During his first stint as California’s governor in the 1970s, Jerry Brown was an acolyte of E. F. Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” philosophy. He slowed down the state’s infrastructure spending and urged Californians to pare back their lifestyles. His approach stood in stark contrast to that of his father, Edmund “Pat” Brown, who as governor from 1959 to 1967 increased state spending on water, transportation, and higher education. As Joel Kotkin explained, “Jerry Brown turned out to be of a very different political hue than his father. Sometimes he sounded more anti-government even than Reagan. He disdained his father’s traditional focus on infrastructure spending and instead preached about a more environmentally friendly ‘era of limits.’”

As he took the oath of office again in 2011, it was unclear exactly what Brown would do as governor—beyond seeking tax increases to “fix” the state’s budget mess. To the surprise of many, rather than picking up where he left off as governor 30 years ago, Brown decided to emulate his father. The new Brown maintains a reputation as an environmentalist, of course, especially when it comes to battling climate change. But instead of thinking small, Brown has made massive infrastructure spending the cornerstone of his policy prescriptions, along with the advancement of a pro-labor union agenda. Construction unions, in particular, have backed his infrastructure push, which includes building a $65 billion high-speed rail system that presumably would help the environment by getting people out of their cars, and a Bay Delta Conservation Plan that would cost at least $24.5 billion to change the flow of the Sacramento River—ostensibly to save a tiny, endangered fish that lives in the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta.

Brown’s embrace of big infrastructure may be novel, but his foray into California’s storied water wars surrounding the delta is less so. In his last go-round as governor, Brown pushed a plan (rejected by voters in 1982) that would have sent more water to the arid Southland by building a peripheral canal system around the delta. This time, Brown claims the power to implement the plan without approval from taxpayers or legislators. But in all likelihood, he’ll need voter passage of a large bond measure—slated for the ballot next year—to fund the project.

One of the primary sources of water for the agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley, as well as for residents of the Los Angeles Basin, the delta is vital to California’s livelihood. It’s an environmentally fragile region with 1,000 miles of waterways, 70 islands, and more than 1,000 square miles of land—a magnificent area surrounded by historic towns, Victorian farmhouses, and orchards, where water from the state’s mountain ranges flows before heading to the San Francisco Bay. A system of aging, earthen levees keeps the Sacramento River within its banks. Agricultural and urban interests have long sought ways to increase the flow of water out of the pipes at Tracy, a city on the south end of the delta and just across the mountain ranges from the Bay Area.

But environmental interests, long opposed to additional water flows southward, have focused on a tiny bait fish known as the delta smelt, purportedly essential to the health of the delta water system. Dozens of these fish, protected by the federal Endangered Species Act, are caught annually in the pumps at Tracy. In years when water is less plentiful, a federal judge has ordered the pumps shut down to preserve the fish. As a result, farmers have seen their water supplies dwindle. Anyone who drives south through the valley, especially along Interstate 5, will see the signs on farms decrying water cutbacks and a “Congress-created dust bowl.”

The $24.5 billion delta-conservation plan would purportedly improve water supplies and the delta estuary’s environmental health. Essentially, the plan would require building two massive tunnels at the northern end of the delta and diverting water under the region to the pumps at Tracy, where fish screens would help prevent the endangered smelt from being ground up. This would take pressure off the current system of dams and levees, which face earthquake risks, according to the plan’s advocates. As one union-backed advertisement stated this month, “[A] rupture in our Delta levees, caused by an earthquake or Pacific storm, could suspend our water supply for up to three years. Our state couldn’t withstand such a heart attack.”

But the plan wouldn’t actually increase water flows southward. In fact, delta plan documents suggest that water flows could actually decrease. The main point, then, is to use engineering to solve a political problem: by resolving the smelt issue, there presumably would be no more court-ordered pumping cutoffs. Southern California wouldn’t necessarily get more water, but it would have a more predictable and reliable water supply—at least until environmentalists discover some other endangered fish or environmental problem to slow it down.

The habitat-preservation portion of the plan would also have some undesirable consequences. It would achieve species protection, for example, by flooding many of the delta’s farms and islands—up to 20 percent of the land area—and may involve large takings of private property. Construction would take at least a decade, requiring the closure of major roads and creating the need to move and store thousands of tons of muck. In the end, a once-pristine region would become home to massive industrial buildings, a new 1,000-acre reservoir, electrical substations, and barge landings.

On May 22, Senator Dianne Feinstein and several Democratic legislators sent a letter to U.S. Interior secretary Sally Jewell and to Governor Brown backing the plan, which they argued was necessary to ensure safe drinking water for California. But other observers, including a top state official charged with implementing part of the project, are less certain about its benefits. Taxpayer groups fear that the project will cost far more than the early estimates. Delta residents believe their way of life may soon be over. The Sacramento Bee rightly argues that the project shouldn’t go forward until everyone has “a clear understanding . . . how much water would be available for the ecosystem, and how much is leftover for water exports.” The paper complains that Brown and his aides “want to study that question while the tunnels are built.”

The costs and uncertainty surrounding the delta plan sound much like the state’s controversial high-speed rail project, which is so far afield from the original proposal that its chief advocate, former judge and state senator Quentin Kopp, has turned against it. Yet Brown is so eager to get anything built that he apparently doesn’t care whether the high-speed rail system will match what voters approved in 2008. Likewise, Brown wants to build these massive tunnels under the delta and doesn’t seem worried about whether they will actually solve the state’s long-term water goals—let alone do so in an efficient and environmentally friendly manner. Could Jerry Brown’s lasting legacy wind up being that he allowed big-government and union demands to trump everything else—including his supposed love of California’s environment?


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