Kurtis Alexander & Santiago Mejia, THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
In a California landscape defined — and divided — by water, a single issue unites the people who live here: digging in against the tunnel
In spring and summer, when the skies are warm and the shadows thin, California’s snowy Sierra Nevada and southern Cascades unleash billions of gallons of fresh water each day, a melted bounty that nourishes the state’s mightiest rivers before converging slowly on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
Here, across a sun-baked plain of rickety towns and sprawling countryside, the cool water winds through streams and sloughs. It fills irrigation ditches that feed cornfields and vineyards. It flows through shallow bays flanked by wooden fishing piers and riverside homes. Finally, it’s pumped off to the sinks and showers of two-thirds of Californians, many giving little thought to where the water came from — and just how vulnerable the supply has become.
The delta is an unlikely frontier, and an even more improbable battleground. So close to the Bay Area, but apart. Hidden beyond freeways and tucked beneath the wide open of the Central Valley. Vital to the future, yet wrapped in the past.
This sleepy place, though, is waking, reluctantly and resoundingly, jolted by the state’s modern-day demand for water. Those who live here, where family farms span generations and a postman still delivers mail by boat, fear that looming changes could wipe out this singular slice of California and turn their figurative backwater into a literal one.
The stakes could hardly be higher. Gov. Gavin Newsom, like governors before him, wants to overhaul how water moves through the delta. He’s proposing a 30-mile tunnel that would streamline the delivery of water from the Sacramento River, a bid to halt the ongoing devastation of the delta’s wetlands and wildlife while ensuring its flows continue to provide for the rest of the state.
The pressures of climate change on water supplies have only increased the urgency to act. And the coronavirus pandemic and months of shelter-in-place orders haven’t slowed the planning. A tense situation is unfolding even as California’s attention is elsewhere.
Follow the roads through the delta and you’ll see the signs and stickers, on pickup trucks and bars, at cattle ranches and trailer parks, and next to bridges and boatyards: “No tunnel. Save our delta.”
The starkness of the choice laid out in the slogan is deliberate. Residents here not only see the project as a water grab, but worry the central force in their lives and livelihoods — the movement of fresh water — could be lost as the tunnel allows Silicon Valley, Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley’s vast agricultural industry to satisfy their thirst. President Trump’s insistence on shipping more water to big farms to the south has only added to the anxiety.
“The tunnel just isn’t good for the delta,” said Mark Morais, 70, owner of Giusti’s, a popular roadhouse serving pasta and steaks on checkerboard tablecloths in Walnut Grove, about 30 miles south of Sacramento. “If you divert the water, you’re going to have less for us.”
The communities in the region, which spreads across about 1,100 square miles in parts of five counties, rarely speak with one voice. Local farmers see these watery reaches as meant for agriculture. Those casting for bass and stripers prioritize fish. Boaters want open water. Longtime residents and recent retirees want to sip a cold drink along the waterside and gaze out at their share of California paradise.