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Brown's Tunnels Could Start in 2018, and Delta Farmers Say They'll Be Devastated

The governor's $17 billion project recently got a big boost from the feds and two state approvals. But it also threatens a 150-year-old farming region.



Brett Baker steps off Sutter Island Road and scrambles down the bank of a levee to the edge of Steamboat Slough. It's early August, and at 8 a.m., the thermometer already registers a muggy 75 degrees as the Delta sun rises through an unseasonable gray sky. At Baker's feet is a 6-inch-wide steel pipe that carries water from the slough through the levee and into his family's century-old pear orchard.

The farmer begins explaining how three years ago, at the peak of the drought, river flows grew so weak that salty water from San Francisco Bay crept far inland. State officials responded by proposing an emergency plan to keep the brackish intrusion from fouling the fresh river water: They would build a rock dam to divert the freshwater that flows through this slough — a side channel of the Sacramento River — into another waterway, called Georgiana Slough, that leads to pumping stations near Tracy. Those pumps, in turn, send delta water into two large transport canals to San Joaquin Valley farmers and cities in Southern California.

"They were trying to protect the water that they're contracted to deliver to the San Joaquin Valley and Los Angeles," Baker explains.

But the emergency measure would have left Baker's irrigation pipe sucking saltwater into his pear orchard, killing his crops and spoiling his soil.

Ultimately, state water managers never implemented the plan, and the saltwater intrusion never quite reached a crisis. However, in their brief moment of panic, officials with California Department of Water Resources had revealed their cards: It was clear to Baker the state agency that handles much of California's water each year was ready to leave Delta communities high and dry while sending what many locals would consider to be their water to politically powerful regions hundreds of miles away.

That's partly why Baker and so many other residents of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta region don't believe state spokespeople who say Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to divert much of the Sacramento River into two giant tunnels under the delta will not significantly impact their communities. Like the proposed rock dam, the delta tunnels — the key feature of a project that California officials have dubbed the "WaterFix" — would siphon water from the Sacramento River before it even reaches the middle section of the delta. The water would then flow through the tunnels to agribusinesses in the dry San Joaquin Valley and to residents of Southern California.

Just building the tunnels "is going to be a disaster," said Gary Merwin, a grape farmer near the small Delta town of Clarksburg, along state Route 160. "Can you imagine all the dirt they're going to have to remove for two tunnels 35 miles long? It might as well be a million truckloads. That's two million truck trips."

Merwin expects the heavy machinery and truck traffic during the construction phase, expected to last at least 10 years, will disrupt, if not make entirely impossible, local commerce in the Delta area, including the transport of fruit crops to market during harvest season.

Officials with the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which supplies water to Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, and other East Bay cities, have also voiced concerns. They worry the tunnels could threaten a backup water supply that the district uses during drought years.

But backers of the project, especially government agencies and the water districts that will receive much of the diverted water, have little but praise for the proposed tunnels. They contend that the new water export system would be much better than the existing one, which pumps water out of the south delta and which they argue is outdated, unable to reliably deliver water, harms the environment, and is in need of replacement.

Steve Arakawa, a spokesperson for Metropolitan Water District, which provides water to the city of Los Angeles and would be a major recipient of water from the project, stated in an email that his agency believes the WaterFix "has the ability to provide more reliable supplies" for farms and cities south of Tracy while simultaneously protecting the delta. Metropolitan and the Westlands Water District, which serves large San Joaquin Valley agribusinesses, are expected to vote next month on whether they will finance the WaterFix.

During the past week, a coalition of cities, counties, and environmental groups sued to stop Gov. Brown's plan. But it recently received the greenlight from two influential regulatory agencies, the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service. The massive project could get underway as early as next year. If it does, Delta farmers and residents say it will devastate their communities, their way of life, and the region's $5 billion agricultural economy.

About 100 Delta farms and houses will be impacted permanently by the project. At least one of the intakes of the tunnels will be excavated on Doug and Cathy Hemly's pear farm near the small town of Hood. But Doug, whose family began farming here in the 1850s, said he is as much concerned about the community as he is about his threatened orchards, and possibly his home. Delta farms supply large amounts of produce to the East Bay and throughout the state.

"Digging and trucking all that material, all day, 365 days a year, for 10 years — they're going to kill the towns here," he said. "No one wants to live and work in a construction zone."