GUEST COMMENTARY: The Delta Tunnel is not a Social Justice Project

This guest commentary is written by Tama L. Brisbane, poet, With Our Words Inc. Stockton Poet Laureate Area Coordinator, California Poets in the Schools; and Tim Stroshane, policy analyst, Restore the Delta:

In his CalMatters piece on June 20, 2020, Gary Kremen, vice-chair of the Delta Conveyance Finance Authority wraps Governor Gavin Newsom’s proposed Delta tunnel project in a strategy of virtue signaling — talking the talk without walking the walk – and without knowing the Delta.

“You cannot know the extent of water in a pond you have never been to.”
– Swahili proverb (first of three)

We grew up at different times but attended the same high school, Ravenswood High in then-unincorporated East Palo Alto. We learned of and lived with the systemic injustices foisted on East Palo Alto by its wealthy, too often disdainful neighbor Palo Alto, and its occupying force,  the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department. We know when someone walks the talk of social, racial, and environmental justice. We know when someone does not.

“Habari gani” was the Swahili name of Ravenswood High School’s student-run newspaper in the 1960s and 1970s. It means “what’s happening”: The news, the facts, reality and real talk. So let’s have some.

It is true, as Kremen points out, that during the COVID-19 pandemic water purveyors are ensuring that supplies they deliver to our taps at home, work, industry, and public places are virus-free and safe. They are required to do this 24-7. But water agencies cannot claim, as Kremen concluded, that they “have done an excellent job of becoming more water efficient while supplying water to a growing state population and seeing the environment healthy.”

“If water is split it cannot be gathered up.”

Many of California’s aquatic environments are not healthy. Kremen ignores hundreds of California water bodies impaired and unsafe to the public from industrial, mining, agricultural, municipal wastewater, and toxic algal pollution.

A Delta faced with tunnel operations will become saltier, more prone to warm season harmful algal blooms, and fish extinctions, as sought by Trump Administration water policies.

Communities of color will continue to bear a disproportionate share of this deliberately-imposed burden should the Delta tunnel project come to fruition.

Kremen also ignores that growers across the San Joaquin Valley have pumped their aquifers so hard that two publicly funded and approved aqueducts (the Friant-Kern Canal and the California Aqueduct/San Luis Canal) recently collapsed due to land subsidence, restricting how much water the growers can receive from these vital water systems. These are self-inflicted wounds by agribusiness to their own water supplies. They hope the Delta tunnel, plus some dams, can bail them out.

Northern California Indian tribes along the Trinity, Sacramento, and McCloud Rivers depend on returning salmon every year for food and as cultural foundation. Building and operating the tunnel would lead to salmon extinction. For the tribes this represents an existential threat of cultural genocide—a continual attack on their very identity as proud indigenous peoples of California, and so they rightfully resist it with all their heart and resources.

“Who digs the well should not be refused water.”

While Kremen acknowledges that earthquake risks to Delta levees would cause flooding that would mainly hurt the poor, and low- and middle-income households, there is no walk to his talk, and his words ring hollow. The communities most in need of solutions and protection continue to thirst for them. The Delta tunnel proposal contains no plans to address Delta levee concerns, even though the tunnel is likely to operate only about half the time —the existing south Delta pumps need Delta levees in place to ensure pumping continues despite earthquakes.

The tunnel has no virtues for the Delta. It is not the affluent who will be hurt most by the Delta Tunnel proposal. It will be the real people inhabiting the real circumstances of low-income, disproportionately impacted, vulnerable.

The Delta tunnel doesn’t even have enough “virtue” for eight state water contractors (including four in the San Joaquin Valley) who refuse to support the tunnel because it is too expensive. Fewer water contractors supporting the project means that tunnel costs will be spread over fewer ratepayers—and in poorer communities of southern California and Silicon Valley, water rates will rise because of expensive tunnel construction costs and water deliveries.

We may have attended Ravenswood High School at different times, experienced East Palo Alto through different racial lenses, but we share the same commitment to the health, accessibility and sustainability of the Delta.

And we both learned code-switching along with our Shakespeare: a rose by any other name…will still dry up and die for lack of water.

Rose. Delta.
Communities of color will be left parched.
– TAMA L. BRISBANE, poet, With Our Words Inc. Stockton Poet Laureate Area Coordinator, California Poets in the Schools

– TIM STROSHANE, policy analyst, Restore the Delta

Please note:  The views expressed in this commentary are those of the authors and should not be attributed to Maven’s Notebook.


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