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Jerry Brown, left, and Gavin Newsom / Photos by Sam Hodgson and Shutterstock

Sixty years ago, California voters approved Gov. Pat Brown’s plan for a 700-mile system of dams, water pumps and aqueducts to control flooding in Northern California and send water south to Los Angeles and San Diego.

His son, Jerry, spent the better part of four terms as governor trying to expand his father’s work.

On Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom effectively capped the Browns’ multi-generation effort, known as the State Water Project, the source of about a third of Southern California’s drinking water.

The original project didn’t deliver as much water as promised, partly because it wasn’t truly finished. A canal was supposed to route water around an environmentally sensitive delta in the center of the state. But this “peripheral canal” was controversial, expensive and never built. When the younger Brown took up the cause, voters rejected it in 1982.

Before leaving office a second time earlier this year, Brown scrambled to build an alternative – a pair of water tunnels that his administration supposedly spent over a million hours studying. Though the $17 billion twin tunnels would carry less than half as much water as the canal, they were supposed to help the State Water Project function despite rising seas, changing snowfall patterns and earthquakes.

In Newsom’s first State of the State speech Tuesday, he scaled back that plan too.

Instead, Newsom said he supports a single tunnel.

In doing so, he’s adopting a position backed at times by an odd coalition of environmentalists, Northern Californians and officials from the city of Los Angeles and the San Diego County Water Authority.

It’s unclear how big Newsom’s single tunnel will be, but it’s likely to deliver a third as much water as the 1982 canal and cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $11 billion.

The reactions to Newsom’s remarks were tentative declarations of partial victory by nearly everyone, supporters and opponents of Brown’s twin tunnels alike.

Supporters said Newsom was still talking about doing something, rather than nothing. But it’s unclear whether the project can get underway soon or if it’ll take another generation of study and planning.

Newer environmental regulations reduce how much water can be taken from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, making State Water Project supplies unreliable. By more precisely managing the way water moves, tunnel supporters argue, the state could protect fish and guarantee reliable water supplies.

Opponents of the project were obviously glad to see the project scaled back.

The environmental argument against the tunnels was always that the current system is inherently destructive and a new project perpetuating the system compounds the destruction for generations to come. And environmental opponents of the tunnels say it’s absurd to think building tunnels to take water away from where the fish live could ever help fish.

To give a sense of what a single tunnel means: If the peripheral canal had been built, you could stare at one spot in it for one second and see more than a year’s supply of water for the average California household pass by. If the twin tunnels were built and you stared at them both, it’d take about two and a half seconds for the same amount of water to pass by. With one tunnel, it’d take about four seconds.

That diminished capacity could add up, constricting the amount of water the state can move to Southern California during major rainstorms, a big worry for regional water officials because a warmer climate means rain will replace snowmelt as our major source of water. Our current system is designed to capture snow as it gradually melts from mountaintops; large amounts of rain falling at once cannot be so easily contained. The two tunnels were designed to allow Southern California to take a “big gulp” of rainwater.

“You really have to take advantage of big events,” Jeffrey Kightlinger, the general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said Tuesday.

San Diego and its County Water Authority get most of their water from Metropolitan, which delivers water from Northern California and from the Colorado River to 19 million people across Southern California.

Metropolitan has done as much as anyone to support the tunnels project. When Brown briefly threw in the towel last spring and decided to back a single tunnel himself, the district’s board rallied and revived the twin tunnels project, even if it meant spending an extra $7 billion. The main rationale for the scramble was trying to get the deal locked in before Newsom took office.

Obviously that strategy failed.

Still, a single tunnel shouldn’t affect Southern California’s water supply too much, Kightlinger said, if the tunnel is the size of the single tunnel Brown had flirted with.

That said, it won’t carry as much water and it doesn’t have the sort of redundancy that two tunnels have in the event of an earthquake or other problem.

Doug Obegi, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he’s curious to know how big Newsom’s single tunnel will be, under what conditions it’s allowed to move water and whether those conditions will do enough to protect the environment.

“The big part of it is how it is proposed to be operated,” he said.

The biggest human loser may be farmers in the Central Valley, especially those who farm land irrigated by the Fresno-based Westlands Water District. The district seemed to want water from the tunnels but didn’t want to pay for it, at least not yet. Metropolitan had come up with a plan to build the tunnels and then give Westlands the option of using them later.

Westlands could still get more water, though, if environmental laws are loosened. A former lobbyist for the district is now leading the U.S. Department of Interior. The department runs the Central Valley Project, which is physically interconnected but legally separate from the State Water Project.

Newsom also suggested he preferred a “portfolio” of local water projects, like wastewater recycling, over massive diversions of water from one region of the state to another hundreds of miles away. That trend didn’t begin with the Browns – it began in earnest when Los Angeles dammed rivers on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains and continued when the federal government and San Francisco dammed the most pristine rivers on the mountains’ western slopes – but it could now end with them.

A similar “portfolio” approach was outlined nearly six years ago by a group of environmental groups and by the San Diego County Water Authority, which turned against expanding the State Water Project as it began to rely more heavily on water from the Colorado River.

“For decades, the Water Authority has actively sought cost-effective, right-sized solutions for the complex water supply and ecological issues in the Bay-Delta,” the Water Authority’s board chairman, Jim Madaffer, said in a statement.

Ry Rivard

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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