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Tunnel Vision Part Two: Rivers in Peril

How Jerry Brown's plan to build two giant water tunnels, along with legislation in Congress, could ultimately spoil the last of Northern California's wild and scenic rivers.



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And that bottleneck is why both Westlands and Metropolitan water districts are pushing so hard for Governor Brown's giant water tunnels plan. The twin, 40-foot-wide, 35-mile-long tunnels would be equipped with state-of-the-art screens that would help prevent fish from being shredded. As a result, more Northern California water could be shipped south if the tunnels are built — especially if there is more water to ship. And there would be more water available if Shasta Dam becomes larger and the McCloud River loses its wild and scenic protection.

But the water from the McCloud would be just a drop in the bucket compared to what's available in the untapped rivers of the North Coast.

The Brown administration has no plans to send more freshwater from Northern California to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. But in the decades to come, the pressure to ship more water south will intensify, especially if the state has the infrastructure in place to make it happen.

A recent climate change forecast from NASA predicted that, as temperatures increase around the globe, regions that receive a lot of precipitation will likely get wetter, while drier areas, like Southern California, will likely get drier. Even a draft study from the state's own Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which includes the governor's giant water tunnels proposal, noted that "some areas in northern California may experience higher annual rainfall amounts and potentially larger storm events, but California, as a whole, particularly southern California, will be 15 to 35% drier by 2100."

In addition, numerous studies have concluded that climate change will result in more periods of drought, especially in arid regions — thereby creating additional pressure to ship water to Southern California. Climate change will also likely produce more heat waves, and thus magnify the demand for even more water to keep crops from wilting.

Population growth also promises to heighten water needs. California's population is expected to top 50 million people by 2050, according to the state Department of Finance. And most of that growth is projected to occur in Southern California. More people also will mean the state will need to produce more food to eat.

At the same time, California is going to need lots of water if the fracking boom expands here as it has in other states. Fracking involves the shooting of massive amounts of water and chemicals deep into the earth in order to release otherwise trapped natural gas and oil. Each fracked well uses between five million and ten million gallons of water. Earlier this month, The New York Times reported on the increasing friction in California between Big Oil and Gas interests and Big Agriculture. And such fights likely will intensify as the competing desires for increasingly scarce water supplies grow.

These numerous pressures make environmentalists even more worried about the giant water tunnels plan. Under the governor's current proposal, the twin tunnels would ship up to 9,000 cubic feet of freshwater per second — which works out to about 6.5 million acre-feet a year — from the Sacramento River north of the Delta to the Tracy pumps. But the state is proposing to take between 4.8 million and 5.6 million acre-feet annually, because removing too much freshwater from the Sacramento before it reaches the Delta would salt up the estuary.

Nonetheless, Brown's plan also calls for building the tunnels with the capacity to take up to 15,000 cubic feet of water per second — or about 10.9 million acre-feet a year. Although diverting that much water from the Sacramento is impossible right now because there typically is not that much freshwater in the river, there could be more water in the future.

Under the state's old water conveyance plan from the late 1950s and early '60s, the North Coast rivers could produce millions of acre-feet of water to ship south if they are dammed up, too. A plan from 1957 proposed to ship diverted water from the Eel River system through a large tunnel to be built in Northern California that would connect to the Sacramento River, which would then convey the water south.

However, that old plan doesn't make practical sense today because damming up the North Coast rivers, dumping the water in the Sacramento River, and then sending it to the Delta would only result in more water flowing out to the ocean. That's because more water cannot be removed from the Delta and sent south — even if there is more water available — because of the problem of millions of fish being shredded at the Tracy pumps. "It doesn't do any good to dam them now," Stork said of the North Coast rivers, "because they can't get the water through the Delta."

However, the governor's giant water tunnels plan would break that logjam: The tunnels would take the water out of the Sacramento before it reaches the Delta. And because the state plans to build the giant tunnels large enough to carry up to 10.9 million acre-feet of water a year, the tunnels could easily handle 2.3 million acre-feet from the Eel River system.

So why build tunnels that can carry much more water than the Brown administration plans to send south? Nancy Vogel, a representative for the California Department of Water Resources, a major backer of the water tunnels plan, said the state plans to use gravity to move the water through the tunnels — and the bigger the tunnels, the less friction there will be. "You need to have tunnels of that size to have gravity flow," she said.

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