Pipe Dream

Are Governor Brown’s tunnels a solution for California’s water distribution?


Last week Governor Jerry Brown’s $15 billion plan to construct two tunnels to convey water from northern California to southern California achieved early approval from federal wildlife officials. The support represents a step forward in a complex approval process.

The tunnels—each four stories high and 35 miles long—would collect water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and deliver it to agricultural areas in the San Joaquin Valley and urban areas of southern California.  

“California’s largest supply of clean water is dependent on 50-year-old levees,” the project’s website states, further explaining that fragile infrastructure puts the state’s fresh water supplies at risk from earthquakes, flooding, and contamination.

Furthermore, within the current conveyance system, the pumps used to withdraw and send water to southern parts of the state draw entirely from the southern part of the delta, causing channels to flow backwards and killing native fish. As a result, endangered species protections limit pumping. By creating new collection points, engineers hope to lessen reverse flows and pumping restrictions as well.

The project is controversial, however, for a variety of reasons. Delta farmers, concerned about years of disruptive construction and decreased water availability, oppose the tunnels. Environmentalists also express concern that sending more water south will deplete flows and adversely affect the delta’s ecosystem—specifically endangered delta smelt and winter-run Chinook salmon.

To address these concerns, the biological opinions presented last week outline species protections that will be necessary if the tunnel project is carried out.

The project’s high price tag also contributes to its controversy. Is a new, secure delivery system for southern California worth $15 billion to the state’s taxpayers? Water districts that would benefit from the tunnels, such as Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Westlands Water District, will need to determine in the coming months whether the assurance of water justifies the expense of the tunnels’ construction.

What’s your opinion?  Do you think that tunnel construction is a viable solution for improved water distribution and security in California? WE_bug_web

  • David Dexter, PE.

    Water, like any natural resource, is a limited quantity. The tunnels, while worth further study, are moving a quantity of water from one location to another. This sharing of water is acceptable if you do not adversely effect the original source by over extraction. The Colorado river is a great example. Man has attempted to over manage and over use it limited water resource. The river no longer flows as nature intended; making it impossible to traverse it length from source to ocean discharge. Man needs to better understand the eco system and learn to work with that system; instead of trying to change nature.

    • John Frehse.

      So true, but lets not forget the fracking that can use Generally, 2-8 million gallons of water may be used to frack a well. Some wells consume much more. A well may be fracked multiple times, with each frack increasing the chances of chemical leakage into the soil and local water sources. Making the ground water unusable .

  • Jeff Van hoy.

    Will the costly tunnels be earthquake proof? Will the blasting and digging trigger an earthquake?

  • Kent Halloran, P.E., BCEE.

    I agree with David’s points and would add that until the entire population becomes a better steward of its water and other natural resources, systems like these tunnels will only provide a short term solution to water scarcity. In fact, by transporting water from one region to another, the tunnels will likely result in water shortages throughout the state during times of drought. Although California leads the nation in water conservation requirements, much more needs to be done.

  • Jack Higgins.

    I would suggest that the cost of desalination plants would be less than $15B to access the same amount of water and that would be a new source of water vs. the very limited fresh water that California has. I consider these tunnels to be a needless and expensive band-aid solution.; as well as a maintenance nightmare.

  • Earl Ochs.

    It’s amazing that we’ve been battling this scince 1966 and still can’t get anything done. At this rate the semlt will die off on there own.

  • Frank Kinder.

    Efforts like this should only be done in concert with the maximum implementation of complementary efforts underway such as water audits, leak detection, full metering, inclining block rates, and IPR or DPR opportunities as supply of that water. Nature needs to have water as well.


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