The farther four-term Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown gets from the state Capitol’s “horseshoe” office suite, the less likely it seems that either of his two would-be legacy projects will ever be completed.
The fate of the high speed rail “bullet train” project authorized under a 2008 ballot proposition remains highly uncertain, even if some bridges and viaducts have been completed in the Central Valley. In a December visit to Fresno where he faced questions about that ever-more-costly venture, new Gov. Gavin Newsom opined that “it’s time for a fresh start, it’s time for a more sober, honest assessment of what it is and what it isn’t, and that’s what I intend to do.”
Newsom, who predicted earlier that the bullet train could help solve the state’s housing affordability problems by linking the Central Valley and its lower-priced homes to high-priced, high-salary areas of both the San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles areas, also said “I hope to get it done…”
He has made no such hopeful statement about Brown’s other big plan, the so-called “Twin Tunnels” water project to bring more reliability to the supplies of Northern California river water flowing toward urban Southern California and the farms of the San Joaquin Valley.
The Twin Tunnels, which would run beneath the Delta of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers to the point near Tracy where giant pumps now send millions of gallons southward, suffered a huge setback medway between Newsom’s election and his inauguration, when the state Department of Water Resources withdrew its certification of the plan.
That essentially sent the tunnels back to the early phases of planning just as Brown left office.
This choice by the department which runs the state Water Project was clearly the product of a realization that it’s all but impossible to send more water south and still sustain farming and fishing in the Delta.
Said John McManus, a tunnels foe and president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, “The gigantic tunnels project…couldn’t pass the laugh test” on its claims of making water supplies more reliable without wrecking the Delta.
Newsom had little to say about the tunnels plan during his campaign and remained non-committal when Brown, Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Bakersfield Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House GOP leader, agreed in late 2018 to try to extend a federal law aiming to deliver more Northern California water south over environmental objections.
They backed an extension beyond 2021 of key provisions in the 2016 federal Water Infrastructure for Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act via a year-end federal spending bill.
This will make almost $1 billion in federal funds available for new California water storage, both surface and below ground, and lets the federal Central Valley Project provide some water to the state project to increase southward water deliveries.
The agreement drew instant opposition from environmentalists who would rather see the state divert more river water to fisheries, leaving less for farms and cities.
Some environmental advocates accused Brown of cooperating with McCarthy and the Trump administration on WIIN as a way to keep them from completely torpedoing his beloved tunnels.
One lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council told a reporter that “This appears to be a quid pro quo where the governor trades away our salmon and thousands of fishing jobs for his stupid Delta tunnels.”
That remark alone makes it seem certain that the WIIN funding won’t come for years while legal infighting persists in both federal and state courts.
There will be no way for Newsom to avoid eventually taking some kind of stance on the tunnels, where he has so far mostly been mum, even as Brown pressed for it, saying “It’s time to get something done on water.”
Unlike Brown, whose father Gov. Pat Brown pushed through the state Water Project in the 1960s, Newsom has no family legacy at stake here. He has usually sided with environmentalists in other disputes through his career as mayor of San Francisco and as lieutenant governor.
All of which makes it unlikely that either large Brown legacy plan will proceed very far very soon, or at least not until they are redesigned to solidify their financial and environmental issues.