Newsom Wades Into Decades-Long Bid to Wring More Water for California

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – It didn’t take long for Gavin Newsom to dive head-first into a political onion that has bedeviled a long list of capable and successful California governors.

Hours after being elected in 2018, Newsom and his predecessor Jerry Brown intervened in a decade-long fight by convincing regulators to stall a plan requiring farmers and cities to leave more water in Central Valley rivers for salmon. Months later, Gov. Newsom announced during his first major speech he supported downsizing a prickly $17 billion plan to tunnel underneath the state’s main estuary to deliver more water to the thirsty south state.

Site of the potential intake for the delta tunnel project in the north Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, near Freeport. (Katie Cahill /CNS)

The moves signaled to the myriad actors in California’s water drama that Newsom wouldn’t shy from the state’s notoriously complex and ceaseless water wars as governor.

With a year’s experience under his belt, Newsom is making his next move with a recently released game plan his administration claims will protect the state’s most precious commodity from climate change. The water portfolio lists over 100 actions and while many are forward-thinking and do things like improve drinking water quality, boost efficiency in urban and agricultural water use and favor voluntary water agreements instead of state mandates, it also endorses billion-dollar projects that flopped under past governors.

The first draft was well received by farmers, water districts and others in California’s water circle, but critics are worried the innovative and cheaper options are already taking a backseat to the megaprojects as Newsom begins his second year in office.

“I see climate change being used by this administration as a justification for projects that they’ve always wanted to do: build new dams and build tunnels,” says Restore the Delta executive director Barbara-Parrilla.

Over the last year, the state held over 20 meetings and solicited “broad input” from groups, local leaders and tribes across California. The resulting document doesn’t offer a “quick or singular fix” but touches on ways to improve physical infrastructure and water transfers, implement new recycling programs, improve soil health, wetlands expansion and even restore the Salton Sea.

“The state’s Water Resilience Portfolio includes a suite of recommended actions to help California cope with more extreme droughts and floods, rising temperatures, declining fish populations, aging infrastructure and other challenges,” said Department of Water Resources spokesperson Erin Mellon.

In order to execute the wide-ranging plans, the portfolio stresses better coordination between the various state agencies involved with executing the water plans and local leaders. Improving communication with the federal government will also be important, as it manages the state’s largest reservoir along with a labyrinth of canals and aqueducts.

But the possibility of Newsom finding common ground with the feds on water seems unlikely: This past November, he threatened to sue the Trump administration over its future plans to increase water for the state’s agricultural hub in the Central Valley. Not to mention California is currently fighting more than 60 legal battles against the Trump administration.

Positive reactions came flooding in from water managers and the agricultural industry after the portfolio’s release.

The Association of California Water Agencies said it was “encouraged” by many of the portfolio’s recommendations and the California Farm Bureau Federation “appreciates its substance and its urgency.” The State Water Contractors also applauded the support for improving conveyance systems and for a delta tunnel, a project it stands to benefit from.

Ellen Hanak, vice president of the influential nonpartisan think tank Public Policy Institute of California Water Policy Center, called the portfolio a useful “playbook” made up of local and high-level principles. Hanak and her colleagues recently recommended in a report that the state plan for the “new normal” of climate change by modernizing infrastructure; the average age of state-managed dams is 70.

“The state can encourage improved cooperation and alignment among local jurisdictions, which make most frontline management decisions and are often leading innovation,” the institute’s November 2019 report states.

Return of the delta tunnel

Yet rather than pick off some of the smaller actions that fishing groups and conservationists contend could have a more immediate impact – such as scale back agricultural water use and increased flows in the state’s major rivers – Newsom is linking himself to perhaps the most controversial water project in recent state history.

Many Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta residents oppose plans by the state of California to build a tunnel under the estuary to divert water from the Sacramento River and send it to the south part of the state. (Nick Cahill / CNS)

On Jan. 15, the state filed paperwork to officially begin the environmental review process for a multibillion-dollar tunnel that would divert water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

“Gov. Newsom directed state agencies to pursue a single tunnel solution to modernize our water infrastructure, and when combined with the broader, statewide portfolio approach, this project would help safeguard a vital source of affordable water for millions of Californians,” said Department of Water Resources director Karla Nemeth in a statement.

Newsom halted the project this past May after former Gov. Brown struggled for eight years to clear environmental reviews and secure funding for the mammoth project that originally proposed two 30-mile tunnels underneath the West Coast’s largest estuary. The delta is the state’s water savings bank and supplies water for thousands of farms and more than 27 million residents.

Like versions offered by Brown and before that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Newsom’s tunnel doesn’t create a new water source or promise to fix shortages during droughts. But proponents say it’s a long overdue infrastructure update and will help ward off damage to crucial aqueducts caused by earthquakes and rising sea levels.

The specifics, such as size and cost, are still being worked out but the state may collaborate with the feds and the finished product could take up to 13 years. According to the state, the environmental impact report will address potential effects on delta water quality, fish and aquatic resources, cultural and tribal resources, and geology.

The last tunnel plan united unlikely bedfellows – delta farmers and environmentalists – in opposition. They warned that depriving the delta of flows from the Sacramento River will spoil water quality by allowing brackish water from the San Francisco Bay to creep deeper into the estuary, and increase agricultural reliance and demand for delta surface water.

Approximately 80% of water used in the state by humans goes toward farming and ranching, according to the portfolio.

Politicians have also chirped in on the portfolio, including U.S. Rep. John Garamendi. The portfolio suggests the state fast-track a reservoir in Garamendi’s Northern California district that would be the largest built in the state in decades.

“Our state needs to make forward-looking investments to meet its future water supply needs, and Sites will benefit farmers, our communities and the environment,” Garamendi said in a statement. “I’m pleased to earn Governor Newsom’s full-throated support for this off-stream reservoir, and I strongly support his proposal to expedite state permitting and approval requirements for the project.”

It never rains in California – it only pours

The Sites Reservoir would be an “off-stream” project, with most of its water coming indirectly from the state’s largest river, the Sacramento. The mammoth $5.1 billion project would become California’s seventh largest reservoir if completed.

There is certainly merit in building Sites, says hydrologist Robert Shibatani, but like others he believes the portfolio lacks innovation and is stocked with old ideas. If Newsom wants to plan for climate change, Shibatani says the state should prioritize turning a problem that has perpetually plagued the state – flooding – and turn it into a solution.

Shibatani, who has worked on flood control and reservoir projects in the U.S., Australia and Ireland, says California is missing out on a golden opportunity to collect runoff during winter storms due to obsolete infrastructure. Additionally, Shibatani says the state should start seriously considering the highly controversial idea of reconfiguring or altering water right permits.

“These reservoirs are all 20th century operable,” Shibatani said. “They weren’t designed to take, for example, increased yield coming out of the American River basin during major storms.”

To wean Southern California off water that is currently delivered from the Sacramento River hundreds of miles away, Shibatani advocates studying new ways to store water in the Los Angeles basin.

“If we captured all the rainfall that happens south of the Tehachapi Mountains, would we really need the California Aqueduct?” he asked.

Ramping up for a water war

The tunnel announcement left groups that participated in the state’s public planning sessions questioning whether the portfolio was a ruse.

Barrigan-Parrilla says Restore the Delta was excited to give input on the portfolio and find common ground with the new administration, but in the end most of the group’s environmental justice concerns were left out of the draft. The group has long argued that increasing flows through the delta would have major ecological and economic benefits.  

“We keep going to the table and we’re not listened to,” Barrigan-Parrilla said. “If you’re going to be ignored and kind of patted on the head, you ask ‘Why are we doing this?’”

By formally backing the tunnel one thing is clear: Newsom has re-directed the focus from the portfolio and once again the delta is the center of California’s water wars.

“We anticipated that there might be an effort to employ a list of efficiency, conservation and other measures to reduce dependence on a tunnel before moving forward on such a massive and environmentally harmful project. In other words, we thought the horse would come before the cart,” said Sierra Club California director Kathryn Phillips in a statement. “So, now we’ll have to focus a lot of time and energy on battling the tunnel again.”

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