Can Newsom finally win a protracted conflict over Delta water?

In summary

California Governor Gavin Newsom is looking to succeed where his predecessors failed by building a project to refit the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta.


Will this be the fifth time the allure of California’s 10-year effort to swell the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta so that more Northern California water can be transported to Southern California?

Don’t count on it.

Last week, the State Department of Water Resources released a draft Environmental Impact Report on the latest iteration of the 57-year effort to change the Delta’s role in water supply, a 45-mile-long tunnel officially called “Delta Conveyance. . ”

The 3,000-page document immediately garnered the responses that accompanied previous releases: the large municipal and agricultural water agencies were in favor because, they hope, it would increase water deliveries south of the Delta, and environmentalists were against it, saying it would damage further. the already damaged ecosystem of the Delta.

That fundamental conflict has bound the project in its various forms since it was first proposed in 1965 as a “peripheral channel” to complement the California Water Project (CWP).

The CWP is primarily a huge dam on the Feather River whose reservoir feeds water into the Sacramento River and the California Aqueduct, which draws water from the southern edge of the delta for shipping south. They were still under construction when the peripheral canal was proposed and without it, the water managers said, the CWP could not have fulfilled its promises to the downstate water agencies.

The canal would divert water from the Sacramento River south of Sacramento and carry it 43 miles around the delta to the head of the California Aqueduct near Tracy. Pat Brown, the political champion of the CWP, was still governor when the channel was first proposed and his son, Jerry, took the case after becoming governor a decade later.

Young Brown pushed hard for legislative approval of the project, arguing that it would improve the Delta’s habitat while avoiding the negative effects on flows caused by the huge California aqueduct pumps.

By twisting weapons and promising public works projects for resistant lawmakers, Brown finally got a bill on the peripheral channel passed, only to have it repealed in a 1982 referendum.

Environmental groups formed a strange alliance of bedfellows with big agribusiness interests, who believed the canal would not provide enough water, on the successful campaign to reject the project.

The two Republican governors who followed, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, made tentative efforts on alternatives, such as a canal “across the Delta” or arrangements that would provide more water while improving the Delta’s habitat.

Those efforts failed and Wilson’s successor Democrat Gray Davis clearly didn’t want to touch the issue, having witnessed the conflict up close as Jerry Brown’s chief of staff.

However, after Davis was recalled in 2003, Republican successor Arnold Schwarzenegger made a new attempt, devising a scheme to replace the peripheral canal with twin tunnels that, on paper at least, could be built without legislative or electoral approval.

Jerry Brown inherited the double tunnel plan when he returned for another stint as governor in 2011, but failed to do so before he left. Immediately after becoming governor in 2019, Newsom threw out the twin tunnels in favor of just one, thus setting the stage for last week’s action.

“The governor is committed to getting this project essentially to a place where it will be built by the end of this administration,” said Wade Crowfoot, Newsom’s secretary of resources.

Great opportunity.

The project still has many gaps to fill, including a cost estimate, a list of water agencies willing to commit to repaying the bonds to build it, and a potentially endless number of legal challenges from naysayers.

It also has 57 years of history to overcome.

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