The Twin Tunnels Are Out—Berkeley Experts Say That’s a Good Thing

By Glen Martin

The extravagantly wet winter notwithstanding, California’s water woes are far from over. But recent moves suggest Governor Gavin Newsom is leading the state into a new era of water policy. Last month, he decided to scale back his predecessor’s decades-long effort, the Twin Tunnels, to deliver water from Northern to Southern California.

“Really, the idea that two massive tunnels would be built in the Delta was always—well, a pipe dream,” says Peter Gleick.

This massive project, known as the California WaterFix, was promoted by Jerry Brown as the solution to the state’s agricultural and urban water insecurity and environmental degradation in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta. Conceived as two 35-mile-long, 40-foot-diameter pipes buried under the Delta, the Twin Tunnels would’ve incorporated a great deal of concrete, steel, and machinery to move tremendous quantities of water southward. (Read more about Brown’s water plan here.)

Ultimately, though, it was a bridge—or tunnel—too far, even for Brown. And UC Berkeley water experts generally agree Newsom’s move away from the WaterFix is a pragmatic one.

“Jerry really wanted that legacy project, but he overplayed his hand,” says Richard Walker, a Berkeley professor emeritus of geography who has written extensively on state infrastructure, water, and agricultural issues. “The WaterFix was clearly a relic of the past. It doesn’t accord with either the will of the people of California or the actual way that state water management is moving.”

“Really, the idea that two massive tunnels would be built in the Delta was always—well, a pipe dream,” says Peter Gleick, a UC Berkeley alum and the president emeritus of the Pacific Institute, a water-oriented think tank. “It was always clear that you could get far better results spending much less money by exploring other avenues.”

And that’s exactly what experts anticipate Newsom will do. By scaling back Brown’s all-encompassing megaproject, he appears to be moving towards what analysts call a “portfolio” approach—or multiple, integrated programs, including one smaller tunnel.

Newsom’s support of a single-tunnel project hardly constitutes a comprehensive state water policy, say pundits. But it does confirm the two dramatically different views Newsom and Brown hold on water—differences certain to be highlighted in the upcoming policies of the new administration.

“The WaterFix was clearly a relic of the past. It doesn’t accord with either the will of the people of California or the actual way that state water management is moving.”

“I’ve been talking to folks in Sacramento, and no one really has any grasp on the details,” says Berkeley alum Barry Nelson, a water policy consultant and a former senior policy analyst focused on the Bay-Delta estuary for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Still, Nelson says, Newsom’s move seems to indicate strong support for a portfolio approach to water management.

“Brown’s approach was the single solution—the tunnels,” says Nelson. “But [many environmentalists] have always felt that a portfolio solution was preferable. That means multiple components, including a single tunnel with sharply defined capacity and limits, strong Delta protections, conservation, water recycling, stormwater capture, flood plain restoration, and aquifer recharge. You just end up with a more efficient, flexible system that way, and for much less cost.”

Under a new distributed system, water storage and distribution is controlled by multiple stakeholders, rather than just the State of California and the federal government calling all the shots. The feds and the state remain players, of course, but more power goes to the regional and local agencies. In fact, ambitious wastewater recycling and stormwater capture projects already are underway in Southern California.

“For example, the Inland Empire Utilities Agency in Southern California is developing a program funded by a state water bond [Proposition 1] that recycles wastewater and stores it in the Chino Groundwater Basin,” says Nelson.

That recycled water is then distributed to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MET), a regional agency which supplies water to urban water agencies and around 19 million people. MET uses the recycled water as a replacement for Delta water, which remains stored in Lake Oroville, where it can be released to provide through-Delta flows during dry years when juvenile salmon need extra water to make it safely out to sea.

“It’s an extremely elegant solution to both urban water needs and Delta environmental issues,” says Nelson.

Newsom’s support of a single-tunnel project hardly constitutes a comprehensive state water policy. But it does confirm his dramatically different views on water.

Walker sees another way the demise of the Twin Tunnels could benefit the environment.

Much of the cropland in the western San Joaquin Valley is tainted with toxic selenium, says Walker. When these soils are irrigated, the selenium leaches out into the San Joaquin River and the Delta, killing fish and wildlife. As part of a new portfolio approach, these lands could be converted to unirrigated pasturage for livestock, saving millions of acre-feet of water and eliminating a major source of water pollution.

“We’re not talking about the destruction of San Joaquin Valley agriculture,” says Walker. “We’re talking about the sensible shrinkage of irrigation on impaired lands.”

Still, Newsom’s new policies may not translate as an environmental boon. But water historically flows toward money in the West, and there are no guarantees that any extra will actually benefit the Delta.

“If we’re going to really fix the Delta, we need to convert [a significant portion of any] water savings into reductions in Delta diversions,” says Peter Gleick. “We have to acknowledge the evidence that a big part of the Delta’s problem is the amount of water we’re taking out. That was the fatal flaw of the Twin Tunnels—there was never a limit on the amount of water that could be shipped. It’s one thing to save water and use it to restore the Delta. It’s another to use it to expand irrigated croplands and put in more subdivisions.”

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Interesting article as far as it goes. We at Restore the Delta have long held Dick Walker and Peter Gleick in high regard for their penetrating analyses and activism on behalf of the Bay-Delta Estuary and in opposition to the Peripheral Canal earlier, and more recently to the Delta Tunnels project pushed by then-Governor Jerry Brown. We too are heartened by the apparent change in direction represented by the young Newsom administration in Sacramento. Mr. Martin misses other key elements of opposition to Brown’s tunnels vision shaped by Restore the Delta’s own UC Berkeley alumni Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla (Bachelor of Arts, English Literature, 1995; third in a class of 649) and me (Master’s, City Planning, 1988). We don’t have PhDs, but we are Cal Alumni. We brought to light the Delta Tunnels’ water quality effects on environmental justice communities throughout the Delta, and especially to the city of Stockton, via media messaging and the State Water Resources Control Board’s hearing on the tunnels between 2015 and 2018. We publicized and organized with local environmental justice communities to oppose the Tunnels in the water districts thirsty for Tunnels’ product. The Delta region’s four million people are a majority minority population. RTD produced a major report about the Tunnels’ environmental and indigenous justice impacts in the Delta watershed with our report “The Fate of the Delta” last September. It is available online at https://www.restorethedelta.org/thefateofthedelta/. With this report and other efforts, we made dents in the misleading media narrative about “fish vs. farmers” fostered by Interior Secretary Bernhardt and San Joaquin Valley farming interests by pursuing this avenue of Tunnels opposition alongside the declines of Delta smelt, salmon, sturgeon, and other indicators of Delta economic and environmental health. The Tunnels would be a massive transfer of natural ecological and economic wealth away from the Delta’s environmental justice communities to a cabal of welfare farmers largely in the western San Joaquin Valley, to which Walker and Gleick allude. In contrast, the Delta’s prime agricultural farmlands, legacy communities, racial and ethnic histories, and economic strength emerging from Stockton’s recovery from municipal bankruptcy are sources of pride that energized RTD’s role in opposing Brown’s Tunnels vision. While Mr. Nelson doubtless talked to people in Sacramento, we spoke with people there too and in Fresno, Compton, Downey, San Jose, San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Central Basin Water Management District, Livermore, Richmond, and elsewhere to make our case. That story has yet to be fully told, and Martin missed it completely here. Thanks for the opportunity to comment.
Finally, voices of reason are being noticed. San Francisco leaderhsip has been absent far too long, hopefully they will now become engaged.
Regarding the Portfolio concept that is gaining momentum — the inclusion of a tunnel should not be assumed. As Prof. Walker says, tunnels are a “relic of the past” and don’t accord with “the actual way that state water management is moving.” One tunnel would still do far too much damage to the lands and wildlife of the Delta, and if operated aggressively, could do even more harm to fish and water quality. We know from experience that water exporters will insist on increasing diversions from whatever is built, even if that means changing the operating rules. Only a new diversion designed solely to function in high flows when the water is not needed in the Delta could protect and help restore the estuary. In addition, the Portfolio must include large scale restoration of the state’s upper watersheds — these forests, meadows and streams are what deliver waters to our reservoirs and rivers.
Back in the prehistoric 1970s when the then young Governor Brown became interested in California’s environmental issues, I was commissioned to design and help create the California Water Atlas. Subsequently, William Kahrl and Dr. Marlyn Shelton joined me with a small staff to produce a fundamental resource for all those who wished to better understand the strategic role that water plays in our state’s many environments and history. Free copies of this otherwise expensive book are available in high-definition digital forms on the Internet courtesy of the David Rumsey Collection at Stanford University. Read the book, study its many maps and diagrams, and then consider just how the twin tunnels concept pursued by the elderly Governor Brown does or does not make sense. As a student at Berkeley I was blessed to have studied with many brilliant and wise professors whose deep concern for the earth and the human condition left an indelible impression on me. Go Bears!
There is a far better solution to California’s water crisis than the CWF. The CWF is nothing more than a re-tread of the BCDC which was a re-tread of the voter-rejected Peripheral Canal - Governor Brown’s idea when he was governor the first time. The concept of “grabbing” Sacramento River water before it reaches the Delta, either by Peripheral Canal or Twin Tunnels would destroy the Delta, the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary and San Francisco Bay itself. The SolAgra Water Solution proposes to allow the water to flow completely through the Delta via the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers as it did before the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project opened in 1960. The SWS would capture 1.4 Million Acre-Ft. of fresh water per year at Sherman Island (which is at the confluence of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers), create an additional 1.0 Million Acre-Ft. of NEW water via desalination of brackish water that arrives on the tides at the southern tip of Sherman Island. The 2.4 Million Acre-Ft. per year of fresh water would be pumped directly to Bethany Reservoir (where the California Aqueduct begins). The additional 1 Million Acre-Ft. of freshwater from the Sacramento River that is not captured to be blended with desalinated water - would be allowed to exit through the San Francisco Bay Delta Estuary, increasing the flow through the estuary and causing the X-2 (salinity marker) to move west for the first time since 1960. The tunnel that transmits the water from Sherman Island to Bethany Reservoir would be 28 feet in diameter (not 40’ per the CWF) and the tunnel would be bored beneath State Route 160 and State Route 4 so that no private land must be taken and no land must be purchased. It also avoids driving tunnels through one of the largest natural gas fields in California - which the CWF proposed to do.

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