The San Francisco Bay’s river valley and its formation as a tidal estuary relates to rising sea levels since the last ice age, 20,000 years ago. It’s just one part of the largest estuary on the Pacific coast of the Americas known as the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
Fueled by runoff from the northern Sierra Nevada and southern Cascade Mountains, the delta begins at the western edge of the Central Valley. The joining of California’s two largest rivers forms the heart of the state’s water system.
From there, 50-year-old levees regulate a 1,100-mile freshwater distribution system for the entire state. Most significantly, the California Aqueduct diverts water 444 miles south, fueling industrial agriculture of the Central Valley. This produces 40% of state produce, 11% of total U.S. agriculture revenue and water for 29 million Californians.
The leftover water feeds the Bay-Delta estuary, California’s most vital ecological resource and home to 750 species. Unfortunately, California’s third continuous year of severe drought has been exacerbated by increased water demands. As a result, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta watersheds’ fragile wetland ecosystem is steadily declining.
On July 27, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) outlined California’s largest water project in half a century: the Delta Conveyance Project. The goal is to ecologically transport more water from the state’s wet, rural north to the arid and densely populated south.
The plan envisions a conveyance tunnel that would pump water from the Sacramento River before it enters the estuary 45 miles underground to the California and South Bay Aqueducts. Theoretically, the tunnel would adapt to increased runoff and reduce the impact of a major earthquake on California’s water supply.
The tunnel is estimated to cost $16 billion. While its planning is funded privately by those who contract for the water, construction would be financed by taxpayers, taking a minimum of 20 years to complete. If approved, the 1,100-square-mile region and its communities would be drastically altered. This would thus become the latest advance in a decades-long saga of water wars regarding proposed tunnel systems along the delta.
Until October 27, state officials will accept public comment on Newsom’s plan and its Environmental Impact Report, or EIR.
For years, critics have condemned the single tunnel conveyance as a transparent water grab by private interests. They explain that the Delta Conveyance project’s EIR was created upon a baseline generated in 2019.
While environmentalists acknowledge the region’s issues, they favor less invasive strategies. Examples include habitat restoration projects to contain saltwater and upgrading existing levees to bolster a safe water flow.
Former governor Jerry Brown proposed a dual tunnel system that was withdrawn due to countless environmental lawsuits and many benefactors declaring the expense illogical. As the Delta Conservancy explains, a twin tunnel system would cause substantially less damage to the estuary ecosystem. This is justified by Brown’s EIR while transporting 50% more water.
On a national level, the federal government (which operates one of the existing Delta pumping stations) and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation have declined to fund the tunnel. This means funding for the planning relies solely upon Southern California’s metropolitan water district, the Bay Area’s water district, the Alameda County Water District and Zone 7 Water Agency.
The Newsom administration must convince supporters that there will be enough water conserved, or at least that there is enough risk to current supplies to justify the cost. Beyond public approval, the DWR must gain approval and obtain countless permits from local, state and federal authorities guaranteeing minimal saltwater intrusion and limited impact on biodiversity.
While state officials insist existing regulations will keep the project from impacting local supplies, flow rates, fish and wildlife, last year’s water incident proves nothing can be guaranteed.
In the 2021 water year, no agency other than California’s Department of Water Resources miscalculated the Sierra Nevada snowpack’s moisture content. This miscalculation resulted in more than 700,000 acre-feet of runoff flowing directly into the ocean, translating to around $550 million flushed away by the state.
Unfortunately, this isn’t surprising to independent water agencies who have called out the state’s reliance on outdated procedures since 2009. The DWR declines any collaboration with local agencies. The NOAA’s California Nevada River Forecast Center, whose data many water districts include in their calculations, consistently produces accurate predictions. This reliance on outdated methods turned drought into catastrophe. It has created friction between environmentalists and farmers — with the state in the middle.
While the above provides a general overview of California’s water situation, there’s so much more to it. Do some research for yourself, form an opinion and have a say in the future of the state’s water!