Delta Tunnels: Construction= Destruction

Sadly in present day we take many everyday items such as naturally provided resources for granted, including water. California’s water scarcity is nothing new by any means, nor is the discussion of the California Delta Tunnels. These twin tunnels would take about 4.9 million acre feet of water annually from the Sacramento River and send it 30 miles under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to pumping stations that would send it to southern cities. The project is projected to cost $17 billion and $8 billion of that would be used for habitat restoration.

Are the tunnels worth it?

Recently the tunnels have been a “hot topic” item with loads of information spewing from both the opposing party and in favor party. After reading an article from the Los Angeles Times called“ Sorry, my fellow environmentalists, we have to build the Delta tunnels” I was left with a very uneasy feeling. The article states that, “Given that Central Valley farming and 19 million Southern Californians aren’t going away anytime soon, and allowing for many uncertainties, Moyle concluded the tunnels are better for the fish than the status quo. (They could ease the reverse water flows, deadly for migrating fish, caused by the existing pumps in the South Delta.)” The reverse flows that are mentioned are caused when the power of the pumps actually reverses the natural flow of the water and draws everything towards the pump. The problem with this statement is that although the amount of salmon smoothie caused by the big pumps may be reduced, the salmon and smelt have a much greater chance of being sucked into two four story tall tunnels. Tunnels that move over 5 million acre feet of water annually, which is over five times the amount of water as the old pumps in the Delta did during their highest year. Figure 1, courtesy of the Sacramento Bee, shows the amount the pumps in the Delta have moved annually going back to 2000.

Figure 1. Existing Delta Pumps Use Levels ( Courtesy Sacramento Bee)

Notice that even in 2005, which was the highest year, acre feet still does not exceed 800,000. The proposed Delta tunnels would move 4.9 million acre feet annually. The logic that two gaping holes in the Sac river are possibly better for the fish then two pumps that move much less water does not seem to make sense. The pumps are deadly to fish and can damage the environment and ecosystems when reversing natural flows, but the lesser of the two evils must be considered in this situation! There has also been talk of what some consider a “middle ground” to this issue, which would be to install a single, much smaller tunnel instead of the two purposed monstrosities. This single smaller tunnel would cause less damage during construction and would not drain as much water as the larger ones. The issue with this is that the tunnel would not have enough force to gravity feed the water, thus causing for more pumps to be installed along it to get the water south.It would also only grab about a million acre feet annually which would not solve southern California’s water dilemma.

Can ecosystems and wildlife be bought?

A benefit and cost analysis will surely make it seem that the answer to this question is YES. Problems when looking at a benefit and cost analysis when dealing with environmental issues is that certain benefits or costs can not be quantified in monetary value; therefore those externalities are discredited by the state and not included in analyses. As mentioned earlier about half of the $15 billion cost would be put towards restoring the environment. Which bears the question can ecosystems and wildlife that have been created over centuries be repaired by $8 billion dollars? In an article by titled “Lawsuit Challenges California Permits for Delta Tunnels to Harm Endangered Salmon, Smelt” Earthjustice staff attorney Trent Orr stated, “State officials from the governor on down falsely claim that WaterFix would improve conditions for critically endangered native fish, including California’s once abundant chinook salmon. But disrupting a vast area with decades of construction to take even more fresh water from an already degraded Delta would hasten these species’ demise, not restore them to healthy populations.” In figure 2 courtesy of the salmon populations are shown from 1992 to 2011. Look from 2002- 2012,this is roughly the same time period construction would last for the tunnels.

Figure 2. Salmon Population Levels. ( Courtesy of

Notice that when increased pumping started during this time span the population sharply declined. Remember this is the damage caused by those 800,000 acre feet annually existing pumps. Imagine the significant stress the salmon and other fish populations will be put under during a decade of massive construction and 4.9 million acre feet taken every year after that. It just does not seem reasonable to state the tunnels could improve environmental conditions. Especially when considering the amount of destruction caused by massive dozers and excavators. $8 billion dollars cannot replace a salmon population or replace the fragile ecosystems destroyed.

Is there a solution?

So if the delta pumps currently used cause damage and the proposed delta tunnels would also cause significant damage, what the hell is the solution? The simple answer to this question is that there is no instant fix for California’s water issue, despite the tunnel project being called the “ CA WaterFix,” though there may be a few alternative routes to be explored before massive tunnels. A major component to helping the water situation is conservation. Aging infrastructure with inefficient and outdated water transfer systems leak and need to be updated to more efficient systems, this alone would dramatically increase the amount of water conserved. We also need to consider using existing natural resources for storing water. Using over-pumped groundwater aquifers to store water in wet years could possibly provide a cushion for dire dry years in California. Another natural resource that could be utilized is rainwater capturing, which was not even legal in California until 2012. Just like solar fields are being installed, capturing stations or fields could be constructed in higher precipitation areas in central/southern California.

Are we really as clever as we think?

The idea that mankind can outsmart the environment with technology and money is mediocre at best. Imagine the better types of solutions that may arise during the decade long construction process of the tunnels. The Delta is a very fragile ecosystem and salmon are a delicate species in our Northern California waterways. With a new administration at the helm its hard to project what will become of this issue. Two massive concrete tunnels may not be worth the gamble to the environment and wildlife that would be affected by their construction!

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