Decision time for California governor's big water project

A sign opposing a proposed tunnel plan to ship water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to Southern California is displayed near Freeport.

Associated Press

I first heard the term “peripheral canal” more than 40 years ago, during a forum of state water officials in Stockton.

It came from the lips of William Gianelli, who had returned to his birthplace to tout a canal to carry Sacramento River water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the head of the state’s new aqueduct near Tracy.

Gianelli, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan’s top water official, and other managers of the State Water Project believed that bypassing the Delta was the essential final link in the massive system to carry water from the state’s northernmost reaches to San Joaquin Valley farmers and fast-growing Southern California cities.

The Delta was a potential bottleneck to full deliveries of promised water. But there was strong local opposition to the canal because of fears it would rob the Delta of much-needed freshwater flows and criticism from environmentalists, who feared that enhancing the plumbing could lead to dams on even more Northern California rivers, especially the Eel.

Gianelli couldn’t get the canal officially started, but there was some indirect excavation – “barrow pits” to supply dirt for construction of Interstate 5 between Sacramento and Stockton that would become part of the canal were it ever built.

When Jerry Brown succeeded Reagan as governor in 1975, he took up the canal’s cause, seeking to complete the iconic water plan his father, former Gov. Pat Brown, had begun. The younger Brown argued that bypassing the Delta would not only be more efficient, but would protect fish from being damaged by the pull of powerful pumps feeding the California Aqueduct.

When he wasn’t running for president, Brown put an immense amount of political energy into pushing canal authorization through the Legislature. However, he violated one of the cardinal tenets of Capitol politics – get all major stakeholders aboard, or live to regret it.

Brown’s support was largely confined to Los Angeles political and water interests, and he faced continuing opposition from environmentalists and stiff resistance from San Joaquin farmers, who believed the revised canal plan was too restrictive. They then formed an odd-bedfellows alliance and repealed the peripheral canal bill via a ballot referendum in 1982.

That vote iced serious discussion of a Delta “conveyance” for years, until Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor. A plan to build the bypass – this time in the form of twin tunnels – without another legislative vote was devised and has been slowly evolving for more than a decade, with Brown once again taking up the cause after returning to the governorship in 2011.

It supposedly is close to happening, particularly after advocates beat back a 2016 ballot measure that would have indirectly killed the project. But it still needs financial commitments from water agencies to underwrite the bonds for construction, pegged at $17.1 billion, and that may be its downfall.

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In September, the board of the state’s largest agricultural water district, Westlands, voted 7-1 against participating, citing high costs. If that holds, it could be a fatal blow, because other water agencies would have to pay even more to close the financial gap.

The other major player, Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District, is still officially supportive. But it hasn’t taken a formal vote and faces internal dissension, particularly from its largest member, the San Diego County’s Water Authority, which doubts that the project is needed.

Westlands may just be playing a game of chicken. It has suggested that its costs be mitigated by getting more money from other water users, including those that wouldn’t benefit directly or, implicitly, from taxpayers.

“WaterFix,” as the tunnel project is now dubbed, isn’t dead yet. But were it to collapse after more than a half-century of planning and politicking, it would leave an indelible stain on Brown’s legacy and leave California’s long-term water supply situation in limbo.

CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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