San Francisco Chronicle
June 3, 2012
While the future of a proposed high-speed railroad to move people in California remains in doubt, a proposed giant canal to move water from Northern California to the south appears almost assured – with a little help from Washington. Now the questions are: How big? And whose hand is on the spigot?
The project – 30 years in the making, including six years of scientific study funded by water agencies, and known euphemistically as a conveyance facility and politically as the Peripheral Canal – hit a logjam last month. A raft of scientific reports suggested that what the state water contractors wanted – more water – would conflict with what the state and federal government are legally obligated to do – restore fish habitat.
So state water planners asked the contractors to spend more than the $150 million they have already spent on scientific studies. The contractors balked, and the Kern County Water Agency Board of Directors demanded that the state and federal agencies deliver a description of the project (the legal green light to build) by June or it might walk.
Two weeks later, federal officials took over the show. The Interior Department convened meetings near San Francisco with state water and fish officials to discuss what a canal or tunnel the fish agencies would issue a permit to operate might look like. The fish agencies said: one that would export between 4.5 million acre feet and 5.5 million acre feet a year. (The state exports 4.9 million acre feet now, and the delta ecosystem is suffering.)
That range now will serve as the rough outline of the project the water contractors are demanding. Also agreed: a 15-year window to figure out how to run the canal, begin aggressive wetlands restorations work and a process to adjust operations as new data came in.
The contractors did give on what they really wanted: a project to export 5.9 million acre feet because the fish agencies said it was not possible. Now they must determine: Does it make economic sense for them to spend $12 billion or more on a canal that might deliver less water?
Will their customers be able to pay more for water and still grow almonds or other crops profitably?
Environmental advocates, whose views on the canal range from no canal to a yes-but-divert-less-water canal, rejoiced that reduced water exports finally were on the table for negotiation. Yet the question remains: Will this plan reduce reliance on delta water, as state law demands?
Those who live in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta area, however, are outraged. Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, whose newly drawn congressional district wraps the delta’s eastern side where the “chunnel” would be built is one. “The problem is they started with the answer and are looking for data to support it,” he said.
“There are better ways to supply water to Southern California than taking the Sacramento River away from us.”
For the Bay Area, including the 3 million residents and businesses who depend on delta water, many questions remain:
- How can the state commit to building a canal if we don’t know if ecosystem needs or water contracts determine operations? (State law calls for “co-equal” uses.)
- If the process is based on science rather than politics, then who asks the scientific questions?
- What assurances are in place that fishermen will get some amount of water for fish, and that cities will get good quality drinking water?
Water-saving technology has helped the state conserve enough water that urban use has remained flat since the mid-1990s despite a growing population, and agricultural use has declined since the 1980s, according to a Public Policy Institute of California report. However, Californians can – and must – do more. The new plan includes a nod to more recycling, conservation and reservoirs, ideas that were disparaged in earlier discussions.
In short, there is much we don’t know. We do know it looks like water contractors will get their canal.