Article by Robert Gammon
May 13, 2015
Last week, Governor Jerry Brown told critics to “shut up” about his $15 billion plan to build two giant water tunnels underneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Critics of his plan include numerous environmental groups and the editorial boards of several major newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News, and the Sacramento Bee, which have all called on Brown to torpedo his tunnels proposal. A spokesperson later said that the governor was only “kidding,” when he told his critics to clam up. But numerous journalists, including Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton, have noted that Brown sure didn’t look like he was kidding when he made the remark to the leaders of several water agencies.
Regardless, it’s clear that Brown was not joking about the substance of what he was saying: that those who oppose the tunnels plan are wrong. The governor argued that state water officials know best because, he said, they have spent “one million hours” studying the tunnels proposal. In short, Brown was essentially saying, “Trust us. We know better.”
Sorry, Governor Brown, but that’s not good enough, especially considering the poor track record your administration has on major projects and environmental issues, and the bogus assurances from state officials to “ignore critics, and trust us, because we know better.” Here are just a few examples:
• State transportation officials repeatedly tried to reassure the public over the past several years that engineering experts were wrong about the shoddy workmanship on the new Bay Bridge and that the $6.4 billion eastern span is perfectly safe. Turns out, the experts were right all along.
The new bridge, as we now know, thanks mostly to the experts and to Chronicle investigative reporter Jaxon Van Derbeken, is riddled with problems — including corrosion issues, broken steel rods, and bad welds. Concerns are legitimate that the new bridge, which was built at great expense to replace the old seismically unsafe one, may be vulnerable to catastrophic failure during a major quake. Even Steve Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, is now calling the bridge the “project from hell.”
• Brown administration officials also told us for years that fracking for oil in California was safe and that calls for a moratorium on the fossil-fuel extraction method were reckless. Of course, we now know definitively that officials within the Brown administration’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources have been allowing oil companies to inject toxic fracking wastewater into underground aquifers that could be needed for drinking water — particularly during the drought.
And if that were not bad enough, there’s this: Scientists with the US Geological Survey have concluded that injecting fracking wastewater into the ground triggers earthquakes. In other words, fracking is anything but safe, and in a seismically active state like California, it’s reckless.
• State regulators also told us repeatedly for years that PG&E’s underground natural gas pipelines were safe — another blatant falsehood, it turns out. Governor Brown himself also told us that we should “trust” Michael Peevey, the then-chair of the California Public Utilities Commission. Later, we found out the truth: Peevey, who was supposed to oversee the regulation of PG&E, was instead secretly colluding with the utility to help it escape accountability and punishment for its pipeline-safety negligence.
In short, Governor Brown, trusting the assurances that state officials “know better” because “they’ve studied the issues longer” is ignoring reality. Californians have every right to be skeptical about practically anything state officials say, especially when it comes to large, expensive public works projects and the state’s ability to pull them off.
Which brings us back to the water tunnels. It’s a devilishly difficult project, involving the construction of two massive, 35-mile-long tunnels underneath the fragile delta. And while state officials may have spent “one million hours” studying this complex plan, there are good reasons to believe it won’t work, and could end up ruining the largest estuary on the West Coast.
The whole idea behind the tunnels is to take freshwater from the Sacramento River before it reaches the delta, and then ship it south to agribusinesses in the San Joaquin Valley and to Southern California residents. That way, the state would be able to avoid the current problem of fish being shredded in massive pumps that suck freshwater out of the delta.
But, as many biologists and environmental groups have noted, taking freshwater before it reaches the delta could make the delta too salty for fish and too salty for residents and farms that depend on the water. In fact, right now, saltwater intrusion is a huge problem because the drought is depriving the delta of freshwater — so huge, the state is building a temporary barrier this month in the delta to prevent it from being destroyed by saltwater from San Francisco Bay.
In other words, the tunnels, if operational right now, could not be used, because they would starve the delta of too much freshwater during the drought.
So, Governor Brown, I’m sure you’ll understand if we and many others intend to ignore your “shut up” comment — and hollow assurances that state officials know better.