Opinion: Why California should support Delta tunnel proposal

March 6, 2020

By Mike Mielke, Senior VP of Environment & Energy, Silicon Valley Leadership Group

If our state wants to remain economically competitive, it must re-engineer the troubled estuary that serves as the hub of California’s elaborate water-delivery system — the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The best and most viable way to do this is via the single Delta tunnel project proposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, which the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and our 350 members support.

The water that flows through the Delta serves nearly 27 million people in our state and ensures 3 million acres of farmland stays productive. Yet, the current Delta water delivery system – comprised often of simple earthen levees – is fragile and extremely vulnerable to catastrophic disruption from earthquakes, floods, and rising seas. If this outdated system were to fail, salt water from the nearby San Francisco Bay would knock out the freshwater supply for most of the state, causing untold economic and environmental damage. This cannot be allowed to happen.

The governor’s proposal envisions a single, 30-mile underground tunnel capable of transporting up to 6,000 cubic feet of water per second that would draw water from the north end of the Delta. The goal of modernizing Delta water delivery this way is to guarantee a baseline supply of water by more reliably capturing water during and after storm events, to protect existing supplies from the threats posed by climate change, sea level rise and earthquakes and to better protect the delicate Delta ecosystem. At the same time, the state and public water agencies throughout California are seeking to diversify our overall water supply portfolio by pursuing water recycling, desalination, and conservation through an all-of-the-above approach that will help reduce over-reliance on the Delta.

We believe that it is critically important that the state move forward with the Delta tunnel process. It is the only viable alternative to protect our freshwater supply and guarantee that a minimum amount of quality water that citizens, the environment, and business rely on is delivered all across our state. That is why we were encouraged when the Newsom administration announced it had initiated the environmental review process on a single pipeline Delta tunnel project by issuing its Notice of Preparation (NOP). A NOP provides state agencies information about the potential environmental effects, including a description of the project and its location. This is a crucial next step in terms of moving this project forward and we’re eager to review and provide comments to help ensure that the project guarantees a baseline supply of water for the state’s residents, while providing enough capacity to ensure the project is financially viable.

It is important to note that the governor’s Delta plan will increase the use of adaptive, real-time water management to optimize freshwater flow in the Delta – to the benefit of endangered species in the Delta. Furthermore, the new path forward will not necessarily result in a net increase of water exports to the south – contrary to what many are saying. That is because operation of the Delta tunnel will be governed by existing state and federal law, which require adequate water supply for the environment.

As California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot recently said, decisions about the future of our state’s water supply system “frequently get distilled into unhelpful narratives of fish versus farms, north versus south, or urban versus rural. We must rise above these historic conflicts by finding ways to protect our environment and build water security for communities and agriculture.” The members of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group could not agree more, which is why we support the governor’s Delta tunnel proposal and process.

Mike Mielke is is the Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s senior vice president for environment and energy.

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