Gov. Brown strongly endorsed and supported the Bay Delta Conservation Plan in his State of the State address. He says it will ensure water for 25 million Californians and agriculture, as well as protecting the Delta ecosystem and its abundant fish and wildlife. These often are contradictory goals. If water stays in the Delta, then it doesn’t get sent to farmers or to that thirsty 800 lb. gorilla called southern California. But if too much water is sent, then the Delta, with its commercial and recreational fishing, hugely fertile farmland, bird watching, boating, and hiking would suffer.
In endorsing the plan, Gov. Brown appeared to be favoring a peripheral canal, surely one of the most contentious proposals for water in California. It’s been that way for decades, ever since the idea was first floated. A peripheral canal would shunt water from the Sacramento River, around or through the Delta. It would either be a canal or a tunnel. Currently fresh water is fed through the Delta, which has changed the mix of the water from fluctuating-salinity to freshwater, confusing species and changing the ecosystem.
Depending on which of the multitude of sides you are on, a peripheral canal is either a wondrously smart plan or the spawn of Beelzebub. It has rightfully been called – along with Prop 13 – a third rail of California politics. For those who may not know, a third rail refers to the middle rail on subway tracks like in New York City where the electricity that powers the train comes from. If you step on it, you’re dead. Politicians tend to step cautiously around discussion of a peripheral canal. Those with business or recreational interests in and around the Delta vociferously oppose plans to divert water from it to elsewhere. San Francisco, Central Valley agriculture, and the gorilla to the south of course favor it.
Delta activist Dan Bacher points out how complex these issues are. A canal would cause collapse in the populations of salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, and other fish. The entire ecosystem would change, perhaps irreversibly if more water is exported. Further, fertile farmland in the area would be removed from production “in order to irrigate bad land on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, land that should have never been irrigated, is hardly ‘mending’ California!” Doubtless Central Valley agribusiness sees things differently, seeing their role as a major food producer to the nation as crucial. And the always thirsty gorilla needs water for the also essential southern California economy.
You’ll probably not be startled to learn that projected costs for a peripheral canal skitter all over the place, from a low of just a trifling few billion to $50 billion and more. It all depends on what is built and how it is done. However, as witnessed by the tripling of high speed rail projected costs, initial estimates for a canal could go much higher.
In a truly befuddling move, Gov. Brown says the water bond issue that is on the November ballot should be taken off. This is probably because it doesn’t stand much chance of passage, especially when his measures to raise taxes will also be on the ballot.
As always, California furiously debates about what should be done with the Delta while not much actually happens.