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Don't go into the tunnel 

Last month, at the urging of the SLO County State Water Subcontractors Advisory Committee, the three largest state water subcontractors in the county—Morro Bay, Pismo Beach, and the Oceano CSD—voted to "participate in preliminary efforts associated with the Delta Conveyance Project," aka the Delta Tunnel.

Votes of support by local jurisdictions bring the project one step closer to reality. Reality is a costly giant tunnel that would divert Sacramento River water bound for the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta and transport the water directly to Central Valley farms and urban users in the Bay Area and Southern California.

The SLO County Board of Supervisors is the ultimate target of the local charm offensive by project proponents. The county will have to agree to support the project in order put local state water users officially on the hook for financial support.

Here's why that shouldn't happen.

This plan would accelerate the decline of the largest estuary on the West Coast, which provides essential habitat for native and migratory species. Salmon runs and a billion-dollar commercial salmon industry rely on a healthy Delta.

The giant tunnel would ultimately reduce California's water security by increasing dependence on unreliable water imports for many farmers and urban dwellers and encourage unsustainable use of water in cities and farms across the state. This project would burden Californians with an enormous financial commitment without guaranteeing any additional water for agriculture or urban areas. If we gamble billions on building a giant tunnel, there will not be enough money to invest in local solutions that would improve water security throughout the state and create local jobs through investment in smaller infrastructure projects.

The Sierra Club supports robust alternatives to the tunnel that would provide better long-term water security for all Californians and would have fewer negative environmental impacts. Those solutions include encouraging water-efficient technologies in urban use, requiring statewide water meters on an accelerated timeline, and recycling municipal wastewater.

Encouraging the urban uptake of water-efficient technologies would mean replacing thirsty lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping, installing smart irrigation technology, using rainwater and gray water, and promoting aggressive rebate programs for efficient appliances, all of which could reduce urban water use by 30 percent. Landscaping accounts for roughly half of all residential water use.

Accelerating the timeline for every home and business to have a dedicated water meter would be a good idea. Cities currently have until 2025 to install meters. Requiring water meters and detailed usage reports for consumers on an accelerated timeline would likely achieve the results seen in an East Bay pilot study, in which home usage reports led to a 6.6 percent reduction in water use.

Recycling municipal wastewater could save up to 2.3 million acre-feet annually, according to the Department of Water Resources. A successful water recycling program already exists in Orange County.

Mandating weather-based irrigation controllers, drip irrigation, and climate-appropriate crop selection could yield more than 3.4 million acre-feet in water savings.

Maintaining existing infrastructure would save the approximately 10 percent of urban water that is lost through leaks in aging distribution infrastructure, wasting water and energy.

Improving agricultural water efficiency with conservation strategies—including weather-based irrigation controllers, drip irrigation, and climate-appropriate crop selection—could yield over 3.4 million acre-feet in water savings. Agriculture uses 75 to 80 percent of California's water.

Current laws requiring water-neutral development should be strengthened to more effectively prevent unsustainable growth. These and other measures could reduce statewide water demand by 9.7 million acre-feet per year. That's more water than is exported from the Delta even in rainy years.

Until 2014, California was one of the few states in the nation that did not regulate groundwater, which has led to unsustainable levels of overdraft, damage to aquifer storage capacity, and dramatic land subsidence. The passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) that year gave California, for the first time in its history, a framework for sustainable groundwater management. The amount of groundwater that could be conserved under SGMA is huge, but the timelines are ridiculous: Under SGMA, the most overdrafted basins must reach sustainability within 20 years of implementing sustainability plans. For critically overdrafted basins, that will be 2040. For remaining high- and medium-priority basins, the deadline is 2042.

That's not the way to respond to a crisis. We must accelerate the implementation of SGMA and aim for an increase in the current levels of groundwater, not just the avoidance of undesirable results compared against a degraded baseline. Groundwater basins must be managed so that no single individual or corporation is able to exploit them.

The Sierra Club supports common-sense alternatives to the costly giant tunnel gamble. So can you. Download The Smart Alternative to Tunnel(s): A Sensible Water Management Portfolio at sierraclub.org/california/water. Watch the schedule for the Board of Supervisors meetings for the hearing on this item, likely sometime in January. Then show up and let the supervisors know everything wrong with it and what we should be doing instead. Δ

Andrew Christie is the director of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Send comments through clanham@newtimesslo.com or write a letter to the editor and email it to letters@newtimesslo.com.

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