California Can’t Tunnel Its Way Out of Drought Conditions

California Can’t Tunnel Its Way Out of Drought Conditions
Image by Pacific Southwest Region USFWS of Emerson Parcel Tidal Marsh California via Flickr Creative Commons

By Restore the Delta

SACRAMENTO—Restore the Delta (RTD) and opponents of Gov. Jerry Brown’s rush to build peripheral tunnels that would drain the Delta and doom salmon and other Pacific fisheries call the tunnels a flawed solution for a drought-plagued state. These experts criticize the tunnels as an outdated, inappropriate solution to California’s water challenges, one that would create no new water, be of no use in dry years and drain $70 billion that could otherwise be spent on projects that create new water and increase regional water independence.

“The governor’s tunnels are based on flawed and outdated assumptions that there is ‘surplus’ water to export,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of the RTD. “We have had three dry years in a row, and the governor admits the tunnels won’t add one drop of water to our drought-plagued state. We need solutions more appropriate to our future water challenges, not this $70 billion mega-project that would misspend the billions needed for sustainable water solutions.”

Tom Stokely, water policy analyst for the California Water Impact Network, told a statewide news teleconference, “The Twin Tunnels would provide absolutely no relief from drought. The BDCP’s [Bay Delta Conservation Plan] own documents show that the tunnels will be useless in dry and critically dry years—no extra water would be available from them. Currently, the Sacramento River is running at less than 8,000 cubic feet per second. The Twin Tunnels are configured to transport 9,000 cubic feet per second, more than the entire flow of the Sacramento River as it currently stands today.”

According to Jonas Minton, former deputy director of the Department of Water Resources and senior water advisor to the Planning and Conservation League, “[The] BDCP’s own analysis shows that in drought years like this one the tunnels would provide not one more drop when California needs the water the most. In wetter years, farmers would have to exercise their legal priorities to use all water available to them to try to pay their share of the $67 billion cost. Like the state budget, it would be ‘spend it when you’ve got it and forget that dry times are inevitable.’

“The better approach would be to invest wisely in projects that actually produce new water and local jobs. California needs more water recycling projects such as Orange County’s that is producing enough water for 600,000 residents each year. By cleaning up groundwater, we will create another new supply and room to store water when it is truly available.”

John Herrick, general counsel and manager of the South Delta Water Agency, said, “The State Water Projects (SWP) were always anticipated to be shorted during times of drought, given that the state’s water system does not produce enough water to provide for all demands. This shortage was exacerbated when the SWP failed to develop its anticipated 5 million acre-feet of supply, leaving the projects with virtually no water during dry times.

“Instead of operating in a manner that plans for regular droughts, the projects deplete storage under the theory that they should ‘take it while it’s there,’ and they thereby make the dry year shortages even worse. This past year, that theory resulted in an additional decrease in storage of over 800,000 acre-feet, making compliance with water quality and fishery standards impossible.”

Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, said, “Drought is a frequent occurrence in California, with two having occurred in the last seven years. Over the last hundred years, the Sacramento Valley has experienced critically dry, dry and below normal water years 14%, 22% and 18% of the time, respectively. The present crisis could have been avoided and is a direct result of egregious mismanagement of the state’s water supply system by the state and federal water projects.

“Excessive water exports and the failure to prepare for inevitable drought have created a decades-long disaster for fisheries, and placed the people and economic prosperity of northern California at grave risk. The state’s obsession with tunneling under the Delta does nothing to address drought or put us on a path to correct the misuse of limited water supplies.”

Dr. Jeffrey Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific, “There are two productive long-term approaches that reduce the human impacts of drought without sacrificing fisheries and the environment. California needs a water resources policy that recognizes the predictable weather limitations and creates sustainable water projects.

“Californians need jobs that pay well and are less dependent on the weather than currently. We need to support investment and innovation that lessens dependence on agricultural labor, so we can idle machines, not people, when the inevitable dry years come. An example of this is the new machine that uses remote sensing and robotic technology to thin lettuce fields.

“It is important to differentiate between the permanent poverty created by the Central Valley Project and to understand that even in wet years, some Central Valley communities are among the poorest and highest unemployment communities in the nation. The employers who have profited from the Central Valley Project bear a large responsibility for reducing the predictable human impacts of their business operations. Dry year fallowing is a predictable and planned component of the Central Valley Project.

“California needs to invest in local alternatives to the tunnels that improve water supplies in dry years. Groundwater cleanup, recycling, storage and other projects are far superior to the tunnels. Even investments in these programs in urban areas can free up water for farms and fisheries.”

Barrigan-Parrilla said, “It is worth noting that presently, reservoirs in Southern California are filled to 93% capacity. Yet, water levels are at record lows in the north part of the state, and corporate agribusiness growers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley are continuing the push for water deliveries, even though the water system is depleted. They have built unsustainable businesses on subsidized water to the detriment of California’s environmental and economic future.

“Building two tunnels that can divert two-thirds of the Sacramento River during normal rain/water periods, and all of the Sacramento River during dry periods like the present, will not solve California’s water problems. Its price tag, now estimated to be nearly $70 billion, will dry up money for projects that can actually make new water, such as conservation, groundwater cleanup, recycling. Local water projects that create regional self-sufficiency not only break dependence on the Delta but also create more jobs than boondoggle projects like the proposed peripheral tunnels.

“We have a clear choice in California. Are we going to continue to subsidize a small number of corporate agribusinesses that contribute less than 0.3% to the state’s GDP—all at the expense of sustainable agriculture, Delta and Bay Area fisheries, and our state’s overall economic future? Or are we going to turn to sustainable policies that fit with our climate, and our future economic and environmental needs?”


This article is a press release from Restore the Delta ( For more information, contact Steve Hopcraft at 916-457-5546 or



  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

    View all posts
0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x