Water, without a doubt, is perhaps the biggest issue facing California.
Even Gov. Jerry Brown has repeatedly made that clear.
But in the midst of an historic severe drought Brown didn’t say peep during Monday’s inaugural address about what he has long hailed as his showcase solution to the state’s perennial water woes — the Twin Tunnels.
As irony would have it on Tuesday Brown was in Fresno basking in the national media attention given to the groundbreaking of the first segment for the San Francisco-Los Angeles transportation and economic stimulus project known as the California High Speed Rail.
If and when it is completed the bullet train will whisk folks from the state’s two major population centers through the drought ravished and impoverished San Joaquin Valley at 200 mph.
The Twin Tunnels also are designed to bypass the heart of the San Joaquin Valley to keep water flowing through the spigots of both the LA Basin and SF Bay Area along while helping grow the profits of massive corporate farms on the west side of the valley.
At least Brown didn’t play a fiddle in Fresno. But then again a valley shriveling up due to lack of water requires a different instrument than one that accompanies Rome burning.
Like high speed rail, the Twin Tunnels is a grandiose plan that is riddled with serious issues and practical shortcomings. But unlike high speed rail where the governor and Sacramento can suspend the environmental impact laws and part of the political process without raising the ire of the hardcore environmental lobby that has friends in powerful places, they could not do so in the Delta that is ground zero for California’s four-sided water wars between environmentalists, farmers, cities, and fishermen.
The Twin Tunnels in many ways parallels high speed rail. Besides being grandiose and sold as a “game changer” both are myopic with potentially devastating side effects.
The Twin Tunnels will remove a large volume of water from the Sacramento River watershed from the Delta that is currently used to keep the ecological system flourishing before it is diverted at the pumps at Tracy to head south. It will force the robbing of water from the San Joaquin River watershed to meet minimum flows for fish mandated by the courts. It will devastate anywhere from a third to two thirds of San Joaquin County’s farm production depending upon exactly how it is implemented. And in the end, not one more ounce of water — stored or otherwise — will be created for an upfront cost starting at $22 billion.
High speed rail will remove traffic that supports tens of thousands of jobs in struggling San Joaquin Valley communities. In the best case scenario, high speed rail will take air traffic from the busy LA to SF air corridor and dump it onto a rail corridor essentially duplicating effort with minimal impact for intra-valley rail movements. It will pull electricity from the already overburdened power grid that has yet to be addressed raising the likelihood valley cities could face rolling blackouts to keep high speed rail rolling. And in the end, there is no assurance that the high speed rail system starting at $68 billion will improve air quality in the San Joaquin Valley Air Basin as effectively as putting the same amount of money into other endeavors between Bakersfield and Stockton.
Both high speed rail and the Twin Tunnels are perfect metaphors for Jerry Brown who was once dubbed Governor Moonbeam for his out-of-the-box and initiative thinking while at the same time lecturing Californians about living in a new era of limitations.
Some will say that’s Governor Brown 1.0 and isn’t reflective of the current version in Sacramento after his stint as Oakland’s mayor and triumphant return to the State Capitol.
But given his fiscal austerity and vowing — and often effectively — fighting back new initiatives to spend money even from his own party coupled with high speed rail, those two opposite concepts of “Governor Moonbeam” and “era of limitations” still describe the man who is guiding California today.
Make no doubt about it. Brown is an intelligent and effective governor.
He has steered California through tough times and has successfully tamed political forces that imperiled the state’s financial health.
But his bid to repeat the legacy of his father — the late Gov. Edmund G. Brown — with delivering game changing water projects and a massive expansion of infrastructure such as the University of California system and the State Water Project isn’t succeeding.
Unlike with the UC initiative of his father, there is no secure or identified source of funding to make sure his vision for high speed rail can be seen through to completion given the only identified lifeline is a stream of revenue from greenhouse gas taxes on oil refineries that will be coming directly from the pockets of California drivers including those in the impoverished San Joaquin Valley.
Brown, regardless of his bold thinking, is a pragmatic at heart.
When it became clear the Peripheral Canal proposal of his first tour of duty was doomed, he abandoned ship.
The fact he didn’t reference the Twin Tunnels that he placed right up next to high speed rail as the best thing for California since Disneyland should tell you something.
Silence, as they say, speaks volumes.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at email@example.com or 209.249.3519.