I saw an interesting story last night from the Sacramento Bee’s Matt Weiser: “Underground Tunnel Gets Closer Look for Shipping Water Through Delta.” The piece deals with the latest twist on a long-talked-about fix for the plumbing in the state and federal systems that move water from Northern to Southern California. Back in 1982, Governor Jerry Brown promoted a ballot initiative for a massive new waterway–dubbed the Peripheral Canal–that would iron out some kinks in the current system of pumps and canals. Seen in the north as a Southern California water grab and almost everywhere as an overpriced boondoggle, the initiative went down with a 62.7 percent “no” vote.
But because the need and competition for water has only increased since then, the idea has never gone away. It’s back this year as part of the debate over the $11.1 billion bond measure on this November’s ballot. The initiative doesn’t specifically set aside money for a Peripheral Canal, but everyone assumes that at least some of billions in the initiatives uncommitted funds will go to what’s now called a “conveyance” project.
The canal is still the object of fear and loathing in the Delta and elsewhere in Northern California–just another act in the endless plot to take the region’s most precious resource. But one thing different from past years, though: Some major environmental groups have signed on to both the bond and plans for some sort of Peripheral Canal. Why the change of heart? I think it comes down to the widespread recognition that the tortuous method of channeling water from the Sacramento River into the Delta and then into the aqueducts is broken and is a prime suspect in the collapse of the Central Valley’s once-magnificent chinook salmon runs and other environmental problems. The thinking is that if you straighten out the plumbing, you take care of the major hazards to the fish and to the Delta ecosystem.
Once you have the new canal or tunnel, all you have to do is manage the water flowing through it to the benefit of everyone involved.
And that’s the problem. To believe a canal will fix an environmental disaster, one must believe that the demand for new water and the machinations to get it by any means possible will suddenly just evaporate. Letting high river flows sweep through the Delta and out to sea–part of what’s necessary to aid salmon migrate to the Pacific–is condemned as a waste by those who want to put that water to work in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. That belief just won’t disappear overnight.
Today’s outstanding exhibit of that mindset is a move from Senator Dianne Feinstein to essentially suspend the Endangered Species Act to guarantee increased federal water deliveries to the valley (apparently no one has told her that the main reason less water has been going down there is California’s three-year drought; maybe she could write a bill to outlaw below-average rainfall, too). Feinstein says she’s concerned about farm jobs–the areas worst-hit by the drought have been prone to cycles of high unemployment for decades. But the first thing that comes to mind when you hear about her plan is her eager readiness to go to bat for big campaign donors in the valley who are unhappy with federal plans to protect salmon and other endangered species (see “Corporate Farmer Calls Upon Feinstein to Influence Environmental Dispute” by Lance Williams of the Center for Investigative Reporting).
That’s the way the game is played. New ground rules about how water is handled might change that. A new tunnel or canal won’t