In summary

An old conflict plagues Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposal to bore a tunnel to carry water under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta – demands that more water flow into the Delta to protect wildlife habitat.

Four-plus decades ago, when a young governor named Jerry Brown, was advocating a “peripheral canal” to carry Sacramento River water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, he argued that it would not only improve water deliveries but would stop the degradation of the Delta’s water quality.

The latter contention initially attracted some positive attention from environmental groups which were complaining that pulling water directly out of the Delta for shipment to San Joaquin Valley farms and Southern California’s homes had upset flows that were vital to healthy fish populations.

Ultimately, however, environmentalists turned against the plan, fearing that the canal would encourage state and federal water officials to dam more Northern California rivers to meet downstate demands for water. Brown won legislative approval of the 43-mile-long canal, but it was rejected by voters in a 1982 referendum.

A quarter-century later, the project was revived as twin tunnels during Arnold Schwarzenegger’s governorship and once again it received a semi-supportive attitude from some major environmental groups with a major caveat.

They might endorse the tunnels, but only if the state would impose “science-based flow requirements” — a guarantee that fish and other wildlife would be protected by having enough water flowing into the Delta from the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems to more than offset what the tunnels would take from the Sacramento.

Such requirements would, in essence, require water agencies that take water from the two river systems before it reaches the Delta — particularly those in the San Joaquin Valley — to reduce their diversions.

Brown once again became governor in 2011 and quickly began pushing for the twin tunnels, renamed “California Water Fix.” However, the project still faced environmental group resistance on the lingering issue of its Delta’s habitat impacts.

Brown approached the problem with a two-pronged strategy. His Water Resources Board, chaired by Felicia Marcus, began working on mandatory flow increases that, if adopted, would erode the historic water rights of agricultural irrigation districts, while Brown urged those districts to undertake so-called “voluntary agreements” that would reduce their diversions.

However, there was no resolution before Brown left the governorship a second time in 2019 and handed the situation to successor Gavin Newsom.

Almost immediately, Newsom abandoned the twin tunnels and opted for a single tunnel, now dubbed “Delta Conveyance Project.” The “voluntary agreement” process continued, but without bearing enough fruit and, most importantly, Newsom replaced Marcus, whose tough attitude on water rights had angered farmers, with E. Joaquin Esquivel, who is seen by environmentalists as being much less aggressive on reordering priorities.

That unhappiness is reflected in the recent resignation of the water board’s climate and conservation manager, Max Gomberg, with an on-line letter saying, “the agency’s ability to tackle big challenges nearly eviscerated by this administration has been gut wrenching. The way some of you have simply rolled over and accepted this has also been difficult to watch.”

“This governor, this administration does not like having independent regulatory agencies. They want to sort of control everything,” Gomberg told the Los Angeles Times. “The direction comes from the top.”

Gomberg added that the board has been “allowed a much narrower range of regulatory actions” and has been directed to pursue “nonregulatory approaches on just about everything.”

The less aggressive approach on increasing Delta flows means that as Newsom tries to make his “Delta Conveyance” a reality, he’s likely to face very stiff opposition from environmental groups which contend that the tunnel would worsen the already paltry runs of salmon and other fish.

It’s very doubtful that the project can become reality without resolving the long-running conflict.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...