Sixty years ago, California Gov. Edmund Gerald "Pat" Brown built the biggest waterworks the world had ever seen.
The State Water Project transformed California, moving billions of gallons of water from the wet north to the dry south using dozens of dams, pumping stations and a 400-mile-long man-made river. It serves 25 million people and irrigates hundreds of thousands of acres of cropland.
But spectacular as it was, the project was flawed. It failed to deliver as much water as promised, mainly because a key piece was missing: a way to move water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a 738,000-acre ecosystem where California’s two main rivers meet before they flow to San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean.
Now Gov. Edmund Gerald "Jerry" Brown Jr. is seeking to complete his family’s water legacy.
His "California WaterFix" would build two tunnels 40 feet in diameter, buried 15 stories underground to take water from the Sacramento River and move it 35 miles around the eastern edge of the delta. The price tag for the largest U.S. water project in decades: more than $17 billion.
It’s Brown’s second try at finishing what his dad started. In a hard-fought ballot battle in 1982, voters rejected his plan to build an above-ground "peripheral canal" around the delta.
The tunnels appeared headed for a similar fate until the Trump administration decided last month that the project wouldn’t jeopardize critical habitat of imperiled fish, including the delta smelt and salmon (Greenwire, June 27). This fall, the boards of water districts will vote on whether to pay for the project, which would pass the cost on to their customers.
Brown’s tunnels have become California’s most divisive environmental issue, pitting agribusiness against environmentalists, and Northern California against the south.
Proponents say tunnels are needed to secure 30 percent of Southern California’s water supply, including about a quarter of the water used in the state’s agricultural hub.
They argue the tunnels will safeguard an aged 1,100-mile levee system that protects the delta, including more than 50 tracts and islands and 700 miles of winding channels, many of which sit below sea level, earning it the nickname California’s Holland.
They say the tunnels will help fish by easing reliance on giant export pumps in the south delta that draw water so powerfully, they reverse the natural flow of water.
And they claim they are necessary in the face of climate change and uncertain sea-level rise.
"The delta is likely to change and be inundated by sea-level rise," said Jerry Meral of the Natural Heritage Institute, a controversial former adviser to Brown on water issues. "If that happens, we’d lose 20 percent of the state’s water supply."
Project foes counter that the tunnels would destroy up to 15,000 acres of the largest western estuary in the Americas, home to 700 native species and fisheries. The environmental benefits that Brown touts are misleading, they say, because the tunnels would deplete freshwater flows through the delta, allowing salinity levels from intruding ocean water to rise — and further endangering fish.
"To date, it has been the consensus of all the scientists — except those paid for by the tunnels’ proponents — that those tunnels would actually worsen conditions for fish such as smelt, and the iconic salmon," said Jonas Minton, a former deputy director of the state’s Department of Water Resources who now works for the nonprofit Planning and Conservation League.
The tunnels also don’t solve the main problems facing the delta or the state’s water woes, opponents say, because they won’t create more water and the levee system will have to be updated anyway because it protects major highways, railways and farms.
Critics say Brown is more motivated by his family’s water legacy and political ambition than reality.
"There are two things that Jerry Brown didn’t get in his political career. One was the presidency. The other was the peripheral canal," said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of the nonprofit Restore the Delta, pointing to Brown’s unsuccessful runs for president in 1976, 1980 and 1992.
But the project’s beneficiaries call Brown’s effort heroic.
"If you like history, you can’t help but notice that his father was the architect and drove the project in the first place," said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. "And now the second run at it — a smarter and cleaner solution — and it is still divisive, and he’s still trying to pull together two parts of the state."
The controversy underscores Brown’s complicated record on environmental issues over more than 40 years in politics and raises questions about his legacy.
Brown has been the darling of the environmental left since his first term in the 1970s. There is no doubt the governor deeply cares about the planet and humans’ impact upon it, often expressing his concerns in theological terms. He has been lauded for his leadership on climate change, recently traveling to China and emphatically criticizing President Trump’s decision to abandon the Paris Agreement (Climatewire, June 26).
While he insists the tunnels are not about his family’s legacy, Brown’s approach to infrastructure has aligned with his father’s and that of politicians of an earlier era. Now 79, he represents the last of a generation that believes in major public works. Perhaps because of that, when pressed on water and the delta, he has repeatedly turned to a solution that would have made his father proud: Let’s build our way out.
"We have highly engineered California. We know that. Get in a plane, fly over, you see causeways and storage facilities and the great California Aqueduct, all sorts of things, and all over," Brown said at a January 2016 water conference. "We can protect the natural systems, and we can do so, but we have to engineer our way forward because that’s the way it is."
Observers on all sides agree the delta is at a breaking point. The status quo isn’t working. Fish populations continue to decline, and water interests persist in lobbying for more exports. It’s the type of big problem that Brown has sought to tackle his entire career.
"How can you protect the delta? How can you restore the delta without taking water away from someone?" said Bill Kier, a veteran California fisheries biologist who has followed delta issues for decades.
"The question now is, will the clock run out on Jerry Brown?"
‘A monument to me‘
Massive storms hit Northern California in 1955, causing flooding on the Feather River, tributary of the state’s largest river, the Sacramento.
Dozens died as Yuba City and Marysville were washed away.
A teenage Brown was there.
At a recent news conference, Brown recalled how he hopped in a plane to see the damage with his father, who was then the state’s attorney general.
Pat Brown became obsessed with the California water system immediately after being elected in 1958. A headstrong Irish Catholic politician, he set out to build a water plan drafted a year earlier with a vigor reminiscent of Texas Sen. Lyndon Johnson, who at the time was Senate majority leader.
Brown’s scheme would become the State Water Project. Its linchpin would be Oroville Dam on the Feather River.
The Democrat was driven by the floods, concern about water supply for a population that was booming post-World War II, and his own vanity.
"I loved building things," he would later say, according to Marc Reisner’s history of water in the West, "Cadillac Desert." "I wanted to build that goddamned water project. I was absolutely determined I was going to pass this California Water Project. I wanted this to be a monument to me."
The scope of Brown’s proposal was unparalleled for the time. It was also very expensive.
To finance it, Brown placed a $1.75 billion water bond on the ballot in 1960. (That’s $14.3 billion in 2017 dollars.) The project would cost far more than that, and Brown knew it. But in order to sell it to voters, Brown insisted on keeping the number below $2 billion.
One analysis from Brown’s administration, for example, pegged the cost at $1.8 billion. It did mention Oroville Dam, but neglected to include the cost of actually constructing the tallest dam in the nation.
In November 1960, the bond passed by the narrowest of margins: 174,000 votes, about 3 percent.
Brown forged ahead, but not without missteps.
His administration would sign contracts guaranteeing the delivery of about 4.23 million acre-feet of water before construction began. (An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or as much as a California household uses in a year. California currently uses about 42 million acre-feet annually.)
But the project could not provide that much water without two features: taking water from rivers like the Trinity, Eel and Klamath in the northern reaches of the state and constructing a way to move water around the delta.
Brown’s scheme, along with the federal Central Valley Project, would forever change the delta’s ecosystem, making it a highly engineered landscape. It called vaguely for a "trans-delta system," but no one knew what that meant.
According to biologist Kier, backers of the tunnels still point to that language to justify it.
"That’s what the proponents regard as the foundational voters’ approval," he said, "the voter approval that overrides any questions about whether they are doing the right thing."
The delta conveyance wasn’t built, and northern rivers remained largely untapped. As a result, the State Water Project initially delivered only about 2.5 million acre-feet.
Some would call that a structural deficit. Others would call it crazy.
"Californians had been sold a pig in a poke: a project whose cost was deliberately and extravagantly understated, and whose delivery capability was much less than they had been led to believe," Reisner wrote in "Cadillac Desert."
Nevertheless, Brown would get his wish and reshape California’s water system, laying the groundwork for what would become the world’s sixth-largest economy. Dozens of dams and facilities were built. Power and pumping plants shuttled water over mountain ranges, to thirsty cities and the nation’s most prodigious agricultural area (Greenwire, March 27).
And the state constructed its longest river: the 444-mile Governor Edmund G. Brown California Aqueduct.
Bitter ballot battle
After the elder Brown left office in 1967, water interests wanted to complete the project. They eyed building a large dam and reservoir on the Eel River, a nearly 200-mile-long waterway in Northern California.
Brown’s successor, Gov. Ronald Reagan (R), however, had little interest in major public works, reportedly falling asleep in a key meeting about it. Then, a somewhat halfhearted attempt at a delta conveyance facility was scuttled by a lawsuit in 1974.
That left the problem to Brown’s son, Jerry, who took office after Reagan in 1975.
The contradictions between Jerry Brown’s position on water infrastructure and his views toward other issues became clear immediately.
Brown in many ways was the stylistic opposite of his father, a product of the new environmental movement and deep skepticism of big government projects in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate. He campaigned as a fiscal conservative, promoting an "era of limits," "small is beautiful" and "less is more." Once intent on becoming a Catholic priest, he eschewed the state’s governor’s mansion, living instead in an ordinary apartment. There was no limo for Brown; he rode in an inexpensive 1974 Plymouth Satellite.
Nevertheless, Brown set out to fix the more than 1-million-acre-foot shortfall in his father’s water project with an $11.6 billion canal.
The Democrat tried to appease the state’s water interests and his environmental base simultaneously. He hired Meral, the former Environmental Defense Fund leader whom Brown had met when Meral was running an anti-dam campaign. Meral, a co-founder of Friends of the River, was an accomplished whitewater kayaker. Runs on the Tuolumne River were named for him.
Brown took new reservoirs off the table — no new dams. He and Meral came up with a plan to take "surplus" flows from the Sacramento River during the winter and spring and send them around the east side of the delta in a 43-mile-long "peripheral canal," where the water could then be pumped to existing storage facilities.
The plan was put on the ballot in a June 1982 special election, and it became one of the most bitterly fought and divisive political campaigns in the state’s history.
Some environmentalists initially backed the plan, out of loyalty to Brown and Meral. Quickly, though, it created unusual alliances.
Greens ultimately opposed the project because it would deprive the delta of freshwater inflows critical to its ecosystem. To them, it went too far to develop water supplies.
Two major agricultural players — the J.G. Boswell Co. and Salyer Land Co. — joined them because of Brown’s refusal to build on the northern rivers. To them, it didn’t go far enough.
Southern California voters supported the canal as vital to their economic future. Voters in the north equated it to the south stealing their water — again.
"It became Voldemort — that which would not be named," said Jeffrey Mount of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, referring to the main villain in the "Harry Potter" novels. "Friendships were ruined. Divorces occurred."
The campaign supporting the canal totaled $2.5 million. The effort to defeat it spent $3.3 million.
Weather, it seemed, was also working against Brown. The state had some of the driest years on record in 1976 and 1977. But 1980 unleashed torrential storms on the state, culminating in 1982 when an El Niño weather pattern caused storms resulting in $1 billion in property damage.
"It would be excessive to say that a string of five rain-laden years determined the outcome of the vote on the Peripheral Canal, but it would probably be true," Reisner wrote in "Cadillac Desert."
On election day, Southern California — home to most of the state’s voters — backed Brown’s canals by a 2-to-1 margin. But Northern California voted against it 9-to-1. Brown lost resoundingly by a vote of 62.7 percent to 37.3 percent.
Governors after Brown — George Deukmejian (R), Pete Wilson (R), Gray Davis (D) — did all they could to avoid the issue. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) revived the concept in 2007, but he lacked the political capital to move it forward.
Brown returns, floats revised plan
When Jerry Brown was elected governor again in 2010, he again set out to tackle the delta problem.
He trimmed Schwarzenegger’s plan, making his California WaterFix tunnels smaller and more scientifically advanced than the peripheral canal of 1982.
Though the map is similar, the tunnels would run 35 miles, as opposed to the canal’s 43. The tunnels would have a maximum capacity of 9,000 cubic feet of water per second taken from three intakes, far lower than the 21,800 cfs of the canal.
And the tunnels would allow water to be sent from the tunnels to the delta, allowing more flexibility in maintaining water quality and combating saltwater intruding from the ocean via the San Francisco Bay.
The big differences are the WaterFix’s "smaller size and much-diminished expectations for greater water exports," said Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis. The tunnels are "more to improve reliability of historical pumping, or reduce its degradation, with little capacity to increase export pumping."
But, he added, it is "still a very sizable project with lots of implications."
Mount, of PPIC, has argued for a decade that the state must do something to address water issues in the delta.
The delta’s islands are sinking, levees that protect them face earthquake risk, there are changing runoff patterns from more intense storms and droughts as the climate changes, and it will undoubtedly be affected by sea-level rise.
"Either the state builds an isolated facility that takes more reliable, high-quality water from the Sacramento River and bypasses the delta, or, otherwise, the alternative is to begin planning for declining water supply from the delta," Mount said.
The latter could have major consequences for 19 million people in Southern California who get about 30 percent of their water from the delta and State Water Project.
It would also affect Central Valley agriculture, which gets about 25 percent of its drinking and irrigation water from the delta.
And the tunnels are more important to agribusiness now than the canal was in 1982. The 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act will in the coming years likely limit groundwater pumping, agriculture’s primary way of coping with delivery shortages from the delta.
"If you are a region that is depending on the delta and the water supply is declining — and, at the same time, you have to cut 2 million acre-feet of groundwater pumping to bring your aquifer into balance — it’s going to be pretty damn painful," Mount said.
"That water is absolutely vital for the San Joaquin Valley to bring their groundwater into balance."
Therein lies one of primary complaints about the project. Critics contend the project would benefit only a few select interests — mainly the Metropolitan Water District, which provides water to most of Southern California, and agriculture.
"We’re not being simplistic when we say the project won’t make more water. It won’t," said Barrigan-Parrilla of Restore the Delta. "It’s just a switch to take it away from someone else or the environment."
Brown’s administration has emphasized that the tunnels will help the delta’s ecosystems. The WaterFix’s website claims a primary objective is helping the "suffering" environment by protecting fish from the pumps in the south delta, which draw from existing canals and are harmful to fish migration. The tunnels will bypass those canals, moving the water directly to Clifton Court Forebay for export south.
"The current pumps are extremely powerful, causing harmful reverse flows, trapping endangered fish and pulling them toward predators," the WaterFix fact sheet states. "We can’t let endangered species go extinct."
The Trump administration’s biological opinions last month concluded that the first phase of the project, construction of the tunnels, would not jeopardize any of the 16 threatened species or adversely affect their habitat in the delta. The final report seemed to back away from findings on the delta smelt in the draft versions, which officials attributed to an additional 1,800 acres of habitat restoration to which the state has committed.
The conclusions by the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service also rely on California EcoRestore, a program intended to go hand in hand with the tunnels to restore 30,000 acres of the delta.
Environmentalists are quick to poke holes in all of it. For one, EcoRestore was born after another comprehensive plan for the tunnels and habitat, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, was scrapped.
And the primary scientific analysis by the agencies is flawed, said Jonathan Rosenfield, lead scientist for the Bay Institute. The conclusion that habitat restoration works for species like the delta smelt is speculative, he said. Conversely, allowing freshwater to flow into, through and out of the delta is scientifically proven to help the smelt, and many other threatened species.
"It’s still very unclear whether the habitat restoration they are talking about will positively affect any of the endangered species, and it is almost certain to have no effect on some threatened species," Rosenfield said. "You can’t substitute something that is entirely speculative for something that is known to work."
Environmental and fishing groups including the Bay Institute and Natural Resources Defense Council have already challenged the opinions in court, in the first of what is expected to be many lawsuits if the tunnels move ahead. The coalition contended the agencies ignored the best available science (Greenwire, June 30).
U.S. EPA has highlighted the same issue. In an August 2014 letter, then-EPA Regional Administrator Jared Blumenfeld said the tunnels could run afoul of the Clean Water Act while questioning habitat restoration as an effective mitigation measure.
"We are concerned over the sole reliance on habitat restoration for ecosystem recovery, recognizing that existing freshwater diversions and significantly diminished seaward flows have played a significant role in precluding the recovery of Bay Delta ecosystem processes and declining fish populations," he wrote (Greenwire, Aug. 29, 2014).
Further, the agencies were clear that their findings applied to the construction of the tunnels, but not their operation, leading some critics to say they punted.
Still, the project can move forward for now. Its main beneficiaries — and those who would be responsible for paying for most of it — will vote this fall.
Four entities would be the main beneficiaries of the project: Metropolitan, the Santa Clara Valley Water District in the Bay Area, and two primarily agricultural providers in the San Joaquin Valley: Kern County Water Agency and Westlands Water District.
The politically powerful Westlands has been reluctant to commit to the WaterFix, saying its board will likely vote on it in September.
"If the analysis performed after release of biological opinions for the project does not demonstrate a significant water supply benefit, I am confident the Westlands board of directors will decide to not participate in the project," Westlands General Manager Tom Birmingham said in an email.
"Westlands has consistently stated that it will not obligate itself to billions of dollars of debt unless it is reasonably certain that the district’s water supply will be restored."
It’s been more than 40 years since Brown first became governor, and the delta problem isn’t going anywhere. The tunnels — along with his effort to build a high-speed rail system — represent the type of concrete monument that has always eluded him.
To proponents of a delta solution, it’s now or never. And they see courage in Brown’s willingness to keep pushing.
"He’s the only one, because of his earlier attempt at this, who really has had the chops to do it," Mount said. "If you don’t make a decision in this governor’s term and move forward, it is highly unlikely that the next governor will take this on. Every governor who has tried before has been chewed to bits."
But in order to build them, he’ll likely need Westlands — public enemy No. 1 for environmentalists. And despite Brown’s climate change work, greens are quick to criticize the tunnels as catering to powerful interests over both the health of the delta and the state as a whole.
"This tarnishes Brown’s legacy," said Patricia Schifferle, a longtime environmental activist. "He is doing what he perceives as a way to get accolades from his father’s vision, but it misses the mark. He tarnishes not only his legacy, but also, I believe, his father’s."
The deeper irony is that Brown already has a monument on the scale of his father’s State Water Project.
Brown’s decision in the early 1980s to designate the state’s northern rivers under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protected hundreds of miles of rivers from dams and development in perpetuity — dams that Westlands and others were counting on.
"Those dams and reservoirs were to provide the remaining large amounts of water to supply the State Water Project," Minton of the Planning and Conservation League said. "Because those dams and reservoirs were not built, the State Water Project has never been able to fulfill the promises of Jerry’s father."
To Minton and others, that should be Brown’s legacy on water. And it didn’t take a single bucket of concrete.