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.
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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?