Decision-making process on final destruction of San Joaquin Delta
...and the technocrats hope that their environmental documents will be so long, so convoluted, so trugidly technological and full of flimsy assertions of "balance between environmental, urban and agricultural needs" that, in the ensuing lawsuits, judges will measure the adequacy of the documents by the hundredweight and political pressure rather than by anything as radical and masochistic as reading them.
Badlands Journal editorial board
San Franciscoo Crhonicle
California water project won't be decided at poll
Thirty years ago, Californians soundly rejected a proposal to build a canal to move water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and deliver it to Central Valley farmers, Southern California residents and some Bay Area cities.
The projected costs and threats of environmental damage resulted in an overwhelming defeat at the hands of voters statewide.
Now, planning for the construction of a similar canal is under way, and a final design could be selected by the end of the year.
The designs under consideration are smaller than the last proposal, but the biggest difference between now and 30 years ago is that this time around, voters will not make the final decision.
Regulators will ultimately decide whether the state should build either a canal or a series of massive tunnels to make it easier to move water from Northern California without it flowing through the delta's circuitous sloughs and channels.
Just as was true three decades ago, critics lament the price of replumbing the hub of the state's water system, as well as the environmental destruction that could be caused.
This week, state officials are expected to release thousands of pages detailing the impacts of constructing tunnels as well as the more widely studied canal options.
Few water battles in the West have been as heated as the long-waged fight over the so-called peripheral canal. Delta-area farmers and many environmental groups fear that rerouting fresh water will severely degrade water quality in the region, harming fragile fish species and crops.
Supporters believe the plan is the only way to ensure the entire state has a reliable supply of water, since the pumps that move water out of the delta are shut down when they might damage species like the delta smelt.
State officials say the public will have input on the plan - mostly through a series of comment periods on applications for the biggest construction permits.
They say there is no reason that a statewide vote is necessary and that even in 1982 it wasn't legally required to go to the ballot box. In addition, a series of bills the Legislature approved in 2009 reaffirmed that a canal or tunnels could be built without a statewide vote.
"We don't hear much about whether the state has the authority to do this," said Jerry Meral, the deputy secretary of the state Department of Water Resources, who is charged with overseeing development of the plan.
But longtime opponents of this type of project said they think officials have deliberately bypassed the public and say lawsuits will be forthcoming.
"In all my 40 years as an activist, I've never seen the fix so in as in this," said Burt Wilson, who is executive director of the Public Water News Service and who campaigned against the peripheral canal in 1982.
Wilson said that state officials have taken a regulatory approach because that makes it more difficult for the public to object to the plan.
"They have been very wise to spread around targets. The public doesn't have a target yet. We have to wait until something is defined. The day after (the design) is approved, the court is going to be filled with lawsuits," he said.
Building a canal or tunnels around the delta will take five major permits from state and federal agencies, including permits allowing for the killing of some endangered species and developing in flood-prone areas, in addition to several permits from local agencies. Denial of the major permits would stop the project.
The Delta Stewardship Council, a panel appointed by the governor and lawmakers, also will have the power to reject or accept the proposal.
Gov. Jerry Brown has pushed for some type of canal or tunnel project. Last month, he said such a project could be built even if voters don't approve the $11 billion water bond on the November ballot. Lawmakers have discussed cutting the size of that bond and also postponing the vote.
The project would be paid for by ratepayers who would receive the water, not the bond itself. In addition to Southern California residents and Central Valley farmers, some residents in Alameda and Santa Clara counties whose water would come through the new system also would be paying the costs.
However, the bond money would be used to benefit the delta ecosystem in other ways - part of the oft-stated promise that all the state's water interests should "get better together."
The bond states $1.5 billion could be used for things like restoration of fish and wildlife, the reduction of mercury pollution and greenhouse gas reduction. Another $750 million would go to counties and cities in the delta to help mitigate any economic damage the project would cause.
State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said he thinks a bond is vital to moving forward with the construction of a project because it's the only way to ensure that everyone benefits.
"The bond is essential," he said.
State water officials agree with the governor and insist the bond is not essential to the canal project. The state could use money from previous bonds or require beneficiaries of the canal to pay for delta restoration projects, they say.
The group of 29 agencies that receive water from the State Water Project - the state-owned water delivery system includes more than 30 reservoirs and 700 miles of canals - declined to comment on the possibility of paying even more for environmental projects. That group, the State Water Contractors Association, referred questions to the Department of Water Resources.
While voters statewide will not have a direct say on financing the construction of a project, local water agencies and ratepayers would still have some influence, said Barry Nelson, a senior policy analyst who focuses on water for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
If ratepayers or the agencies revolt over the costs of construction or higher bills, it could be a fatal blow.
"None of those agencies have made any decision about ... their willingness to fund such a project," Nelson said.
Wyatt Buchanan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Twitter: @thewyatt. firstname.lastname@example.org
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