COURTLAND, Calif. —
Along the scenic Sacramento River, two worlds are in conflict.
The first world is comprised of farmers, making a living off the land. The other world is construction activity, with digging now underway in the Sacramento River Delta.
The ambitious, multi-billion-dollar tunnel project is moving forward, with plenty of controversy in the Sacramento River Delta.
The original twin tunnel plan proposed by former Gov. Jerry Brown has now been slimmed down to one tunnel under Gov. Gavin Newsom. However, the opposition appears to have grown bigger.
Work crews have been busy this week along Twin Cities Road near Courtland. They are conducting core sampling, the first step in drafting an Environmental Impact Report for a tunnel plan known as the Delta Conveyance Project.
“Without a dependable, reliable, sustainable, resilient water supply, we have a real problem in this state,” said Tony Meyers, executive director of the Delta Conveyance Office with the Department of Water Resources.
The Delta Conveyance Project is designed to help stabilize the delivery of freshwater to 27 million people across the state. DWR insists the tunnel is critical to protecting that water supply.
“If we have any major earthquake on any of the number of faults west of the Delta, there could be significant levee failures, which will also impact water quality and the ability for the state water project to deliver water to the state residences,” Meyers said.
But deep in the Delta, there is strong opposition.
Sarah Hemly is concerned about what might happen to her 1,000-acre family farm if the Delta tunnel project is constructed.
“The irrigation pumps turn on, they hit the crops and then this whole area is destroyed and we can’t get that back,” Hemley said. “The tunnel project is going to be a long-term disruption.”
Hemly’s family has been growing pears in Courtland for six generations, dating back to 1850. And like many farmers in the Delta, Hemly is concerned the state’s plan may hurt her livelihood.
“Just on the construction side, it’s going to alter how we farm, how our products get out,” Hemly said.
Pre-construction is now underway for the Delta Conveyance Project. If completed, it would help transport fresh water from Northern California to Southern California.
“About 30% of the 19 million people here in Southern California get their water from the Delta,” said Tracy Hernandez, chief executive officer of the Los Angeles County Business Federation.
“This particular project has almost one-third of our water that we use every day for our homes and our businesses. So, it’s essential,” Hernandez said. “The Southern California economy would crumble without it.”
Water has always divided California, and the state insists the tunnel project will help protect against earthquakes and a fragile system of levees and canals that need repair. Meyers likens it heart surgery.
“If you had problems with your coronary arteries and your heart circulation is to provide a bypass of water through the Delta,” Meyers said. “It goes directly to the state water projects, pumping facilities on the south end of the Delta.”
But, many environmental groups are actively opposing the tunnel project.
“It does not protect the environment for Delta communities, and it actually makes it worse,’ said Mariah Looney, campaign coordinator for Restore the Delta. “It will make water quality worse, and it will make the water saltier in the Delta.”
The tunnel project is designed to prevent saltwater from entering the Delta, while maintaining a steady supply of freshwater.
“As you might imagine, whether you’re a manufacturer or a restaurant, we live in California, which has droughts and earthquakes and calamities,” Hernandez said. “And so, we’re not in business unless we have access to a reliable affordable water.”
But, many Delta residents remain convinced that the tunnel project is not right for them.
“We want people in Southern California to have water and that’s not what we’re talking about,” Hemly said. “We want California to be sustainable, we want to look to a better future than what this project brings. So, that’s what we’re fighting for.”
The Delta Conveyance Project if approved, is expected to be completed by 2035.
The revenue stream for the project is $12 billion in state bonds, which would most likely be purchased by water contractors across the state who would benefit from the project.