To Build or Not to Build the Delta Tunnels

The future of the state is taking shape where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers meet


A Twitter feed? A reality show? Whatever it is, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta needs something to boost its name recognition in Southern California. Supplying a third of the region’s water and vast tracts of farmland, the delta is where the San Joaquin and Sacramento River systems, which drain the Sierra Nevada, mingle with the salty tides of San Francisco Bay. Divided up with earthen levees more than a century ago in order to cordon off the water and make room for people, it’s become a crazy quilt of islands, farms, suburbs, roads, shipping channels, bridges, pumps, and aqueducts. More than 25 million people and a huge chunk of the state’s economy rely on the delta. And it is in trouble: The delta is at the center of a historic court brawl between farmers and fishermen, and its infrastructure is so challenged that a natural disaster could cut off the flow of water from the area, which would be catastrophic.

Eighty-five percent of the state’s remaining salmon swim through the delta. There are also steelhead, sturgeon, striped bass, and delta smelt, a tiny species protected by state and federal laws. Millions of fish die each year after being sucked into the two massive pumps at the delta’s southern end that send water to areas beyond, hastening the plight of the smelt and commercial salmon fishermen alike. The pumps are so strong, they draw seawater far inland, creating brackish conditions that interfere with fish feeding and spawning. So beginning in 2009, federal courts ordered water users to cut the amount they take from the delta by up to 20 percent, impacting farms and cities in Southern and Central California.

Looming over all of this is a doomsday scenario: The delta’s levees, some protecting farmed islands that have subsided to nearly 25 feet below sea level (think New Orleans), could be overtopped—either by a huge storm made worse by a rise in sea level from global warming or by an earthquake. The sunken islands would be flooded and ocean water from the bay would flow in, causing the pumps to shut down before they send saltwater into the fields and taps beyond. A worst-case breach might pinch off the flow for 12 to 18 months. A plan being pushed by Governor Jerry Brown and backed by several large water agencies would try to go around the troublesome delta by building two giant concrete tubes underground that would suck water directly from the Sacramento River (the source of 85 percent of the freshwater sent south) 40 miles north of the existing pumps. The stated price tag of $24.5 billion—triple that with interest—would amount to the most expensive public works project in California’s history, funded by you, the taxpayer.

Double Visions

To build or not to build the delta tunnels?

People resisted constructing the Erie Canal. And the fight over the L.A. Aqueduct is legend. Nothing of such scale and cost is without controversy, but the delta tunnels are especially fraught—not just because they deal with water (the West’s third rail), but because the plan is so flawed. Here, a sampling of arguments for and against:

Pulling water straight from the river 40 miles away, the tunnels would bypass the existing screens that fail to prevent fish from dying in the pumps.

Don’t build!
Some fish, such as the endangered delta smelt, might benefit from the tunnels. But many biologists expect they would doom the endangered Chinook salmon and steelhead that spawn in the Sacramento River. Improving the delta pumps’ 40-year-old fish screens instead would cost no more than $2 billion.

Even if the levees are overcome or breached in a natural disaster, the tunnels would still provide fresh river water to the pumps.

Don’t build!
There’s no way to safeguard the main aqueducts that crisscross major fault lines as they bring water to L.A. At a cost of up to $4 billion, according to the Delta Protection Commission, levees could be shored up to cope with storms and quakes.

Water in L.A.

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  • debbie elliot

    This is not an easy subject for people to grasp too much propaganda from the Brown administration. They say they are going to save the Delta and restore it. A lot of baloney and a real boondoggle for the taxpayer who will end up paying for the restoration which is really the mitigation for the tunnels. The beneficiaries of the tunnel plan rather than the taxpayer should pay the bill since the people that will benefit are Paramount Farms, Westlands, and MWD. These special interests plan on selling the water to the highest bidder like oil companies who want to frack the monterey shale oil fields. Just look at the bills that are passing right now in Sacramento. Wake up everyone, don’t be fooled. Water costs will be passed on to you. and you won’t have one more drop of water. .Brown’s adminstration and the BDCP are just using scare mongering tactics to the public in hopes that you will support the tunnels . Truth is there has never been a levee failure in the Delta due to earthquakes, again just a political ploy to justify this project.
    UCLA did a study recently to simulate a earthquake to determine if the levees would fail, they commented that the levee did not liquify, so there is no basis for BDCP’s claim , yet the report has been buried since the BDCP did not get the results they wanted to hear. Los Angeles and the aqueducts that carry the water are more at risk for earthquakes than the Delta so what is all this hoopala about it anyway.

  • Burt Wilson

    The twin tunnels are a fraud, the latest attempt by the MWD to grab water from northern California to build new housing in the high desert areas–the only place to house the million-a-year people who will descend to SoCal in the future. This water grab is more sophisticated than the previous ones and the fact that Gov. Brown will not allow the people to vote on such an extensive public works project indicates that the fix is in from the governor on down. The tunnels will ruin the Delta, cause water rates in SoCal to go sky-high and drain northern California reservoirs to where there will be no water left for either half of the state!

  • Farmwater

    Water flowing through the Delta irrigates millions of acres of farmland, the source of much of the fresh produce that makes its way to Southern California. Consumers widely prefer local California produce as opposed to imported food products. It just makes sense that a reliable water supply is necessary to keep California farms productive.

    Government regulations intended to protect the ecosystem have disrupted the water supply to almost 4,000 farms and 25 million Californians. Earlier this year those regulations prevented the delivery of more than 800,000 acre-feet of water to farms, homes and businesses in many parts of the state. Sadly, these regulations have failed to restore the Delta to a level that adequately protects wildlife.

    That’s where the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) comes in. The BDCP is a new approach to endangered species protections that will enhance the ecosystem while at the same time restore reliability and security to California’s water supply. That means a secure water supply for Southern California and the variety of fresh fruits and vegetables we all want from local California farms.

    Mike Wade
    California Farm Water Coalition

    • robert

      NO, you folks in the valley had Tulare Lake, the biggest lake west of the Great Lakes and now it’s gone do to farming… No we don’t want our economies threatened up north from boating to fishing and farming… No we don’t want Folsom Lake and the rest of our lakes drained for the sake of the central valley and LA!

      REASEARCH TULARE LAKE,, great history lesson!

  • Rogene Reynolds

    Thanks to LA Magazine for bringing this issue before readers. But it is complicated – and more needs to be revealed about the BDCP finance problems.
    What water contractors are not telling California rate payers is that there is a less expensive way to secure water supplies. For one/tenth the cost of a $ 54 Billion tunnel project, Delta water can flow through enlarged (“fat” ) levees, with habitat developed on the wide land side. There is no need for taxpayers to foot the bill for $ 7 Billion in restoration – which will in fact destroy 20% (over 120,000 acres) of Delta farmland.
    The Delta can provide 3.8 to 4.0 million acre feet of water annually – more than enough to sustain cities and farms in areas where farming is practical. Should taxpayers pay more to subsidize mega-farms in the desert which produce exports, but have no link to farmers markets or produce counters?
    It is time to look at alternatives. Readers should take a moment and log on to the blog “Valley Economy” by Dr. Jeff Michael, University of the Pacific, economist. All of California could prosper under a plan that directs resources to water planning that works for ALL Californians.
    Thanks for the opportunity to comment. Rogene Reynolds, South Delta.

  • Paul

    Every time man messes with nature man pays a high price. This is a very bad idea! Stop the tunnels! What has already been done is bad enough.

  • Robert

    The central valley Tulare farmers had at one time the largest lake west of the Great Lakes, ‘Tulare Lake” that is now extinct do to the farmers at the time building dams and diversions, this lake was 60 miles by 40 and is now gone!

    Is this what they want to do to Folsom lake and northern California waterways!?? I say NO freaking way! It’s really time to split the state, we don’t need to be owned and controlled by LA politics!

  • Richard B

    Why have so few failed to recognize the huge amount of lobbying and support involved in the building of the tunnels from Oil companies involved in fracking and other means of oil extraction in Southern California? I understand there are many factory surrounding the building of these tunnels. But as far as I can tell, living in Sacramento, our reservoirs are at record lows, many communities are forced to create water usage limits, and we are struggling more than ever while Southern California communities have reservoirs at full capacity. So Cal and LA continue to ask for more water without any care for the harmful effects of these tunnels. We are over pumping an already damaged watershed in drought. I am only 20, and continue to learn about the crisis at hand that is practically out of control, BUT I do see that there is a wolf in sheeps clothing here. Look at Owen’s Lake? Good job LA, do you want the central valley, which provides a majority of our nations agriculture, and the San-Joaquin Delta to end up like Owens? Now a completely dry wasteland like lake bed? Ok it probably wont end up quite that bad. But I know 2/3 of our states population lies below Monterey, and that majority seems to show little concern for the ill-effects of these tunnels, and the long term results of them. There are huge unforseen costs to the project, there are interests involved that are preventing the final decision of the project from being in the hands of the people, and and Its hard to deny that oil companies arent one of the biggest supporters here. They only spent 50$ million lobbying here last year! Our state as a whole needs to work on water management, and improving the outdated and destructive pumping systems we have, and maybe implement water reclamation programs before we go and destroy the vital communities and ecosystems that makes California so beautiful. I think Southern California should look in direction other than NORTH for water. The supply is limited here. Im so glad the drought hit us right when this project is being reviewed, I hope it fails. Keep California Beautiful, I enjoy it here.