Letter From Sacramento: Save the Delta

Thursday, February 6, 2014


August 2013[1]

Something strange happened recently during the state’s march to build a pair of peripheral tunnels around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The tunnel proponents moved the tunnels.

With a certain amount of fanfare and one of those press-only press conferences, Secretary of Resources John Laird announced that the administration now proposes to move the pathway for the big tunnels that will draw river water from above the Delta and deliver it to south of the Delta.

The move would push the tunnels eastward and away from at least one farm still in production. Now the tunnels would run through Staten Island—active feeding and resting space for sandhill cranes.

That crane space happens to be owned by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), an environmental group that has been more open to the notion of constructing new, large infrastructure as a grand solution for the Delta than have many groups. That openness began a few years ago, long before any details, including the environmental assessment of the proposed tunnels, were available.

Staten Island will be a crane resort no more once the digging begins for the twin tunnels. Those tunnels, by the way, are 4 stories high and, together, capable of moving water at the rate of 9000 cubic feet per second.

People, including the administration’s water experts, have assumed for quite some time that Sierra Club has been officially opposed to the Delta tunnels. Make no mistake, we want something to be done to make sure the Delta’s ecosystem crash stops. It’s the largest estuary along the west coast of North and South America, and is a key link to environmental health in our state and beyond. But until very recently, despite our open criticism of the proposed project, we haven’t taken a position.

We held off taken a position because we wanted to see the details of the proposal. More than a year ago, we listed seven key questions involving costs, timing, impacts and operations that need to be answered about the tunnels proposal.  In May of this year, most—but not all—of those questions were addressed in some form in volumes of documents that will ultimately make up the draft environmental impact report for the peripheral tunnels proposal.

The Club’s process for policymaking is notoriously deliberate and often slow. But that’s a good thing. Our volunteers take seriously the notion that every viewpoint needs to be aired, heard and considered. In July, after many, many months of conversation and debate—in person, on conference calls and via long email chains—the policymaking body of Sierra Club California, which includes representatives from every part of the state, voted to oppose the peripheral tunnels proposal.

There you have it. We are officially opposed to the proposal to build two giant tunnels that will move water from the Sacramento River system, around the Delta, and south. We are taking this position because there is too much certainty that the tunnels will further degrade the Delta environment. There is too little certainty that it will solve the essential water supply problems all Californians face as we grapple with climate change.

That’s all Californians. Too often, California’s water supply issue has been framed as one of Northern California vs. Southern California.  That framing is a devious way to distract likeminded Californians from solving our key problem: What do we need to do that helps everyone in the state conserve a precious resource while enhancing the economy and protecting the environment?

There are a lot of answers to this question, and none of them include becoming more dependent on exports through or around the Delta.

For instance, we all need to devote more attention to, and money into, water conservation. That means going beyond low-flush toilets. We need industrial-scale improvements in water conservation, new investment in fixing the old, leaking infrastructure in our cities, employing recycling more and better.

We need to make better, wiser use of farmlands. There are parts of the state where farmers ought to have a chance to farm solar productively in exchange for reducing their water demand for conventional crops.

We need to stop polluting the clean water we have. We need to clean up the groundwater supplies around the state that are not potable because of past pollution. And we need to seriously consider water impacts when we decide as a society which industries we want to grow. Why are we even allowing fracking in this state when that activity is so heavily dependent on sucking up massive amounts of clean water, polluting it, and then casting it aside as waste?

These are just a few answers, but you get the idea.

As long as everyone in the water world stays focused on that old standby, the notion of creating a new way to move water around or through the Delta, Californians will be shortchanged. It’s time for the state’s water leaders to take a new tack. Abandon the costly peripheral tunnels and invest in the answers that we can all live with, that will make every region more sustainable, that will support all Californians.

One more thing: In addition to moving the tunnels, the latest proposal also calls for reducing their length from 35 miles to 30 miles. That’s a good trend. Keep cutting and we’ll be rid of that crazy peripheral tunnels idea for good.



Kathryn Phillips

Director, Sierra Club California

[1] This version of the letter includes corrections of errors in the August 2013 letter emailed to members.                               

Sierra Club California is the Sacramento-based legislative and regulatory advocacy arm of the 13 California chapters of the Sierra Club.