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Will the Great Bore save California?
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The ticking time bomb known as the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta poses a serious threat to the economic future of California, the ability to feed much of this nation, and to preserve a key Pacific Coast estuary for both fowl and fish.

More than 70 percent of the fresh water used for agriculture and urban uses in California flows through the network of 700 miles of waterways that bring the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers together before they flow into the San Francisco Bay.

The Delta is not as Mother Nature created it. Some 1,100 miles of levees were built starting in the 1850s that created 70 “islands” that have yielded the nation’s richest farmland thanks to its peat soil.

Ironically - given the argument of hardcore environmentalists today - the levees actually improved the survivability of a number of species that otherwise would have been wiped out by 19th century man. That’s because the Delta was a massive marsh thanks to snow run-off in the spring while in late summer and early fall it was often brackish with little fresh water flow from the two river systems fed by the Sierra snowpack melt.

The levees changed all that.

The advent of the two massive water projects - the federal government’s Central Valley Project and the State Water Project - allowed California to take advantage of its Mediterranean climate to create glistening urban centers on the dry coast and rich productive farmland in the Great Central Valley. It did so by capturing and transporting water. It took water from where it was plentiful in the mountains to where it was scarce on the coastal plains of Southern California as well as in the Central Valley.

It worked fine when California has 18 million residents. It is pushing the envelope now that California is just shy of 40 million people. And by the time we add another 15 million or so people the system will be so strained that it will cease to work. That’s providing, of course, that the inevitable Big One doesn’t collapse shaky levees first. When that happens an unprecedented emergency situation would face the state’s urban areas and productive farmland. Experts say such an event would cut off fresh water supplies for two years while scrambling to get a makeshift solution in place.

That is where the Great Bore comes into play.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan advocates two tunnels that are 33 feet in diameter and 150 feet below ground to carry much of the Sacramento River water from north of the Delta to the southern part where it can then flow to the East Bay or into the California Aqueduct to continue its journey southward.

The tunnels would cost $13 billion and take 10 years to build.

The idea is worth pursuing for several reasons. It could assures the viability of Delta farming providing, of course, some steps are taken such as building a modified sea wall to avoid an increase in salinity when fresh water run-off drops in the late summer to allow salt water from the Bay to move farther east. Already it is a serious issue in Lathrop and Tracy drinking water. It wouldn’t take long for excessive salt in irrigation water to render fertile Delta islands sterile. It would also allow a more infinite way - especially coupled with a sea wall - to determine exactly how much fresh water is needed to keep the Delta healthy.

None of this can be done in a vacuum. The San Joaquin River watershed and the farmers and cities that depend on it shouldn’t be required to make up for any deficiency in Delta ecological water needs that they aren’t responsible for providing. In other words, if 70 percent of the water that flows into the Delta comes from the Sacramento River water shed, then 70 percent of the water needed to maintain the Delta needs to come from there with the rest from the San Joaquin River watershed.

The idea is in its infancy but it needs to be seriously considered. Given the other alternatives the tunnel plan could be the best option if it is coupled with some other improvements.

Done right the Great Bore would not simply be an underground Peripheral Canal.