ultimately prompt the state to tap pristine Northern California rivers for freshwater to send south to Westlands — particularly if climate change results in smaller snowpacks in the Sierra.
Luckily, there is a viable alternative to Brown’s plan that would be cheaper to build and is more environmentally friendly. The governor’s administration, however, has repeatedly given short shrift to the so-called Portfolios Alternative. In fact, the administration admitted last month that it had overestimated the cost of the alternative plan by $3 billion — and that it would actually cost $6 billion less than Brown’s proposal. The Portfolios Alternative would feature a single smaller tunnel that would divert less freshwater from the Delta and would include additional measures to protect Delta fisheries and the small farmers — including those who grow organic produce — in the Delta region. The plan also has the support of numerous elected leaders in the Bay Area.
In other words, if Governor Brown were truly concerned about the environment, he would kill the water tunnels boondoggle and would give the Portfolios Alternative some serious consideration.