Brett Baker steps off Sutter Island Road and scrambles down the bank of a levee to the edge of Steamboat Slough. It’s early August, and at 8 a.m., the thermometer already registers a muggy 75 degrees as the Delta sun rises through an unseasonable gray sky. At Baker’s feet is a 6-inch-wide steel pipe that carries water from the slough through the levee and into his family’s century-old pear orchard.
The farmer begins explaining how three years ago, at the peak of the drought, river flows grew so weak that salty water from San Francisco Bay crept far inland. State officials responded by proposing an emergency plan to keep the brackish intrusion from fouling the fresh river water: They would build a rock dam to divert the freshwater that flows through this slough — a side channel of the Sacramento River — into another waterway, called Georgiana Slough, that leads to pumping stations near Tracy. Those pumps, in turn, send delta water into two large transport canals to San Joaquin Valley farmers and cities in Southern California.
“They were trying to protect the water that they’re contracted to deliver to the San Joaquin Valley and Los Angeles,” Baker explains.
But the emergency measure would have left Baker’s irrigation pipe sucking saltwater into his pear orchard, killing his crops and spoiling his soil.
Ultimately, state water managers never implemented the plan, and the saltwater intrusion never quite reached a crisis. However, in their brief moment of panic, officials with California Department of Water Resources had revealed their cards: It was clear to Baker the state agency that handles much of California’s water each year was ready to leave Delta communities high and dry while sending what many locals would consider to be their water to politically powerful regions hundreds of miles away.
That’s partly why Baker and so many other residents of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta region don’t believe state spokespeople who say Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to divert much of the Sacramento River into two giant tunnels under the delta will not significantly impact their communities. Like the proposed rock dam, the delta tunnels — the key feature of a project that California officials have dubbed the “WaterFix” — would siphon water from the Sacramento River before it even reaches the middle section of the delta. The water would then flow through the tunnels to agribusinesses in the dry San Joaquin Valley and to residents of Southern California.
Just building the tunnels “is going to be a disaster,” said Gary Merwin, a grape farmer near the small Delta town of Clarksburg, along state Route 160. “Can you imagine all the dirt they’re going to have to remove for two tunnels 35 miles long? It might as well be a million truckloads. That’s two million truck trips.”
Merwin expects the heavy machinery and truck traffic during the construction phase, expected to last at least 10 years, will disrupt, if not make entirely impossible, local commerce in the Delta area, including the transport of fruit crops to market during harvest season.
Officials with the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which supplies water to Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, and other East Bay cities, have also voiced concerns. They worry the tunnels could threaten a backup water supply that the district uses during drought years.
But backers of the project, especially government agencies and the water districts that will receive much of the diverted water, have little but praise for the proposed tunnels. They contend that the new water export system would be much better than the existing one, which pumps water out of the south delta and which they argue is outdated, unable to reliably deliver water, harms the environment, and is in need of replacement.
Steve Arakawa, a spokesperson for Metropolitan Water District, which provides water to the city of Los Angeles and would be a major recipient of water from the project, stated in an email that his agency believes the WaterFix “has the ability to provide more reliable supplies” for farms and cities south of Tracy while simultaneously protecting the delta. Metropolitan and the Westlands Water District, which serves large San Joaquin Valley agribusinesses, are expected to vote next month on whether they will finance the WaterFix.
During the past week, a coalition of cities, counties, and environmental groups sued to stop Gov. Brown’s plan. But it recently received the greenlight from two influential regulatory agencies, the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service. The massive project could get underway as early as next year. If it does, Delta farmers and residents say it will devastate their communities, their way of life, and the region’s $5 billion agricultural economy.
About 100 Delta farms and houses will be impacted permanently by the project. At least one of the intakes of the tunnels will be excavated on Doug and Cathy Hemly’s pear farm near the small town of Hood. But Doug, whose family began farming here in the 1850s, said he is as much concerned about the community as he is about his threatened orchards, and possibly his home. Delta farms supply large amounts of produce to the East Bay and throughout the state.
“Digging and trucking all that material, all day, 365 days a year, for 10 years — they’re going to kill the towns here,” he said. “No one wants to live and work in a construction zone.”
Stockton resident Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, who is also executive director of the conservation group Restore the Delta, contends that cheery public relations campaigns for the WaterFix also fail to convey its other likely impacts. For example, the existing pumps export a blend of San Joaquin and Sacramento river water, but the tunnels will divert purely Sacramento River water. “That leaves us with San Joaquin River water,” said Barrigan-Parrilla, “which is loaded with selenium, bromide, and boron,” thereby creating what she said will be California’s version of Flint, Michigan.
If the state builds the $17 billion tunnels, the new system will foul the drinking water wells that supply most of the city of Stockton, while the overall reduced flows will allow salty water to flood inland, she argued. Farms will die, levees will be left to erode and collapse, and Delta communities will become abandoned.
“They’re going to take away one community’s water and give it to wealthier people far away,” she said. “It’s an environmental justice issue.”
Jerry Brown is just the latest in a long line of state leaders who think they know how to build a better river. Beginning in the 1940s, California began to reorder the way water had moved over the land for millions of years. The idea was to capture, store, and distribute Northern California’s plentiful water supply to dry areas farther south.
Water managers placed dams across wild rivers, filling reservoirs and creating pools of stored water that allowed cities and farms to grow. But the massive concrete barriers devastated the region’s native salmon runs by blocking access to high-elevation spawning tributaries. Millions of salmon and steelhead once spawned each year in virtually every creek, stream, and river in the state. The fish defined the existence of native cultures and were so abundant that molecular traces of their flesh can still be found in trees in the mountains. Scientists recently predicted most of these fish will disappear in the next century.
The government continued with its water projects in the 1950s, and the attack on rivers was direct and aggressive. In the 1960s, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation even built a tunnel that siphoned water from the Trinity River — a Klamath River tributary — through the Trinity Alps and into the Sacramento Valley. A similar project diverted water from the Eel River system into the Russian River drainage. Meanwhile, water managers installed powerful pumps at the south edge of the delta, where they drew freshwater into a pair of canals that today carry, on average, almost 4 million acre-feet of water through the San Joaquin Valley and to Los Angeles.
This system is a marvel of engineering and has brought lush orchards to deserts, but it’s riddled with problems. It has not only laid waste to the Delta region’s ecosystem but also is considered unreliable in delivering water to contracted recipients, like farmers in Westlands Water District on the arid west side of the San Joaquin Valley.
Brown’s administration has promoted the tunnels (actually a reincarnation of a similar project he backed 35 years ago) to the public and media as a sort of silver bullet that will solve every major problem associated with the existing system, including declining salmon runs and the saltwater intrusion issues that regularly interrupt operation of the delta pumps.
There is no doubt there are problems plaguing the delta and the system that currently exports its water — like the very location of the pumps. Situated several miles west of Tracy, they draw water from the southernmost edge of the delta. When running full throttle, they create tremendous suction that causes the Sacramento River to run off course. This confuses fish, ultimately causing them to die.
The draw of river water away from San Francisco Bay also allows saltwater to push upstream, an effect that intensifies during dry periods. Often, officials must shut down the pumps to meet bare-minimum environmental regulations designed to protect water quality and fish. This leaves many farmers and cities to the south without their primary water supply.
Brown’s tunnels, which would each be 40 feet wide and run for 35 miles as deep as 150 feet underground, could theoretically help the delta’s ecosystem, according to UC Davis fisheries biologist Peter Moyle, widely recognized as one the leading experts on the delta. Currently, he explained, the south delta pumps pull so much water from the estuary that migrating juvenile salmon can’t even tell where the ocean is. Often, they follow the flow of water straight toward the pumps, winding up hopelessly lost or eaten by predators. The same reverse flow pattern has all but eradicated the endangered delta smelt, too.
Moyle said the tunnels, by diverting water upstream from the delta rather than from within the estuary, would allow the water remaining in the Sacramento River to flow through the delta and out to sea — the way it is supposed to. This could solve the current problems and benefit fish — but only with one key caveat: The state must not increase water exports.
“We just have to trust that the tunnels won’t take more water than the pumps already do,” he said, explaining that just relocating the point of diversion cannot overcome a certain threshold of water diversions.
In 2010, state agencies similarly determined that the Sacramento River must be left with 75 percent of its unimpaired flow volume for the delta to remain a healthy, functioning estuary that supports native species. That translates to removing between 3 and 3.5 million acre-feet in most years — a hypothetical limit that is often nearly doubled.
However, the WaterFix is intended to increase average annual exports, state officials have said, from just under 4 million acre-feet today (enough water to fill a skyscraper hundreds of miles tall) to almost 5 million.
The water districts that will be paying for the tunnels, especially Westlands and Metropolitan, are counting on this 25 percent water increase to cover the project’s costs. This financial arrangement also will create a strong incentive to maximize water deliveries. In an emailed statement, Tom Birmingham, general manager of Westlands Water District, said his district will not pay for the tunnels unless the project improves consistency of deliveries. Currently, Westlands, a desert-dry farming region west of Fresno, relies almost entirely on delta water. In drought years, Westlands’ supply is routinely cut to zero (as longstanding contracts with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation warn is liable to happen), requiring the district to pump groundwater or buy water at sky-high rates from other users.
“Westlands has consistently stated that it will not obligate itself to billions of dollars of debt unless it is reasonably certain that the [d]istrict’s water supply will be restored,” Birmingham wrote.
Westlands’ demand for delta water concerns farmer Steve Mello, who grows corn, alfalfa, and pears near the Delta town of Walnut Grove. He worries that if the state builds the tunnels, demand for the estuary’s water will increase to the point where environmental regulations meant to protect the region will bend under the pressure. “I’m concerned that there are 25 million people who want our water, and if they build these tunnels, they’ll take away most of the river,” Mello said.
Fishery advocates also worry that the size of the tunnels, which will be large enough to carry away most or even all of the Sacramento River during parts of the year, and the costs of building them will influence river managers to divert more water than salmon runs can tolerate. “Most salmon fishermen assume that if the tunnels are built as big as currently planned, water users will push to get as much water as they can, especially during winter and spring storm runoff events,” said John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.
Wintertime high flows, he noted, are especially important for migrating juvenile salmon as they move “through the delta and out to the ocean. So cranking up the intakes that feed the tunnels then will almost certainly harm salmon.”
With a name like the WaterFix, what could possibly go wrong? Virtually nothing, government officials say. For example, they have promised the tunnels won’t harm fish, even though their own analyses seem to show otherwise. In June, the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), released two voluminous reports called biological opinions. The analyses predicted that just building the tunnels would increase mortality rates of endangered winter-run Chinook salmon by almost a quarter but would not put the species at risk.
Their conclusion was “nonsensical,” said Jon Rosenfield, a conservation biologist with The Bay Institute who has closely studied the project and the proposed options for operating it. “You can’t increase the mortality for a species that is already on its way to going extinct and say that it’s causing no jeopardy to the species. “The winter-run Chinook population is already as close to the edge of extinction as a species can be, so to say the substantial and persistent declines predicted by the NMFS analyses aren’t significant is absurd.”
Rosenfield argued that the agencies “ignored their own findings” to produce a desired and publicly presentable conclusion.
For their part, project developers and proponents have argued at meetings and in numerous documents that the more sophisticated way in which the tunnels will divert water will add flexibility to the state’s water system. Specifically, planners say, the tunnels will gulp huge amounts of water during rainy periods, when the river has plenty of water to spare. Water managers will then bank this water in reservoirs and groundwater basins. And during dry periods, they will reduce diversions from the Sacramento while revving up the existing pumps, 35 miles south, to capture some amount of water after it has flowed through the delta. In theory, the Sacramento River will always have sufficient water and outflow, they say.
But this is a carefully structured lie, said Barrigan-Parrilla. She explained that the infrastructure to handle and store so much water—including sedimentation ponds and reservoirs — during wet periods does not exist. “There’s really no place to put all that water if they get it in one big gulp,” she said. “They don’t want to tell people, but they’re planning on taking big gulps during dry periods, too, and those high-water events during droughts are exactly what we need to keep the Delta alive.”
She said there is no evidence showing the tunnels will ease pressure on the delta’s water during low-flow periods. “If you look at 30 years of data, they have always over-pumped in dry years,” she said.
Rosenfield, who has closely monitored state water managers’ actions over the years, said the Department of Water Resources failed to comply with minimum flow requirements, which are intended to protect fish and water quality, hundreds of times during the drought “at great cost to public resources like water quality, and populations of fish, and wildlife.” Other times, the Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation simply petitioned the State Water Resources Control Board to weaken environmental standards, allowing more water to be exported and less to remain in the delta during dry periods. Rosenfield said the water board rarely denied requests for these permits, called Temporary Urgency Changes, from agencies handling delta water. As a result, the permits basically serve as a legal loophole for violating environmental restrictions without technically breaking the law.
But state officials claim their track record for meeting environmental flow standards is nearly flawless. The Department of Water Resources has reported a 98.9-percent success rate in meeting water management objectives in the bay-delta system from 1978 to 2015. In other words, the Central Valley water projects are working almost perfectly — even though the ecosystem that once supported almost unbelievably abundant fish populations is nearly lifeless today.
With the WaterFix installed, conditions in the delta will remain the same or improve, wrote Sam Chiu, a spokesperson with the California Natural Resources Agency, in an email for this report. He stated that modeling has shown that, “in most circumstances, the water quality [of the delta] is similar or better with the California WaterFix.” He added that the operation of the tunnels will not affect laws already in place that are supposed to protect and guarantee the health of the delta’s ecosystem and the quality of its water.
In a written testimony provided last year to the California State Water Resources Control Board, the Department of Water Resources’ John Leahigh — officially the State Water Project operations chief — stated that the state and federal water projects that send millions of acre-feet of water almost every year to Southern California “have had a high degree of success in meeting all operative water quality standards since 1978. My opinion is that regulatory compliance with the [WaterFix] will be at least as good, if not better, as today given that [the WaterFix] will add infrastructure flexibility to system operations.”
But saltwater intrusion was a constant problem throughout the drought, and Harvey Correia, a chestnut and alfalfa farmer near the Delta town of Isleton, believes it will remain a problem with Gov. Brown’s plan. “If they can’t meet the water quality requirements without the tunnels, I think it will be even harder with the tunnels,” Correia said.
Cathy Hemly, in Courtland, also feels the new water diversion point upriver won’t solve any of the issues plaguing the delta. “They’re just moving the straw from one place to another,” she said. “They’re still taking away water from the bay and delta.”
Even if saltwater doesn’t flood the delta after the tunnels are built, Mello fears the next-worst scenario: The state will technically meet water quality standards — but just barely, constantly pushing minimum flow requirements to the legal brink of violation, causing salt to slowly accumulate in Delta soils.
“It might not be to the point of breaching the contract we have with [the Department of Water Resources], but there could still be impacts that will eventually destroy our soil,” he said.
The concept of the delta tunnels is not new. In the early 1980s, Jerry Brown, then in his first go round as governor, backed the Peripheral Canal project. A surface version of the tunnels, the proposed canal went to the ballot, where California voters overwhelmingly rejected it.
Now, Brown is maneuvering his life project past the public ballot. Instead, it needs mainly to clear a series of regulatory hurdles installed by an administration that seems intent on realizing his dream. In recent months, the WaterFix has passed several major milestones. After federal fish and wildlife agencies released their findings in late June stating that building the tunnels would not jeopardize endangered fish species, the state approved on July 21 the project’s environmental review, a 50,000-page document that finds there will be “no significant impacts” from boring and operating the giant tunnels. A week later, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife issued an “incident take permit,” which allows the tunnels to kill endangered species.
The public water agencies that would benefit from the project are expected to decide next month if they’ll pay its $17 billion tab. Economists and water policy analysts believe support will be stronger in Southern California, because financing would be shared by millions of urban residents — roughly to the tune of just $25 per customer per year. But in agricultural regions, like Westlands, individual farmers may be looking at many thousands of dollars annually for decades, and it isn’t clear that Westlands is ready to commit.
There will also be litigious obstacles to overcome. The Golden Gate Salmon Association, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife, and The Bay Institute jointly filed two lawsuits in late June against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, arguing the construction permit issued for the project violated the U.S. Endangered Species Act. More recently, Sacramento County, the Placer County Water Agency, and the cities of Antioch and Stockton filed suits to stop the WaterFix. Butte County announced on Aug. 9 it would be suing the Department of Water Resources for failing to adequately assess the expected impacts of the WaterFix to the environment and communities.
If enough agencies decide to bear the burden of paying for the project, and if its proponents ward off the opposition in court, construction contracts could be arranged in early 2018, said Chiu of the Natural Resources Agency.
Brett Baker fears the day the huge “tunnel boring machine” (or TBM, as officials call it) gets to work. On a daily basis, trucks will come and go as they move out massive piles of excavated sludge. “There is going to be such a mess out here — these roads here weren’t built for that kind of machinery,” he said.
Chiu said digging the tunnels will produce 23 million cubic yards of earth — about a million truckloads of material, roughly enough to form a mountain about a thousand feet high. Chiu said the state does not yet know where this pile of debris will go but said the material could eventually be used for “habitat restoration and strengthening levees.”
Indeed, the planning documents for the project call for “adaptive management” as the project advances. But Doug Hemly scoffs at the term. “Adaptive management means, ‘We don’t know what we’re doing, and we’ll just deal with it when we screw up,'” he said. He added that he has become so frustrated by the callous attitudes of officials — and even Gov. Brown himself in a brief personal exchange — that he has mostly quit going to public meetings.
Hemly and probably most local farmers worry that congested, two-lane roads during the tunnel boring phase will not just mar the tranquil pace of life in the Delta but also make the business of delivering fruit to market impossible.
The state, of course, denies that any of the issues raised by locals will be a problem. All impacts of construction, for example, “will be fully mitigated,” Chiu said. Impacted property owners, he also said, will be compensated.
He also said drinking water quality will go unaffected by the project — an assertion that Barrigan-Parrilla flatly challenges. “They failed to adequately test for groundwater impacts near the city if Stockton,” she said.
Almost 200,000 people in Stockton depend on drinking water from the delta, and several hundred thousand more in the greater Delta region get water from wells that Barrigan-Parrilla contends will become polluted and brackish if the state builds the tunnels. Since the San Joaquin River has less water than the Sacramento, flow of water through the delta’s river channels and groundwater basins will occur more slowly, a process Barrigan-Parrilla said will increase the rate at which mercury becomes methylated — that is, made “bioavailable” in organisms like fish, which many locals eat regularly.
As for East Bay MUD, the agency receives most of its water directly from the Sierra Nevada. But several years ago, the utility district paid about $500 million for a new water intake on the Sacramento River in Freeport, just south of the city of Sacramento. Officials with the district fear that the tunnels could change river flows such that a nearby sewage plant could foul the Freeport water intake, especially in dry years.
“We have concerns about the sanitation backflow,” said Lena Tam, manager of East Bay MUD’s water resources planning department. She said the state has said it will consider the district’s concerns about water quality. “We want more of a commitment than that,” she said.
The Delta agricultural economy is reportedly worth more than $5 billion. This revenue stream also funds local levee maintenance work. The system is effective only because the region is agriculturally productive. “But if salt loading destroys our soil and we can’t pay for the levee work, who will?” Mello said.
He described a runaway cycle by which the tunnels lead to declining agricultural productivity, which would weaken levee maintenance programs. One by one, aging earthen walls would crumble, islands would flood, land values would plunge, and much of the region could become abandoned.
Brett Baker’s ancestors were among the homesteaders who settled the Delta. They have the permanent rights to use the water that flows past their farm.
“People in the Delta have some of the best water rights in the state,” he said. “But they’re worthless if they take our freshwater away.”