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Remember Owens Valley: Fake Delta concern over smelt

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POSTED February 14, 2013 9:19 p.m.

Amazing, isn’t it?

Big agricultural interests along with development interests that want to fuel even more LA-San Diego growth with imported water push for the $14 billion Twin Tunnels or Peripheral Canal 2.0.

Then within months the Delta Smelt death count at the Tracy pumps skyrocketed, prompting a sharp curtailment this week in water deliveries to the Southland and big corporate farms in the Southern San Joaquin Valley. 

South state cities and farm operations - many owned by Wall Street concerns - seize on the fish deaths as proof positive the Twin Tunnels must be built.

But this isn’t about saving fish. It’s about taking more water.

The Sierra Club’s initial response back in July to Brown’s second run at draining the Delta of water so it can fill more Southern California swimming pools was to view it as a Trojan Horse. It may benefit the Delta smelt but at what price to the rest of the environment?  The reason for that assessment was the fact Brown and backers of the Twin Tunnels have not said how much water they will divert from entering the Delta. That is essential because having water that typically flows through the Delta and diverting it so it doesn’t get “dirty” is akin to opening an environmental Pandora’s Box.

It is much safer for tunnel boosters to build the stealth canals and then worry about the collateral environmental damage later. It would be pretty tough to prevent the state from using a $14 billion investment once it is completed.

Environmental studies - including the actual cost of that tunnel on the price of domestic water in Los Angeles - would probably have a chilling impact on public support for the tunnels. And without public support, water interests can’t pass public bonds to finance the tunnels.

There have been 232 Delta smelt killed at the Tracy pumps since the start of the water year Oct. 1. Rules cap annual allowable deaths at 305. The high kill rate with 7.5 months to go prompted a cut in water deliveries of 700,000 acre feet or enough to meet the needs of more than a million households for a year.

There are much less expensive solutions to the Delta smelt problem. One is a proposal advanced by a UC Davis professor that would build two smaller tunnels near Tracy - one under the Old River to avoid the significantly less clean San Joaquin River water from mingling with Sacramento River water. And the other would get around the pumps.

That is gaining no traction because of two other caveats that the water-hungry cities don’t want to mention: Water clarity and providing water for court-imposed minimum allowed Delta water flows during droughts.

The relatively clean Sacramento River water gets diluted when it is mixed with the dirtier San Joaquin River water. That means cities have to spend more money to treat the water they import.

Also, if you can divert your water supply around the Delta, it may allow you to escape having to give some of it up in a drought year to protect the Delta ecological system.

If you doubt that’s the case consider San Francisco. Thanks to the fact they built a tunnel across the San Joaquin Valley to ferry Hetch Hetchy water from the upper reaches of the Stanislaus River, San Francisco never faces cutbacks during droughts to protect the Delta. That’s despite the fact the Stanislaus River from which they take their water ultimately flows into the Delta.

San Joaquin County’s elected leaders and residents alike need to keep close tabs on the latest round of shenanigans involving the tunnels.

Significant water loss will wipe out almost 40 percent of the county’s agricultural production that’s in the Delta but it can also impact supplies for other farms and our cities.

That’s because the rivers we depend on are the only remaining choices to maintain minimal flows in the Delta during droughts once the Sacramento River water is taken out of the equation.

It is a new play on the deceit that destroyed the Owens Valley — once considered fertile enough to rival the San Joaquin Valley — to meet the water needs of Southern California.

It’s time to rally around one unifying battle cry: Remember Owens Valley.

 

This column is the opinion of managing editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209-249-3519.

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